At age 29, I wanted to inspire and give hope to people with cystic fibrosis -- kids, teens, young adults and their families -- and show them that someone with CF could accomplish a feat that normal people couldn't … walk across America. I also wanted to demonstrate that a positive mental attitude and exercise (walking) were beneficial tools to help people face CF.
I was already leading an unconventional life. My life had turned around for me after I saw a Bruce Lee movie. The movie brought me instantly from waiting to die to wanting to live, and deciding to learn martial arts in their birthplace, China.
And I did learn martial arts. Along the way, I became an actor in Chinese kung fu films and met an ascetic martial arts master who subjected me to a perilous, 30-day test of perseverance and worthiness on Monsoon Mountain that took me five months to recover from but taught me many things.
The essence of martial arts is training not to fight but to develop self-confidence, self-assertion and self-discovery. Although it's a lot of self, it's not about ego. By disciplining the mind, body and spirit, one can build strong moral character and live a meaningful life. As one cultivates character, the goal is to absorb and reflect positive virtues like courage, loyalty, benevolence, honor, respect, honesty, peace ... and for me, to be happy, funny and jolly.
On May 18, 1986, weighing 175 pounds, with 30 percent of my lungs deteriorated and sporting a hemoglobin count of 2.3 (eek), I began my epic journey from Cornell University in New York. My wife, Silvia, supported me by driving the “CF Mobile,” filled with medical equipment, camping gear, food, water and oxygen tanks.
After walking a marathon a day for 115 days at a 4.3 mph pace, weighing 145 pounds, I ended my 3,000.2 mile walk in Seattle, Wash. Each day was filled with physical, mental and emotional challenges. Memories of danger, happiness and tears still abound.
Throughout the saga, terminally ill children promised me that if I completed my walk alive they'd fight harder. In Pennsylvania, a distraught mum slapped my face screaming, asking why didn't I walk last year when her daughter with CF was alive and needed inspiration? She cried in my arms and begged me not to fail. In Ohio, a kid with CF who was into baseball couldn't understand what I was doing until his dad told him to imagine running around the bases a million times. He asked me to score a million runs. In North Dakota, a family whose son had CF and muscular dystrophy drove 60 miles up the interstate to show him that I was for real. When the kid struggled to reach out his hand to mine, his mother cried while his father hid his tears.
Whether being attacked by vicious black flies, mosquitoes and dogs, avoiding cars accidentally or purposefully trying to hit me, walking against the wind up steep mountain highways for 10 miles, walking toward vomit-inducing dead skunk odors or fecal stenches emanating from animal farms, I kept pushing forward.
Through heat stroke, sun poisoning, muscle injuries, heavy winds and rain, golf ball-sized hail and freezing temps, with foot blisters that had blisters, I pushed forward. I refused to walk attached to an oxygen tank like the press and TV suggested I do so they could capture dramatic images. I'd never cheat myself or the many thousands cheering me on.
Folks opened their hearts and homes, giving us a place to sleep and a home-cooked meal, and arranging public appearances for me. In Illinois, a United Nations lawyer had me address a crowd of more than 3,000 at an outdoor Christian music festival. Their love was powerful.
The achievement garnered national attention as I received a Mothers Against Drunk Driving Humanitarian of the Year Award and a letter of commendation from President Ronald Reagan.
With so many adventures constantly occurring throughout the walk … there was no way I'd ever give up, there was no way I could fail.