How does a guy walk from San Francisco to Ocean City, N.J.?
Former Fox Chase resident and Cardinal Dougherty grad Mike Tittinger can testify that doing about 3,500 miles on foot in six months is not so much a physical challenge as it is a mental one.
“You get to a point your body gets used to walking,” said Mike Tittinger. “It comes down to what’s going through your head.”
But then, what was going through his head when he decided to wear out his sneakers hoofing it coast to coast?
For Tittinger, it was a very personal “sense of unfinished business.”
His wife, Deanna, died in 2000. She had suffered from a congenital heart problem. Her doctors had predicted she would die a teenager, but she had lived on, Tittinger said. She had a heart transplant operation when she was 30, he said, but she died three months later.
Tittinger moved to the West Coast, settling in Los Angeles. He remarried. He had a new life.
But the feeling there was something he needed to do became acute on the 10th anniversary of Deanna’s death. He wanted to do something to honor her memory as well as to help families of transplant patients.
“I decided to take the long walk home,” he said.
WALKING FOR DOLLARS
He also decided to create a scholarship fund to help transplant patients’ families pay for secondary education. Tittinger and his wife, Brooke, call it the Onny and Oboe Scholarship Fund, using the names of two imaginary friends Deanna dreamt up when she a little girl.
Tittinger, 41, then got sponsors for the transcontinental walk to raise funds, got family and friends to come on board with the idea and got ready to go.
He picked a pal’s pub on San Francisco’s landmark Fisherman’s Wharf to be the stepping-off point, and Ocean City, N.J.’s beach, where Deanna’s family vacationed when she was a child, to be the finish.
He set out on June 18, a warm enough day until he crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, and finished Dec. 18 near Ocean City’s Music Pier, taking a dip in the cold Atlantic Ocean with some friends and family.
He said he had quite a few people with him as he walked across New Jersey in four days, including a police escort in Ocean City, and many joined him on the beach.
“It was very emotional when we got to the beach,” he said. “I was kind of overwhelmed by it all.”
Tittinger raised money — about half of his goal of $25,000 — and made friends along the way.
In an interview last week at a relative’s home in Hatfield, Tittinger said he didn’t have one bad experience with people along the way.
WORDS OF WISDOM
He had been warned he might, he said. He had talked to people who had cycled or walked across the country, he said, and they had related some less-than-uplifting events during their journeys. These consultations lent him more than dark tales. He got some good advice, too, he said.
He talked with one walker about the romantic notion of the trip, he said, about the adventure of it.
“He warned me primarily about the mental and psychological challenge,” of the journey, Tittinger said.
It’s not how strong you are physically; it’s how strong you are mentally,” he said. “The challenge is to stay positive.”
One other piece of advice was not to use a backpack. It’s too heavy, too hard on the back. Instead, he pushed his possessions — clothes, tent, sleeping bag and all-important supply of drinking water — in a small, three-wheeled cart that often was mistaken for a baby stroller.
That error prompted some roadside conversations with police officers who had been called by concerned motorists who thought some guy was pushing a kid in a stroller across a desert or through a rainstorm.
In Pueblo, Colo., the cart got away from him and speedily rolled down a street.
“Cars were stopping, and people were thinking my baby was doing thirty the wrong way,” he said.
WHEELS OF MISFORTUNE
Although the cart was easy on his back, it occasionally became a trial to push. Things that have tires, get flat tires now an then. They can be pushed, but not easily.
One day, Tittinger was walking across eastern Colorado when two tires went flat. Eastern Colorado isn’t mountainous, he said, adding it was as flat as Kansas, but it was about 105 degrees, there was no shade along the road and he was miles from a town. He was of the opinion he was not having a good day, but that changed.
“As I started getting closer to town, cars started pulling over and people gave me water and snacks,” he said.
But he didn’t get into Fowler, Colo., until after 6 p.m. and everything was closed, including the garage he found.
The garage’s mechanic had just closed up, he said, and was sitting down having a cold beer when Tittinger arrived, shoving along a cart with two flat tires.
“He put a can of beer in my hand and fixed my cart,” Tittinger said, and then a guy in a pickup pulled up and said, “We’ve been looking for you.”
Tittinger had been interviewed by dozens of reporters as he made his way across the country, and the pickup’s driver’s daughter had read one newspaper account and sent her father out to find Tittinger so the family could take him out to dinner.
People springing for meals became common enough, Tittinger said, adding that was what touched him.
“I was overwhelmed by generosity,” he said. “I can’t even count the number of meals that were bought for me.”
Another flat tire took Tittinger into another small town, where he was referred to a local mechanic. He got the man’s cell phone number and called it, but the mechanic told him he was on vacation and had just left town. Tittinger explained his situation; the man was back in 10 minutes and fixed the cart.
SILENCE IS GOLDEN
Although he was accompanied at times by friends and family, Tittinger was often alone.
He didn’t spend that time listening to music or the radio, he said, adding he wanted to unplug.
“You want to embrace your solitude and hear your inner voice,” he said.
That meant no radio, no iPod, no CDs — but it didn’t mean no phone.
And Tittinger’s well-used iPhone presented its own little challenge, too, and it wasn’t just the spots where there was no signal.
It was juice; the phone’s batteries would drain. Even now, with the trip over for weeks, Tittinger finds himself looking for electrical outlets so he can plug in and power up his phone. ••
Read more about Mike Tittinger’s transcontinental stroll at www.mikeywalks.com. The site has photos, Tittinger’s blog and lots of trip details.