Nice folks outnumber ‘crazies’ on man’s long walk

By WARREN CORNWALL

On the Street

If Jason Sager had driven from Key West, Fla., to Neah Bay, he probably would have missed a lot of people.

He never would have met the Mexican migrant worker outside Miami who pulled off the road to give him a cold Coke and two steak sandwiches.

He wouldn’t have talked with the 72-year-old woman in Marked Tree, Ark., who offered to let him sleep on her couch for a night. He never would have tasted the apples a woman sliced at her home and then delivered to him on a road outside Memphis. He would have missed out on the free drinks, bought for him by a few women at a bar in Pomeroy, in Eastern Washington.

But Sager didn’t drive. He walked. And that made all the difference.

Yes, you read correctly, he walked.

When I pulled off to the side of Highway 522 south of Monroe on Friday and asked the 23-year-old what he was doing and where he was headed, Sager estimated he had already logged something just short of 3,740 miles. He was roughly 100 miles shy of his goal to walk from the southeastern tip of the lower 48 states to the northwestern edge at Neah Bay.

The trip wasn’t a publicity stunt or a fund-raiser, he said. He wasn’t trying to draw attention to the plight of an endangered species or collect money to find a cure for a lethal disease. The most political he got was slapping a few bumper stickers on his baggage for "my man," as he put it, George W. Bush. This was just an adventure for a young guy with few responsibilities, some money in the bank, a couple months to kill and a fairly strong set of legs.

Sager was preparing to take a leave from his job as a Kellogg’s salesman based in Baton Rouge, La., when the company hired his replacement early. He left his job in February, and didn’t need to start studying for his master’s in business administration until the end of August.

"I thought, ‘Well shoot, should I just sit back between February and August or should I try to do something big?’ "

He settled on walking across the country, but not without some concerns.

Spending hours walking along the sides of roads, and nights sleeping in a tent, Sager feared run-ins with "crazies."

"We always hear these horror stories about what happens to people alone," said Bill Sager, his father, who lives in Lolo, Mont. He was even more fearful than his son, he said.

But the younger Sager discovered something different on the roads of America. Unexpected kindness.

He was considering quitting near Miami when the man stopped to give him the drink and sandwiches, he said. His backpack was feeling heavy, Florida was flat and monotonous, and he still had more than 3,000 miles to go. He had the second half of a round-trip ticket from Miami to Montana tempting him.

But that gift, from a migrant worker who wouldn’t take any money in return, revived him.

"That one gesture right there kind of gave me the feeling, ‘I’ve got to do this trip,’ " he said.

There were more like it: the apples, the offer of a place to sleep for the night. He got water from people who saw him striding down the road, pushing a fancy baby-stroller designed for runners piled high with gear, like some slightly deranged yuppie with a newborn baby. An executive for a running shoe company met him by coincidence in Yellowstone National Park, and gave him a free pair of shoes and T-shirts, Sager said.

Of course, his appearance might have helped. Freshly shaved, with close-cropped hair, Sager has something of the Boy Scout look to him. He had planned to grow a bushy beard during the walk, but shaved it off when he noticed fewer people were stopping to offer help.

But it was also that he was walking, rather than driving.

As this vacation season arrives, thousands of us will pile into our cars and speed onto the highway. We’ll stop in some places. But often the world becomes a blur of gas stations and fast-food restaurants, each looking like the others. In our cars, we insulate ourselves from the world, keeping out the heat with air conditioning, the noise with stereos, the people with doors and windows. Our encounters may often happen through the drive-through window of a McDonald’s. It makes it easier to hang onto assumptions about what people are like, about the dangers they may pose, about the possibility of running into "crazies."

But, out on his own two feet, Sager took a chance and learned otherwise.

If all goes as planned, some time later today he will be dipping his toes in Neah Bay, 31/2 months after he began. Then he will send post cards to more than 350 people he met along the way, who asked to find out if he made it.

"I guess it kind of lifted my spirits on mankind," he said.

You can call Herald Writer Warren Cornwall at 425-339-3463 or send e-mail to

cornwall@heraldnet.com.

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