Brian O'Neill: Cynics are left behind on cross-country trek devoted to late brother

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A guy pushing a 45-pound backpack on a dolly on the shoulder of a four-lane highway shouldn't be as happy as Ian Cummins.

When I reached him on his cell somewhere east of Bedford, Va., 13 days and about 240 miles into his walk from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Mr. Cummins was as upbeat as he appears in his daily online videos on ianwalksamerica.com.

"The sun right now is with me,'' the 22-year-old intensive care nurse from Dormont said Thursday afternoon. "I feel Ryan with me. I feel God.''

Mr. Cummins began this trek March 1 as his way of dealing with the November suicide of his younger brother, Ryan. He also sought to stimulate conversations about mental illness and raised about five grand for that cause before he began.

Ian's first video shows him dropping a handful of his brother's ashes on the cold shoreline of Virginia Beach, saying, "I figure the world deserves a little piece of him everywhere we go.''

Since then, he's been treated like the prodigal son. People along the road have handed him twenties, treated him to dinner or lunch, and put him up for the night once they hear what he's attempting and why. Some have shared the crushing stories of suicides in their own families. Mr. Cummins' daily videos, which generally run a couple of minutes, are filled with his thanks to benefactors who had been strangers the day before.

About every samaritan he has met has known somebody 15 or 20 miles ahead. One guy made a call to a string of Methodist churches along State Route 40 and, presto, he had places to stay the next three nights. Walking a path roughly parallel to the retreat of Confederate forces at the end of the Civil War, Mr. Cummins didn't need to camp out once in his first week.

As he was preparing to bed down in a spare bedroom in a dot on the southeast Virginia map called Yale, his video had him recounting how he forced a dollar on a clerk named Moad in a minimart in Sussex, saying, "That's the only dollar I've spent in the past two days. ... I don't even know why I'm carrying 45 pounds of gear.''

As you read this, Mr. Cummins has made his way past the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the Roanoke Valley, 190 miles due south of Pittsburgh. He had to camp only once, and that was behind a Methodist church after a homemade dinner of cornish hens followed by chocolate cake. He figures he's shoveling down and burning 5,000 calories a day.

His high school buddy, Brandon Bonwell, walked with him the first eight days, but he's been on his own since. He'll hook up with another friend, Colin Shanahan, early this week for his few days walk across southern West Virginia.

One day a week ago he walked 20 miles through freezing rain for seven hours, downing only a Twinkie and a couple of protein bars, and he was dealing with blisters on his right ankle and tendinitis in his left. Then, about 100 miles inland, he bought the dolly for his backpack in a hardware store. It fits nicely on the shoulder of U.S. 460, and he's mending.

"My body finally got used to what I'm doing," he said. "It was yelling at me for days, but it finally said, 'You know what? I'm not going to win this one. I'm just going to have to adapt.'"

I was a little worried about Mr. Cummins before he left. I'm not now. Even a short conversation with him is an antidote to cynicism. Sure, the odd crank has flipped him the bird a time or two, but he says, "There hasn't been a day yet that I haven't met somebody incredible.

"This trip has shown me how wonderful people are, how wonderful the world is. You see so much negative in the media and then you walk out your front door and that's what you're looking for.''

Now he's meeting people who pull off the highway to offer him everything from a custom-made bicycle to bananas and protein bars, as he spends days walking with beautiful mountains his horizon. He has six to eight months of walking ahead of him. He makes me want to breathe in the world anew.

Brian O'Neill:boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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