Des Moines native Don Erickson isn’t walking coast to coast just for the exercise, he’s on a mission to raise awareness for organ donation.
Erickson, who said he has always been the adventurous type, said the thought of walking across the county came to him after learning about a Christian group who trekked from California to the east coast.
“I thought it was a great idea because I like camping and hiking so I checked into it,” he said. “I researched it for about a month and read up on articles online. One of those articles suggested I pick a cause because there will be times when I won’t want to walk and try to give up.”
Immediately, Erickson thought of organ donation awareness.
“I’m an organ donor and that has always been a big thing in my life,” he said. “Once I had my cause and recovered from reconstructive ankle surgery I felt I was prepared to go off on my own. I sold most of my belongings and saved up what I thought was enough money to last me about six months.”
He later learned that he couldn’t have prepared enough for his journey.
“When my plane landed in New York, I found out I wasn’t nearly as prepared as I should have been,” Erickson said. “I had my phone stolen in New York and in Illinois I made the mistake of putting my wallet on the counter and someone stole it. It wasn’t the money or the credit cards that I was upset about, but the pictures of my kids that were gone.
“When you are out walking like this, you are vulnerable so you have to make sure you know where your wallet and cart is at. I’m learning as I go.”
Erickson has also braved the elements, such as rain and extreme heat, along his coast-to-coast journey.
“When I was going through Ohio there were days when it was blazing hot,” he said. “When you are walking on the pavement you have to make sure you have plenty of fluids and take time to rest.”
He also said pushing his 120-pound cart through the mountains in Pennsylvania was an unexpected surprise. “I was going through Pennsylvania I didn’t realize how many hills and mountains there were,” he said. “Pushing a 120-pound cart with all your belongings can be tiring especially when going up and down hills. You get a nice little workout in.”
In Erickson’s free-wheel cart he carries a sleeping bag, tent, clothes, a stove and backpack–all the essentials to get him to California.
Although Erickson has a tent and has to “stealth camp” occasionally, he said he tries to contact local fire stations, police departments and churches to let him stay the night or do laundry. Once a week, he says he will splurge and rent out a motel room.
He tries to save as much money as he can, but said the trip has turned out to be more expensive than he originally thought.
“I saved up a lot of money by selling almost everything I own, but having enough money to get me from New York to California is turning out to be very difficult,” Erickson said. “It’s taken longer than I thought as well, but I keep telling myself it’s not a race. The main thing is to be safe and raise donor awareness.”
He does receive monetary donations along the way to help with food and motel costs.
Erickson has now completed 1,300 miles and has less than 2,000 miles left in his journey. The journey itself has changed him, he stated.
“You really look at things with a different perspective,” he said. “When you drive by places at 65 mph, you don’t get to meet and talk to people. But when you are walking and only going 2 mph, you get to see the beauty of nature and the people you meet.
“Everybody has a story; so if you are going too fast then you won’t have time to sit down and listen to what they (people) have to say.”
Erickson continued by stating his adventure has made him a better listener, more observant and empathetic toward those who have been affected by organ donation.
“When a person passes away, it affects so many more families than just one family,” he said. “It just branches out. Hopefully what I’m doing is making a difference by passing out a card and telling people they should get registered.”
Along his journey, he has noticed people’s perspectives toward him have changed.
“I had some friends who told me not to cut my hair or my beard, but that only lasted until I reached Ohio,” he said. “I noticed people were crossing the street when they saw me coming and that’s not at all what I wanted. I want to raise awareness, not scare people, so the first place I found I got a haircut and trimmed my beard. “Surprisingly, things were different after that.”
Erickson said he keeps a sign on his cart, has business cards on hand, wears clean clothes and always travels with a smile on his face.
“I think if I carry myself well, smile, be friendly and hand out cards that I will be just fine,” he said. Erickson walks an average of 18 miles each day with one day of rest.
“Even though it is walking, you’d be amazed of how tiring it is on your body,” he added. “Mentally, it’s watching out for cars, but physically it’s demanding due to how much my cart weighs.”
Although Erickson hopes to reach California by the end of January, he said he hopes to embark on another journey in the future.
“I’ll probably live in Carlisle, but I don’t want to get stuck doing the same old thing,” he said. “I’m hoping this is a catalyst for me to do bigger and better things. I enjoy helping people and organ donor awareness will always have a place in my heart.”
He also encourages others to embark on a journey similar to his.
“If people have eight months they can take off, I would encourage them to do this,” Erickson said. “I’ve learned that people are inherently good…they want to help, but just need a reason to get going. Then they are more than willing to help out.”