Column: Crossing America one step at a time
It was inevitable that folks compared Army combat veteran Kenny Mintz to Forrest Gump when Mintz traversed U.S. back roads from coast to coast.
But there are major differences.
Gump embarked on his journey to find himself. Mintz had a specific mission — raising money for three charities: two serving military-related causes and a third for pancreatic cancer as a tribute of his late mother.
Gump ran mostly in silence, while Mintz’s battle cry was “Come walk with me,” and he relished his many conversations. His journey was to meet the American people he had served.
Gump ran. Mintz walked, savoring unexpected encounters with a mountain lion and her cub, antelope, elk, mule deer and a mountain goat near Borrego Springs as he neared his final destination in Encinitas on Oct. 22.
He trudged through a Pennsylvania snowstorm, freezing rain, swirling dust storms, thundershowers and 100-plus-degree heat.
“I got to appreciate the life around me. I was able to slow my life down and really live each day. I was pleasantly surprised almost every day.”
Not once — despite swollen, sore and blistered feet — has he regretted taking this journey.
Mintz, who grew up in Cardiff and graduated from Fallbrook High School in 1987, went on to West Point and a 30-year career in the Army. He had dreamed of this cross-country walk for years.
It was the second thing he did after retiring last year as a colonel after four combat tours to Afghanistan and Iraq and two tours to Bosnia followed by instructing at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., where he now lives.
The first was to settle the estate of his mother, whom he had taken care of for the previous five years as she fought terminal pancreatic cancer.
Mintz started his trek in Washington, D.C. near the Lincoln Monument on April 1, first following the Potomac River. He ended by wading into the Pacific Ocean at Swami’s Beach in Encinitas.
He averaged 19 miles a day and took a day off every week or so to do his laundry, plan and rest. Mintz spent two hours daily writing his travelogue, which he posted with his photos on his Kenny Walks Across America Facebook page — 174 walking-day entries by the end.
A Kenny Walks Across America Group on Facebook accumulated more than 2,000 followers.
Friends, colleagues, military comrades and strangers followed his journey and sent him messages and encouragement. More than 500 people, by his estimate, including Gold Star family members, joined him at some point on his 3,294-mile route. Some walked a mile or two, a day, or even a week.
When Mintz reached Julian, his Fallbrook football coach Tom Pack and Tom’s son, Jeff, met him for dinner. They reminisced about the Warriors’ sensational 1986 CIF championship. It was their “Maui-to-Murphy” team, and Mintz had been the team captain.
They had started the season with a game in Hawaii and finished with a shocking 28-14 San Diego Section 3A championship upset in Jack Murphy Stadium over a Vista team that had been unbeaten for two years and ranked second in California.
“Tom Pack was one of the most influential people in my life,” says Mintz, grateful for the values his coach instilled. With help from the tightknit Fallbrook community, the football team had bought a 1.25-acre lot and built a house that they sold to finance their one-week trip to Hawaii.
Pack enjoyed their conversation, calling the soldiers under Mintz’s command very fortunate to have had him as a leader. “He’s just a great person ... a guy who represented his country in war and who has great a feeling about his country.”
There were many unexpected encounters along the route. “People drove up and found me in the middle of nowhere and gave me cash,” he says. “They said, ‘I’m following you. I’m reading your life stories.’” One person tracked him down to hand him $500 in cash for his charities.
The mother of a soldier in his battalion who was killed in an ambush met and walked with him near Payson, Ariz. She caught up with him on a remote road that happened to be where she was hiking when she was notified of the death. Mintz had randomly decided to take that road only hours earlier.
It was with mixed emotions that Mintz approached his destination last Saturday, Oct. 22. He estimates that his trek raised more than $85,000 for his three charities: The Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund, which gives grants to children of fallen warriors; Operation Resiliency, which plans reunions for combat veterans, and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, a charity favored by his mother.
The trek, too, has been a bonding experience with his daughter, Margaret, 22, who joined the journey in May to drive his support van from stop to stop. Mintz, who is divorced, has three daughters and a son, all in their 20s. On Friday, Oct. 21, his 24-year-old daughter, Emma, joined him to walk the last few miles.
Mintz will be recognized at the Fallbrook High football game Oct. 28. The town’s Chamber of Commerce is honoring him at 3 p.m., Nov. 4 at its office at 111 S. Main St. After presenting Mintz with a County of San Diego proclamation, everyone is invited to walk with him 1.2 miles to the Red Eye Saloon for a celebration.
“People in the community are passionate about what he is doing,” says Chamber CEO Lila MacDonald, who attended high school with Mintz.
As for what is next, he says he wants to write books and has several topics in mind — this journey, his Army experiences, taking care of his dying mother, the Maui-to-Murphy football miracle, and more.
But one thing is certain: “I plan to keep walking a little each day.”
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