Tara Elmore heard the sound as pain shot through her left foot.
She tried to ignore the pulsating throbs in her foot, clasping the cart she pushed as a 45-pound life preserver. For more than a year, she and husband John-Michael, had prepared to pursue a bucket list dream: a more than 3,000 mile journey from New Jersey to Oregon. The pain pulsated through her foot and up her leg as she leaned on the cart she dubbed Samwise.
Two months and more than 800 miles into the walk, the grueling pace had caught up to their 35-year-old bodies. Their journey had started as a schedule of long-distance walks sometimes exceeding 20 miles a day. Yet, as it slowly transformed into a pace with needed breaks every two miles to rest their feet, their doubt crystallized into the certainty that before seemed unthinkable.
They had each pondered long-distance travels when they were younger, though they – like most people –never bothered to act on such whims. But when they decided to pursue their cross-country dream, they did so with the pragmatic methodology of adulthood. They logged extra hours at work – Tara worked at a preschool and radio station, John-Michael as a project manager at a credit union – saving all the extra money. They researched the proper equipment and discussed similar experiences extensively with experts. In the months preceding their journey, they had taken up a walking regimen to prepare their muscles for the expedition ahead.
But by the time they reached the end of State Road 133 in Illinois, they knew their journey would not end as expected.
“I’m not trying to be mean and I’m not making fun,” said the man peering at John-Michael and Tara as his car idled at a red light. “I just want to know what you guys are up to.”
“We’re walking across the United States,” John-Michael replied, pushing his 65-pound cart of supplies featuring a “Hello Stranger” placard on the front.
“Are you kidding me?!” the man replied.
“No we’re dead serious,” John-Michael said. “We started in New Jersey, we’re trying to make it to the Pacific Coast.”
The traffic light turned green, turning the man’s fascination back to his car. “Take care,” the man said, pulling away.
John-Michael and Tara, who met while students at Indiana State and graduated in 2000, never discussed walking across the country until two years ago, when John-Michael stumbled upon a cross-country hiker’s website. It stirred John-Michael’s memory; years before, he thought that after high school, he’d backpack across the U.S. Tara had dreamt of backpacking across Europe.
“(The cross-country traveler) was in his 30s, he had been an engineer in New York City, so any excuses we had were knocked out,” said John-Michael about the website he found. “It replanted the seed in our head, and was something I couldn’t stop talking about.”
He began researching the trip, creating a plan of things that he and Tara would need.
“He’s the numbers guy,” Tara said. “I knew if he was serious, he would basically give me a proposal.”
They canceled cable for their television and worked as much as they could, forgoing any trips or expenses to save money for their cross country dream. They started training in January 2012 by walking five miles per day, several days a week. They added two miles a month until they could walk 20 miles. They also lifted weights to prepare for pushing the carts that would contain their supplies. Tara’s cart would weigh 45 pounds loaded; John-Michael’s 65 pounds.
Yet, people who completed cross-country journeys warned them that there is no way to be completely prepared for what they would encounter.
“If you have a job, you can’t walk 20 miles per day (in training regularly),” Tara said. “And being from Indiana, once we hit mountainous terrain, there was no preparation for pushing a cart up a mountain until you just do it.”
“What are you doing?” a woman walking with her friend asked as John-Michael and Tara pushed their carts, over a Terre Haute bridge crossing the Wabash River. They struck up a conversation, routine to John-Michael and Tara, as they explained the journey.
After posing for pictures, which became common for John-Michael and Tara to do with people they meet, the two friends then held hands with John-Michael and Tara to pray, asking God to protect and watch over them during their travels.
“We meet people like that several times a day,” John-Michael said as he and Tara resumed walking. “The prayer circles we have with people happen about once a week.”
They started just south of New York City, in Perth Amboy, N.J., and planned to end their walk in Gold Beach, Ore., on the Pacific Ocean near the home of John-Michael’s sister.
They encountered unexpected difficulties from the start. While last year’s summer featured scorching Midwestern heat that they wanted to avoid, John-Michael and Tara’s mid-March start led them to encounter an unseasonably cold spring, including days trudging through snow.
“… It was below freezing a lot of nights,” John-Michael said, “and we’re in our tent, getting up in the morning and there’s ice on our gear.”
While they planned as much as they could, they made many decisions day by day. They sought permission for where they camped nightly in yards, campgrounds and public spaces, which required them to introduce themselves to strangers and explain their journey.
One day, after learning that an anticipated campsite was unavailable, a man suggested they stay with his brother and sister-in-law. As they arrived, the family had prepared a small bonfire and chicken dinner for them.
“We don’t have a support vehicle or anything else, but we never really feel like we’re walking alone,” Tara said. “The strangers that we meet, or remembering folks who have helped us out along the way, really helps motivate us and fuel us.”
On another trying day, John-Michael and Tara plodded through a snow-covered mountain trail. Exhausted after pushing their supply carts in those conditions, they found themselves in Shankesville, Penn., near the site where Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11, 2001.
They met the local fire chief, who had responded to the scene of the crashed plane.
“Just hearing his story put things in perspective,” John-Michael said. “Here we are thinking we had a bad day, and obviously it pales in comparison to other things that have happened.”
Before embarking on the voyage, John-Michael and Tara were feeling jaded, weighed down by negativity in the media and the different issues separating society into stratum. The experiences and people they met during their journey inspired them.
“We know we don’t (necessarily) hold the same political convictions or same religion as other people, but it doesn’t matter,” Tara said. “People are just seeing two people on a journey and they want to help. We were getting a little skeptical, and this has completely turned into something that has restored our faith in humanity and the people who are in this country, along with seeing this country and what beautiful land that we have.”
Crossroads of America
“Why are you guys doing this?” a passerby asked John-Michael and Tara, intrigued by their outfits and supply carts.
“We’re just chasing a dream,” the walkers replied.
“That’s awesome!” the man replied
“Thank you,” Tara replied, delighted by their new acquaintance’s response. They talked a few minutes before John-Michael and Tara continued walking.
In their cross-country trek, they planned to walk through the Wabash Valley in early May “as a parachute, just in case” something were to happen, John-Michael said. Though they walked from the Atlantic coast to Indiana, the pace and travel conditions started to take a toll. While they took breaks, they had ignored aches and pains to continue walking, pushing their supply carts the entire way.
In Terre Haute, they did not walk and their aches and pains lessened with the soothing balm of home. After resting several days, they again laced up their tennis and hiking shoes and began pushing their carts along U.S. 40 toward Paris, Ill.
“We were feeling better, and then we walked that first day,” John-Michael said, “and that same night and the next morning, the pain came back as fully as it had before, as if we hadn’t had any rest.”
They continued traveling, and a few days after they had left Paris, Tara heard and felt something pop in her left foot, causing even more pain in a blistered appendage that was turning black and blue. She tried to ignore the pain, instead shifting her weight to her right foot, which was in less pain.
Their attempts at ignoring their predicament started to falter, the agonizing aches reminding the pragmatic pair of another item of concern: With limited health insurance after quitting their jobs to pursue their dreams, health debacles could prove doubly disastrous.
“It definitely wasn’t going to get any better, but if it just maintained, we could probably handle it,” John-Michael said. “We felt it getting worse, but if it got too much worse and required medical attention, that was going to be (even more difficult).”
They had traveled more than 800 miles, but they realized that they could not travel further. John-Michael’s parents picked them up from Lovington, Ill., and they returned to Terre Haute to rest in hopes that the journey would continue.
“Even after a week or two, there was no significant improvement, then definitely there was no question,” John-Michael said. “We knew we were flat out done, at least for now.”
Mentally prepared, their bodies had failed them on the arduous journey.
“When you invest as much time and emotion into what we were doing, you don’t want to give it up that easily,” John-Michael said. “It’s not that we were foolish. It’s that we wanted to try anything and everything we could to get back out there.”
In the weeks that followed, John-Michael and Tara wrote to people, who they had met along the way, informing them of the unfortunate turn of events. They offered to provide refunds to people who had given them money (They routinely refused money from people they met along the way; their website www.wewalkandroll.com explained that they were not walking to raise money or awareness for a particular cause, instead they encouraged people to give money to a charitable cause, but some still insisted on giving them money for their journey).
Several weeks later, they resumed their trip by car, speeding along the route they would have plodded.
Driving west through the flatness of rural Nebraska, John-Michael noticed a figure cloaked in a yellow vest and carrying an orange flag walking along the road.
A cross-country walker, John-Michael thought.
They pulled up near him and greeted the traveler. “Where did you start?” John-Michael asked, “and where are you going to finish?”
The walker, a 79-year-old retired veteran, explained that he was walking across the country, breaking the trip into smaller segments. He traveled between one and two months each of the last four years, always picking up where he left off.
After briefly talking with the man, John-Michael and Tara then drove into a nearby town to get him a Diet Coke.
“Our dream might have changed its shape a little bit, but that doesn’t mean it’s not attainable, and however we have to change the parameters, we can do that,” Tara said.”One of the things we took from this is we did have the opportunity to try a dream of ours.”
“That gives us the confidence,” she said, “to try other things.”
Austin Arceo is the assistant director of media relations at Indiana State.