‘Fulfilling a dream’
Cancer survivor to trek across America to raise funds for research
June 17, 2008
Eastbound U.S. Highway 40 shimmered in the mid-afternoon sun as Rick Hammersley strode down its shoulder Monday.
He’d covered 1,142 miles on foot, passing through the Sierra Nevada mountains and Utah’s Indian Canyon en route from California.
He still had 2,558 miles to go.
His final destination is Coney Island, N.Y. His reward for reaching his goal: two hot dogs.
Not just any hot dogs. Only those sold by The Nathan’s Famous Corp., a company that originated on Coney Island.
“I don’t care how bad they are for me or how unhealthy they are,” said Hammersley, who originally is from Indiana.
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Yet, as the gravel crunched underfoot and vehicles drove past him, Hammersley eventually revealed the deeper reason behind his trek.
His original ambition was to hike the Appalachian Trail, a 2,175-mile path stretching from Georgia to Maine.
“I thought that would be something to do when I’m 50,” he said.
However, Hammersley’s 50th birthday found him with a mortgage, a new job and a daughter still in school.
So, he put it off.
Until 2003, that is. That year, Hammersley was diagnosed with colon cancer.
Hammersley underwent cancer surgery that same year, followed by seven months of chemotherapy.
“That was a pretty sobering time in my life,” he said. “When you’re faced with your mortality like that, you suddenly realize there’s a lot of things I haven’t done that I may not get to do.”
His time in chemotherapy started him thinking about the outdoor adventure he had planned. After watching a documentary about a hiker who traveled the Appalachian Trail, however, he decided the route was more strenuous than he initially had thought.
“I still had this desire to do something,” he said.
He changed his plans, deciding to settle for a cross-country expedition on the nation’s paved roads.
Hammersley began his journey April 1, several months after his 60th birthday and about five years after his cancer surgery.
Doctors declared him cancer-free in February 2004. Still, the pronouncement isn’t a guarantee that the cancer won’t return, he said.
In the face of odds that “aren’t the best in the world” Hammersley has decided to get moving while he still has the chance.
With his wife, Valda, following nearby in their motor home, Hammersley aims to walk 20 miles daily. He usually takes one day of rest for every six or seven days he’s on the road.
More than two months of walking in the elements had taken their toll on Hammersley and his gear.
The sun had tanned his skin a deep bronze and the road had ground about three inches off the end of his walking stick, he said.
Hammersley has four pairs of shoes that he uses on a rotating basis. So far, he estimates he’s put about 300 miles on each pair.
In addition to his bout with colon cancer, Hammersley also has battled diabetes for 19 years – a disease, he said, that can deprive patients of strength and willpower.
Hammersley hopes his journey will inspire other people suffering from diabetes and other ailments to remain physically active.
“You don’t have to get out and walk across the country,” he said. “But, you could get up off your tail, go outside and walk around the block.
“If you do that enough, maybe you’ll feel better.”
In his travels, Hammersley also hopes to raise funds for Gateway for Cancer Research, a nonprofit group funding cancer clinical studies.
On his Web site, http://www.rickwalksamerica.com, people can make donations to the foundation or match contributions Hammersley collects while on the road.
That path still stretches long in front of Hammersley.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m seeing the country,” he said. “I’m fulfilling a dream.”
Bridget Manley can be reached at 875-1795 or firstname.lastname@example.org