Jim Hickey walks a long, lonely road paved with good intentions.
Clutching a crooked walking stick and carrying a 55-pound pack, he’s endured biting cold, blazing heat and pure exhaustion as he’s trekked across the country for the past 12 years.
He’s been frostbitten, blistered and badly injured.
Inconsiderate drivers have thrown trash in his face and shouted profanities out their windows; some have nearly hit him with their cars.
He’s sacrificed stability and a relationship with the woman he planned to marry.
But the pain he’s come to know somehow seems more bearable when he thinks of the daily turmoil of people with life-threatening illnesses.
Raising money for cancer research and other causes keeps him plodding along, mile after mile.
“I think about people who are suffering from cancer right now in hospital beds, and they would trade places with me in a second,” the 49-year-old New Jersey native said as he stopped in Norwalk on Wednesday during his fifth attempt at canvassing the country. He sipped a Mountain Dew and pulled off one of his shoes, revealing toenails blackened by constant pounding. He keeps his long, coarse hair tucked under a Marines baseball cap as he grows it out with hopes of donating it.
Hickey is particularly haunted by the blank stare he saw in his father’s eyes just before he died of prostate cancer in 1995.
Shortly after that, he attempted his first walk across the country to raise money for cancer research. He made it from Middletown, N.Y. to Clovis, N.M., after traveling more than 2,000 miles, then tried again three years later. Both attempts failed because he lacked a support team to help him make it through the desert.
A third try ended because two business sponsors bailed out at the last minute, while he was about 1,100 miles into his walk, he said.
In July 2008, he started his fourth attempt in North Carolina, which he describes as the “walk from hell.”
He developed walking pneumonia, nerve damage and severe shin splints while grieving for his mother, who died in the midst of his journey.
Now close to 700 miles into his fifth try, he’s heading into Bellevue today as he makes his way west to Toledo. He hopes to end sometime in 2011 in Los Angeles.
Hickey works odd jobs to support his quest but survives mostly on the generosity of others. A former U.S. Marine, he’s a lifelong member of the Fraternal Order of the Eagles, Moose Lodge and American Legion and receives frequent contributions from those organizations.
The Norwalk Eagles presented him with a check for $250 to cover his travel expenses and contributed $1,000 to the Boomer Esiason Foundation for cystic fibrosis.
Although he initially set out to raise money for cancer research, Hickey has become passionate about other causes on his journey. He promotes fundraising for cystic fibrosis research in honor of a girl he met on his journey and encourages donations for arthritis in his mother’s memory. Hickey also encourages people to help the sick children he meets in his travels.
He’s dedicating this stretch of his journey to Landen James Pasenow, a 2-year-old Elyria boy battling acute myeloid leukemia.
Speaking at area schools along the way, he spreads a message of persistence.
That mission motivates him to practice what he preaches, no matter how rocky his road becomes.
“Don’t ever quit,” he said. “If you have a goal, don’t let any obstacles get in the way.”
WANT TO HELP?
Hickey encourages anyone who’s inspired by his journey to donate to various charities for cancer research, cystic fibrosis and arthritis. They can find the web sites for those organizations and also buy T-shirts to support his walk at cancerwalkusa.com.
Donations for Landen James Pasenow may be made at KeyBank or by attending a benefit from 2-10 p.m. Oct. 16 at the Hileman Building at Recreation Park in New London. For information, e-mail ForLanden@yahoo.com.
In his five attempts at walking across the country, Jim Hickey has:
• Walked 6,925 miles, covering 15-30 miles daily
• Taken an estimated 17 million steps
• Worn out 16 pairs of shoes
• Stayed in the homes of 122 strangers
• Spoken at 37 schools
• Walked in honor of 21 children
• Been interviewed by 302 media outlets