By Susan Bromley
Ortonville- When James Leitner arrived in the village shortly before 6 p.m. June 7, he had finished his walk for the day, a 26-miler.
It was the 22nd day of a 6-month journey that will take him 3,215 miles from America’s east coast to its west.
“I’ve definitely learned a lot about myself,” said Leitner, who is walking across America (and a portion of Canada) while toting a 30-pound backpack and pulling a cart with 10 gallons of water to raise funds for water issues around the world.
“It’s a lot of time by yourself. I am naturally extroverted and always thought I could live a mountain man life by myself, but I need people to talk and laugh and fight with, it’s where I get my energy from.”
The 24-year-old began his long trek on May 17 in Princeton, N.J., not far from his hometown of Scotch Plains, but his inspiration came long before, when he was a junior in high school, assigned to study food, water, or energy. He chose water and went on to explain in a history final exam why it was a global issue. In his research, Leitner learned that a billion people worldwide didn’t have access to clean drinking water. That number has since decreased to about 750 million through charitable efforts. Leitner has since been among those working to make clean water available to those who lack it.
While studying environmental science at the University of Delaware, he did fundraisers for three separate water projects and traveled to Tanzania in 2014 to see the technical and logistical side of non-profit organizations. While there, he was struck by two moments in particular— the first when he was told it is a Tanzanian woman’s job to get water, regardless of whether she is pregnant, sick, or disabled and that she may have to walk nine miles to get to a source of water; and the second when individuals in Africa expressed their gratitude for his fundraising efforts and the positive impact it has made on their lives.
After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in 2015, Leitner landed a job as a water resource specialist in West Virginia, working to protect Chesapeake Bay and ensure farmers had good water quality. He also continued his fundraising in 2016 for the Philadephia-Serengeti Alliance, running a marathon per month— while carrying 5 gallons of water on top of his head. Now he is doing roughly a marathon distance per day, lugging twice that much water, in a goal to raise $75,000 for the alliance, with all donations used to repair broken wells in the Mara region of Tanzania and train communities in how to maintain the wells.
“Anyone can train physically for the marathons, but with the cross country walk, it’s the mental challenge,” said Leitner. “I am solo, alone except for a few phone calls each day… The environment is in control of me. I have to base everything on environment and it can be a mental strain and tough. It’s been interesting— what do you do when its about to pour, when its 100 degrees, you arrive in a town and there is nowhere to sleep?”
When planning his trip he created a route according to highways he wanted to avoid and areas with water security issues he wanted to study. The first three weeks of his route took him from New Jersey, north through Pennsylvania, to Buffalo, N.Y., across the border into Canada, and into Michigan, where he was bound for Flint to volunteer for a few days in the city that has suffered from its own water crisis.
He looked for motels, campgrounds, and potential sponsors along the entirety of the route. He also uses apps such as “Couch Surfing,” for free air bnb or “Warm Showers,” commonly used by bicyclists to connect them with friendly hosts along their route who will offer them a couch, a room, or a campsite on private property. The latter is how he found Brenda Timmermans, with whom he stayed in Ortonville. But sometimes, he just has to wing it.
When he arrived in Romeo the day before Ortonville, a realtor in the area had seen him walking various times in the day and stopped to ask his story and then allowed Leitner to stay in his barn. On two occasions in Canada, with nowhere to stay, he made himself look presentable, then knocked on doors, explained his situation and asked for permission to camp in backyards. It worked. But if it doesn’t in the future, he plans to call local churches or the local police force to ask for assistance, especially as he is on a limited budget of $120 per week.
In a typical day, Leitner starts out at 6 a.m., walking 25 to 35 miles, using sidewalks where he can, but sometimes on the shoulder of country roads.
His journey in Michigan began in Marine City, and on that 33-mile day, he walked 18 miles of it on the gravel shoulder of a two-lane stretch of highway as vehicles whizzed past at 55-60 mph. He had a similar experience in Canada. Leitner calls such days tough, and has called on family for encouragement. He thinks of rewards at the end of the day, such as delicious dinners in town, and the people he will meet. Even the thought of something like chocolate-covered almonds or ice cream is enough to give him a boost as he also deals with thunderstorms and heat.
His biggest physical ailment has been blisters on his feet, although he minimizes that with good hiking shoes, as well as using moleskin and duct tape, which six toes were wrapped in on the day he walked into Ortonville.
As he walks, he has plenty of time to think— about everything from high school and college experiences to past arguments.
“I think of things I have regretted, and things I haven’t regretted,” said Leitner. “I think of ideas for businesses, extreme races, different spins on triathlons, gardening and farming, date ideas for my girlfriend.”
Animals sometimes keep him company, like the red-winged blackbirds he said are everywhere, and chirp while following him along. He has seen eagles, vultures, cranes, and many snakes. Dogs on the route don’t usually leave their property, but he had one accompany him for about a half-mile, a welcome companion.
He has met interesting people along the way, and mostly friendly— like the truck driver in Pennsylvania who was delivering snacks to a convenience store and started honking and waving at Leitner. After the pair started talking, the driver shared that he and his wife take a 1-month vacation yearly to teach children in Tanzania. He then proceeded to give Leitner freebies including potato chips and cookies.
And everywhere he goes, he is happy to talk about his mission for clean water, as he seeks to raise $75,000 for the cause of providing life’s basic necessity for those in need.
That necessity will be a starker reality as Leitner gets further along in his journey, particularly as he reaches into Iowa, Nebraska, and beyond. While he is carting 10 gallons of water, he should be able to remain hydrated, but cooling down is a worry in extreme heat. He has an electrolyte mix to replace vitamins, but he will still need shade and may go miles in complete isolation.
“There are still really small, unincorporated towns I may be able to go to, it’s just a matter of getting there,” said Leitner. “Loneliness and heat and gnats are my biggest worries. My parents are extremely concerned, but they bought me a spot device where they can see where I am walking and they are always keeping tabs.”
Leitner knows that he can only plan so much, but his mission is forefront in his mind and it will inspire him during the challenges ahead as he strives for his final destination, San Francisco, which he hopes to reach in October.
“Water is used in everything, necessary for life and we don’t realize how important it is until it is taken away from us.”
For more information on James Leitner’s journey and his quest to provide clean water for those in need, visit www.missioncleanwater.com.
By Susan Bromley