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A Walk Across the World

Lessons learned from 5,321 miles



I think a well-lived life needs at least one transformative moment. What I have in mind is the uncommon, the extraordinary, the act of will that distinguishes one life from others and is distinguishing in and of itself. It could be as grand as publishing a book or as humble as a byline. That I married and fathered children was transformative but unremarkable. The same is true for my undistinguished stint as a soldier, courtesy of the Vietnam-era draft. In some instances, the road less traveled suffices. Such was the case with my friend Mike Metras, who made it his magnum opus. Beginning in California, he and his wife, Petra Wolf, walked to Jerusalem. It took 23 months and 18 pairs of shoes to walk the 5,321 miles. He and Petra have just finished a book titled Encounters on the Road to Jerusalem. He answered my questions by e-mail from Santa Fe.

John Rasmuson: Why undertake such a journey when most guys your age are in a La-Z-Boy watching television?

Mike Metras: I wanted to walk long and to know who I would be after walking for a year or more. We started walking on my 66th birthday in 2009. I didn’t want to wait until I was 75.

J.R.: What influenced your itinerary?

M.M.: We planned to take a little less than a year to cross North America. We didn’t want to walk in the deserts in the summer or the mountains in winter. So we had to get through the Southwestern desert before April. We made one mid-course correction after encountering sweltering heat and humidity in Missouri in June. We headed north to Canada for cooler weather.

J.R.: You intentionally bypassed Utah?

M.M.: Yes, to avoid mountains.

J.R.: What did you carry?

M.M.: One change of clothes, a tent, a sleeping bag and mat, cooking gear, a computer, a digital camera and personal-
hygiene items. My backpack weighed around 31 pounds; Petra’s, 25. Because of the distances and water requirements in the West, we opted to push our stuff in carts after leaving California. Petra found her cart in the desert; I bought a bicycle baby cart.

J.R.: Did you do a lot of camping?

M.M.: Yes, but most nights were spent in hotels and B&Bs. Many people invited us to stay in their homes after meeting us.

J.R.: You say in your book that you found a total of $58.06 in cash along the way. What else did you find?

M.M.: A lot of refuse. We figured we could easily make a few hundred dollars just picking up recyclable cans and bottles along the roads of Arizona and New Mexico. Some places are cleaner than others, but there are lots of cans, bottles and plastic bags out there—to say nothing of three to five roadkills in every mile east of Colorado.

J.R.: You refer to yourself as a pilgrim, not an adventurer.

M.M.: I have agonized often over the distinctions between pilgrim, traveler and adventurer. I come up with different ideas each time. You can travel to Rome, Graceland and the Baseball Hall of Fame. Or you can make them the destinations of a pilgrimage or an adventure. Each is different in its emphasis. There is reverence in pilgrimage and exhilaration in travel and adventurism, especially the latter. Often, travel and pilgrimage are goal-oriented, but in our case, the walk itself was the destination, not Jerusalem. But Jerusalem was purposely so far away that we were living in the now of wherever we were, celebrating the sacredness of that place on that day.

J.R.: I am reminded of the Paul Simon lyric, “And we walked off to look for America.” What conclusions did you draw about the state of the country?

M.M.: If you define the country as the people—not the politicians and large corporations—then the country is in a very good state. We met so many positive-thinking people. They showed us an upbeat and basically happy country.

J.R.: What was the high point?

M.M.: There were so many! Among the best was discovering that we had become what I called “ambassadors of dreams.” As we told the people we met the story of our dream to walk long, we began to notice that they responded with, “You know, I always wanted to … . I think I’ll consider that again.” We were awakening the dreams of others. I was honored that the universe put that task on us.

J.R.: What was the low point?

M.M.: After the first day walking in Portugal’s winter rain and sleeping in a cold, damp hotel, I said, “Let’s quit and go home.” Petra answered, “What?! We just walked all the way across America. You want to quit after one bad night here?” It was nice that both [of us] were seldom down at the same time. One or the other was always up enough to buoy the other when needed.

J.R.: What was the most important lesson learned?

M.M.: There are several. One was to avoid looking to the future and to live more in the now. We spent far too much time thinking about Jerusalem. Another was that every person we met was great. I would never walk a “peace” march. But this was a peace march in spite of my aversion to the concept. It demonstrated that people all across America and Europe are peaceful. So many stopped us and offered water, food or a ride. This is a peaceful response from a citizenry who was not locked behind their doors for safety.