Janel Broderick (JB): Thomas, wow, this is quite an adventure you’re chasing … working your way across the United States (on foot) to raise awareness to fight childhood cancer. That’s huge. How’d you get here, why this particular dream?
Thank you Janel! Happy to have this moment with you from the road. How did I get here?! I ask myself that question many times when my legs are killing me or the weather is kicking my butt. But, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but here right now. Crossing a continent on foot has never been my dream. I didn’t even know that people did it! I have friends who’ve done the north south trails like the Pacific Coast Trail and Appalachian Trail but trans-continental walkers were never on my radar.
It’s probably because only about a dozen or so people actually complete the journey each year. I read an amazing book By Men or by the Earth, written by Tyler Coulson, about a year and a half ago. It was the story of a guy in his mid-30s who was a very successful attorney who decided to chuck it all and walk across America with his dog Mabel as a moment of reflection and self-discovery. I loved the story. It was raw and real and many of his feelings going into the journey were parallel to some stuff I had going on in my life. So, I thought, maybe someday that would be fun! At that point it was just a fantastical adventure. Well, coincidentally, a few months later, my business partner and I decided to go our separate ways. At that time my son had just graduated college, I was turning 50 in a few months and wasn’t sure what I was going to do professionally. So, I decided to spend my 50th year alive walking across the country. Adding a charitable component to my journey was not in the original plan but the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation has been close to my heart for many years and I thought that if maybe I could use this walk to help raise awareness and money for kids battling cancer, dammit I should do that!
JB: How did you prepare for this trip? I imagine there’s quite a lot that goes into the training, the timing, and planning of logistics. How did you approach training and clearing your schedule to accommodate this trip? What went into your planning process?
Preparation came in many forms: logistical, financial, physical and, most important, mental. Logistically I spent and insane amount of time reading everything I could from former crossers about gear, routes, weather planning, food, water needs, etc. I chose my starting and ending points and spent way too much time detailing my route between the two. I say “too much” because, after months of mapping and routing and creating spreadsheets, my entire route changed on my 5th day due to an ankle injury that wouldn’t allow me to climb the Appalachians at that time and all of that preparation went out the window. I bought or had donated all the gear I needed, much of it used, like my cart Alexa.
Physically I walked a ton. I would load up my pack and cart with as much weight as possible and try to walk at least 50 miles per week. I had a few friends who were trainers who also helped me out along the way. Clearing my schedule was pretty easy! I was working as a consultant for some friends between leaving my restaurant and walking. I actually still consult from the road for the same company and plan on resuming my work with them when I get home. What I know now is that I over prepared with planning my route and underprepared my body. If I ever do this again I will let my route happen from the road and work harder on getting my legs and hips stronger! It took about a month on the road before I felt strong enough to hit 20 miles every day without significant pain or fatigue.
JB: What about friends and family, were they on board and supportive? Any of them train with you? Did you make this plan public or wait until your plans were a little more concrete?
All of my family and friends were incredibly supportive but equally as nervous. Walking over 3,000 miles on the highway, inches from thousands of cars and big rigs flying by at 70 mph, is, honestly, stupid and dangerous.
If a crosser is going to die it’s gonna be on the side of the road by a driver who’s not paying attention. The other fears were about where I was going to sleep safely. The idea of stealth camping - camping somewhere you aren’t supposed to be - is frightening and, to some, unfathomable. I never got really good at it until recently when I just had to let go as I passed through Oregon and slept in the woods a lot.
My family did convince me to get a dog for safety and companionship so, about six months before I left, I went to a shelter and took Wink home. Wink is a Mexican street dog rescued a few months before we met. He was my best friend and co-pilot and I fell in love with him my first day. Unfortunately it started to get too hot in Oklahoma so it was time for Wink to retire and go back to the beach in California. He’ll re-join me at the end, though! I started telling people about a month after I made the decision to go. I’m one to do what I say I’m going to do so I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to bail out. I think a lot of people thought I wouldn’t actually do it until I was on that flight to the east coast a week from my first steps.
JB: Amazing. Tell us about the journey thus far; and some highlights? What’s been most unexpected? You recently made a strategic decision to take another route. What went into this decision, how has the weather changed your trip?
The journey has been amazing. Fun, stressful, painful, insightful and it has really pushed my boundaries to new extremes. I have never been an outdoorsy kinda guy and I forced myself into that life for over 7 months. My biggest take-away thus far is the generous, compassionate and kind nature of the people in our country. We are so inundated with news of division and, although I know we are in a difficult place as a society, when you’re on the ground, one on one, with people regardless of political, racial or religious differences, the overwhelming majority of Americans are good people who like to help others.
I’ve slept, so far, in 42 homes of strangers who took me in, trusted me with their personal belongings and children, fed me and genuinely cared about my journey and well-being. This was true in the deep southern Bible Belt and the more liberal Pacific Northwest. All over the country I met wonderful, caring people. This doesn’t mean I haven’t met a few bad people! I’ve been confronted a few times by people in a very aggressive way and I’ve even had a gun pulled on me in Oklahoma. But, the 5 individuals who didn’t have good intentions towards me are drowned out by the hundreds that did. They are just a blip - an interesting story - on this journey.
As for my second route change, most recently, I really struggled with that. I was on the western edge of Texas right at the New Mexico State line experiencing extreme heat both day and night. I had broken out in heat rash; I was having issues getting enough water in me and I just was not enjoying my days on the road. This was early June and I still had New Mexico, Arizona and the California desert to deal with in July and August. That stretch is hundreds of miles of nothing but desert with very little resources and temperatures that easily reach 120 degrees mid-day. The idea of spending the final 1/3 of my journey just trying to survive was not how I wanted to finish my walk. I had about 1200 miles of my 3200 remaining so I mapped it out and found that Boise, Idaho was where I could re-start and get my mileage without the same heat factor that I would have in the desert.
This change also allowed me to finish my walk the same way I had originally planned before my route change on day 5 when I had an ankle injury that sent me down into the southern states. My family lives in Boise so, although it was hard to make a decision that didn’t allow for a perfectly straight line across the country, it allowed for a trans-con on my terms and one that would be far more enjoyable. It was the best decision I made the entire time. Idaho and Oregon have been beautiful walks!! One exciting moment happened in Oklahoma during an unprecedented tornado season when I was staying at a home when the warning sirens in town went off meaning a tornado was coming our way. It was 5 am and we grabbed our essentials, made our way to the backyard through some of the most torrential rain I’ve ever witnessed and into their tornado shelter. It only lasted about 10 minutes but it was crazy exciting! When I learned that nobody was hurt by that tornado I was kinda happy that it happened. That experience will stick with me forever.
JB: WHOA! Not many people can say they walked across the country and sought shelter in a tornado shelter! On the less exciting days, what’s a day in the life look like? I assume you’re working on a routine and walking during specific hours. How many hours, miles are you trying to get in? How are you handling meals, lodging etc.
Every day I figure out how many miles I can get in based on weather and terrain. I average 20 miles per day which I know will take me 8 hours unless I have a severe climb. I’ve done as many as 42 and I’ve had several days in single digits.
After a month of walking my body told me that 20 miles per day was a good number. I could do that without too much fatigue and I would feel good the next day, with enough sleep, to do it again and again. Sleep is everything!! I need a good 8-10 hours or fatigue sets in far earlier the following day. Food varies a lot depending on whether I’ll make it into a town or not but I always start my day with 4 packs of cold soaked oatmeal and I usually eat at least 2-3 packages of cold soaked Top Ramen throughout the day. Those are in-between big meal snacks, really. I don’t count calories but I would guess I eat about 4,000 per day.
I struggle to get enough fresh veggies in me and I crave them in town. I eat as many calories as I can put in my body and as much carbs as I can get. As for lodging/sleeping, that varies a lot. In the south I had a lot of families that took me in and I only had to stealth camp 5 times. There were always churches and firehouses that let me camp behind them and three firehouses that let me sleep in their bunks! In the Pacific Northwest there are far fewer churches but there are thousands of square miles of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) - that’s legal to camp on anywhere. BLM land are areas like national forests and land like that. If it’s public, you can sleep anywhere you want if you choose to do that.
JB: How much longer do you plan to be on the road?
As of today, I’m in the very northern part of California. It will take me a few more days to get to Mt. Shasta and another 10 or so to get around another mountain to the town of Redding, CA. Depending on how those mountains treat me - I will ascend and descend a combined 24,500 feet! - my final push through California will be determined. I’ll either go right down the middle in the flat San Joaquin Valley if I’m pressed for time or, if I’m on schedule, I’m going to head west to the Napa Valley and walk down through the wine country to Berkeley then down closer to the western mountains of California. This route, through Napa, is far prettier and has much better weather than the valley which can reach some pretty high temps in the summer. My plan is to land at Newport Beach Pier on September 21 and, as of today, I’m 3 days ahead of schedule! Not much buffer but at least I’m not behind!
JB: Wow. It had to feel good crossing into California, your last state! You’ve done a great job reminding people about the mission behind your walk. Can you share a bit more about your connection that childhood cancer? Are you trying to raise a specific amount for a charity or research project?
My ex-wife, Leslie Vandale, who is also the mother of my son, Holden, is a childhood cancer survivor. We met in high school and were married in our early 20s. Her parents, Dr. and Mrs. Fowler, were founding members of the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation (PCRF) almost 40 years ago when she was a little girl battling Hodgkin Disease so it’s been a part of my life for over 30 years now. Leslie and her husband, Brett, are 2 of my best friends and I wanted the PCRF to be the beneficiary of this journey. Leslie’s family has played a big part in my life and I wanted to give back. My goal is to raise $20,000 and I’m currently at $13,500 so I’m getting close!!
JB: What an incredible example of giving back. And for those of us who’d like to support you, what’s the best way? What do you most need on this trip? And where can people follow your progress?
My road expenses are funded by friends and family so what I really need is donations to hit my goal and for people to connect with me on social media @movingonwest to just say hello. Those daily messages of encouragement and support are everything to me!
It’s so easy to support this cause and my journey. 100% of the donations go to the PCRF. I don’t spend any of it on my walk. To make a donation you can visit my website www.movingonwest.com and click the donate button. No donation is too small!! I think the minimum is $5 and we get a lot of $5 donations!! They add up! Our average donation is $25 and I appreciate every single donated penny that I know people work so hard to earn. We’re also finishing up on some t-shirts that we will be selling soon with all proceeds going towards my goal so stay tuned for that! Really good, soft comfy shirts that people will actually want to wear designed and printed by my buddies at Lander’s Supply House. Thank you so much for your support!
JB: Thomas, you’re such an inspiration—and a good reminder that even the craziest of dreams can move from concept to execution if we’re willing to put the work into mapping out a plan. This community is cheering you on!
Follow Thomas on Instagram @movingonwest and on Facebook @MovingOnWest and his website at www.movingonwest.com.