Walk with a purpose

Published 8:08 pm Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Jim Hickey re-arrived at Dowagiac Moose Lodge on M-51 North from Decatur at 4:40 p.m. Dec. 28. After cooling down and refueling with a cheese pizza, he was to walk to Baymont for the night in a discounted room, then resume his fifth try for California by heading to Niles and South Bend, Ind. (Daily Star Photo/JOHN EBY)

DOWAGIAC — After months of tucking business cards in his wallet, cross-country cancer walker Jim Hickey is reminded of George Costanza’s bulging billfold that figured in a memorable “Seinfeld” episode.

Hickey, of course, went to Livingston, N.J., High School with Jason Alexander, who played the neurotic, self-absorbed, compulsive liar inspired by Larry David of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Flipping through a stack of photos as thick as Costanza’s wallet, picturing him with Hooters girls and police officers, confirms Hickey’s contention that he has “seen America in a very unique way. People are the same from state to state,” he told an Iowa questioner, though “each town has a personality. Never stay at a fraternity house on a Saturday night if you have to walk 12 miles on Sunday.”

Though he likes to say he’s “only a bartender from Jersey,” if the fifth time proves the charm walking from New York to Los Angeles, his unique encounter with the American experience will someday be a book, though not like Peter Jenkins’, because he’s made a point of not reading that account.

The New Englander devoted almost six years, starting in 1973 and hiking from New York to the Gulf of Mexico.

Hickey, connecting with Moose and Eagles lodges along his meandering route (the last two times he followed a southern route), spent the past two nights in Dowagiac at a room arranged for him at Baymont.

Moose Lodge 933 on M-51 North, where he’s already on a first-name basis with former state president Charlie Blue and Scott Houston, who’s been driving him around, served him a 14-inch cheese pizza for supper, then he planned to walk to the motel at the south edge of town before departing today for Niles.

Blue was already working his contacts there to firm up Jim’s itinerary.

Hickey washes down a few slices with Mountain Dew, then carefully wraps up the rest in a piece of tinfoil instead of a bulkier foam carton.

“That’s what Moose is about,” Blue, who worked at Contech almost 40 years, assures Hickey, ribbing him that his Army background is getting along pretty well with a Marine.

“Four years in the infantry is what gives me the mindset to do this,” said Hickey, who lugs his life around in a 55- to 60-pound pack. “There are days you’re tired and you have to walk through any kind of weather, carrying this thing. I was a grunt, so it’s not like I didn’t know what to expect.”

Blue said lodge membership consists of 480 men and 40 women.

Moose no longer has a South Bend lodge, although there is one in Elkhart, so there he will be reaching out to Eagles.

He also belongs to American Legion.

Hickey didn’t get started from the M-40 Bar in Decatur, where he left off Dec. 27, until 1 p.m., following an uncongested service road (“then I don’t have to worry about getting hit”) south to Dowagiac, arriving at the Moose at 4:40.

In fact, he overshot the lodge and had to backtrack up North Front Street.

To prove he’s not bothered by Michigan winter weather, he peels off his parka and a sweatshirt beneath it to prove he’s worked up a sweat.

His walking stick has accompanied him from Jersey, its nubs intact to ward off aggressive dogs.

Hickey, who said the Dowagiac Daily News is the 193rd paper to chronicle his odyssey, will traipse through LaPorte and Valparaiso, Ind., before entering Illinois. Moose’s 1,200-acre international headquarters is located in suburban Chicago, where WBBM covered his first attempt. WSBT “wants to wait until I get closer to South Bend.”

Leaving Ohio, Hickey walked through Toledo, then turned north through Monroe, Mich., Flat Rock, Belleville and  Ypsilanti to Kalamazoo. “I’ve been zig-zagging ever since Kalamazoo to get here,” he said.

Normally, you could follow his exploits on his website, but it’s temporarily down.

That’s where he plays “A Thousand Miles,” the 2002 hit Vanessa Carlton gave him permission when they were photographed together at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City in July 2007.

His quirky sort of fame never ceases to amaze Hickey. When he encountered Charlie Daniels at a fair in Tennessee, the fiddler brought his grandson to meet the fan instead of the other way around.

Hickey’s hiking boots, his 18th pair of footwear, were given to him in Kalamazoo by a donor who wished to remain anonymous.

“I’ve traveled 7,206 miles in all five of my tries,” Hickey said, “and only once did I pay for a pair of shoes — and that was because I wanted to.”

He covered 12 miles on Dec. 28.

“I do a 4 miles-per-hour pace,” Hickey said, “and I try to do three miles, then take a 15-minute break. I know that if I have to walk 15 miles, at the very least that’s going to take five hours. Sometimes my breaks get longer if I walk into a place and start talking to people. People stop along the road and start talking to me.”

How long will it take to reach California on foot?

“I’ll let you know when I get there,” he laughs.

“I’ll stop in a town for sometimes up to a week or a week and a half,” he said. “I’ll talk to schools, businesses and organizations. I’ll wait until they have their meeting. Sports teams have invited me to events, like the Lions put my walk up on the scoreboard, welcoming me to the game.

“Sometimes I just want to stay for a while and rest up my bones,” Hickey said. “I’ve had an arch problem in my left foot ever since the Finger Lakes region of New York. I’ve tried to give that a lot of days to heal, but it bothered me today. There’s no set time. When I get there, I get there. On my first try I was on the road for three years and three months. I didn’t plan that, but that’s what happened.

“There’s a purpose, or I would have quit a long time ago,” he said. “There are too many stories not to write a book. I keep a journal. I’ve stayed in the homes of people I’ve just met 125 times. Twenty-five times on this try alone. When you guys did the story this morning (Tuesday), that was the 193rd newspaper that covered what I’m trying to do and 116 local TV stations — Channel 3 in Kalamazoo, Channel 6 in Lansing and Channels 2 and 7 in Detroit, so it raises awareness.

After the first walk, 1998-2001, when he informed his girlfriend, a Greek woman who was an attorney in New York, he wanted to try again, she moved on.

And yes, ironically, the cancer walker has appeared in Relays for Life — including one where he received top billing over a U.S. senator.

How does he pass all that solitary time?

“I’m completely aware of my surroundings,” Hickey said. “That actually takes up a lot of my time. What the roads look like. Traffic. Weather. Where am I going to take a break? Trying not to get hit” — or hassled, which he encountered again walking out of Lawton in Van Buren County.

“A couple of kids were cursing at me for absolutely no reason,” he said. “They might not have known what I was doing.”

The sign on the back of his pack was a late addition, because he used to be bothered from both directions walking against traffic.

“People coming from behind me never screwed with me again,” he said. “Seven times cars have gone right toward me. I’ve had stuff thrown at me, although I made it all the way to Marshall in Michigan. Someone flicked a cigarette at me. The profanity in Lawton was the first time I’ve been yelled at in Michigan, but it happens in every state. It doesn’t matter where you are.”

When he first decided to walk coast to coast it was for his dad, Lawrence “Jim,” who succumbed to prostate cancer in 1995. His brother (they have four sisters), a cop for 32 years in Jersey diagnosed six months after they lost their father, battled prostate cancer but recovered.

“His operation was the day before my dad’s first anniversary,” Hickey said. “That made me think, ‘Am I going to lose my brother to the same thing I lost my dad to, exactly a year later?’ What got me started was reading an article about a guy who walked from D.C. to Boston for hunger. My brother’s surgery was successful and he’s doing fine, but the helpless look in my dad’s eyes stuck with me. I felt the need to do something, plus I remembered the story of Peter Jenkins walking across in National Geographic and was fascinated with that. I won’t read what he went through until I’m done because I don’t want to be influenced.

Unlike Jenkins, “I’m doing it for a reason — not just to do it. That’s why I never go to sleep at night in a tent or camp out along the way. I did enough camping in the Marine Corps. I’m not a survivalist. If I inspire people to do something and get involved, that’s what it’s about, however, I don’t recommend walking across America. If you want to do that, you might want to talk to me first.

In the early efforts, “There was no Internet to speak of and I had no cell phone, so I’d stop along the way to work. I had 20 jobs to support my first try. I’d stay in one place three to four months. I’m a tumbleweed in a way, but a tumbleweed with a purpose. In between my previous walks, I was able to go home to the house I grew up in, but lost my mom two years ago. She was 78.”

He lost his mother during the fourth walk, which broadened his charities to arthritis. He also raises funds for cystic fibrosis and, now, juvenile diabetes.

“Arthritis is in memory of my mom,” he said. “Cystic fibrosis is for a little girl whose school I spoke at in North Carolina on my third try. Once my website’s back up, which hopefully will be soon, the Comfort Inn in Lawton, Jim brought his wife and four of their 13 kids to meet me, which is weird because I’m just a bartender. One of his daughters has juvenile diabetes.”

Hickey has been growing his hair for four years for Locks of Love.

“It’s bad enough walking down the highway with a backpack without that hanging out,” he said.