Planes, trains, and automobiles? Hardly. Some travelers use their feet to go the extra mile (or 14,000).
Carlin "Buckwheat" Donahue could have done without the heat and humidity that still owned Miami in early October. When you're a resident of Skagway, Alaska, it's not like you live for hot weather. But his route was set, and if he was going to make it back to Alaska by Labor Day 2006, he'd just have to deal with it. When you're about to walk 5,500 miles and paddle another 2,400 by canoe and sea kayak, a bit of discomfort is to be expected. So October 1 and the Miami heat it was.
Donahue is a die-hard member of one of America's quietest subcultures: long-haul adventurers. They aren't extreme racers pushing for fasterfasterfaster. They're hikers, bikers, kayakers, and, in at least one case, a stilt walker, who just aren't satisfied with a week or two on the road. "It's the greatest life there is," says Ed Talone, who took up trekking in 1983 with a five-and-a-half-month hike of the Appalachian Trail. "You're seeing everything, and you meet so many people."
Before he hatched his own plan for a long, long walk, Donahue thought such adventures were "a shining example of people who had way too much time on their hands." But between September 20 and October 1, 2003, three episodes of heart failure and one heart attack nearly flattened him - permanently. "I really did feel like I was on the edge of the cliff and I couldn't look up. Everything was down. I thought I was going to die," he says.
Luckily, Donahue was out of town when his heart problems hit. The Skagway Dahl Memorial Clinic just isn't set up to handle heart attacks, and he probably wouldn't have survived. Upon his return from hospital stays in Juneau and Seattle, several friends gave him a treadmill. "I started walking a couple miles a day. It's just a real simple thing," says the 54-year-old director of the Skagway Convention and Visitors Bureau. Soon, the walks started to stretch in distance.
By April 2004, Donahue decided to walk to the town of Whitehorse - 120 miles away. (Initially, his doctor met the idea with silence - and then she sent him on his way.) Word of Donahue's trek spread, "cool things" started to happen, and the idea for the Heartbeat Trail took hold. "People started driving out to honk their horns and wave, or offer an apple, tea, or encouragement. People were just really nice," says Donahue, who is well known in Skagway for punctuating sentences with a howl. When he finally got to Whitehorse, a woman at the local diner told Donahue that he'd inspired her husband to get his post-congestive heart failure self off the couch and start walking, too.
Then Donahue got really ambitious: He started planning a yearlong journey from Miami to Alaska. If all goes as planned, by September 2006 he'll have walked through at least 16 states and five Canadian provinces and territories. He's gunning to raise about $250,000 through donations and fund-raisers along the way to give the Skagway medical clinic a boost - especially in equipment and EMT training for heart attacks. He'll also stop into schools and hospitals to perform a show about life in the far north, a show he's honed through performances for cruise-line passengers who visit Skagway. Of course, spreading the word about heart disease is also on Donahue's agenda.
Though he will walk straight through the winter, he's not too worried about dealing with frigid temps. In December 2004, he hoofed it from Whitehorse to Dawson City, Yukon, Canada, in temperatures that tumbled to 40 below zero. "There were times when I had to turn around and walk backward because the wind was too brutal," he says. Along the way he plans to listen to his fill of satellite radio, do a lot of thinking, and keep his eyes open for beauty. "Everywhere you go, there's beauty," he says. "Even when I'm in places that aren't supposed to be pretty, I find beauty. I'm looking forward to having those kinds of experiences."