Brian O'Neill / A cross-country walk to highlight suicides shows a lot of humanity

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When I last spoke with Ian Cummins, he was walking west across Virginia toward the Blue Ridge Mountains. Now he's crossed the Rockies, hoofing it all the way.

Long desert stretches in Utah and Nevada still stand between him and the Golden Gate Bridge, but our man from Dormont expects to cross that storied span by early September, ending a six-month stroll.

He hasn't been alone. A couple of friends of his late brother Ryan joined him in Kansas, as they, too, try to make sense of Ryan's suicide last November.

Three months between phone calls, I detected no change in Mr. Cummins' unbridled optimism. This guy's so positive he can make cattle dung sound good: "Cottonwood seeds and cow patties: one could not ask for better fire starters,'' was one of his Twitter posts last week, sharing a photo.

The irony for him has been that in seeking solitude and time to grieve his brother's loss, he is reminded every day that he is not alone. The generosity of strangers has sustained him in every state. People hear his story or just see him and his friends walking and offer everything from fast food to a place to spend the night.

The website IanWalksAmerica cites National Association on Mental Illness statistics that note suicide takes about 30,000 American lives each year. Mr. Cummins, 23, said he's met hundreds on his journey who have lost a friend or a loved one in that way.

He recalled a dinner with man in western Missouri who'd lost his son, and in that meal they exchanged the gift of knowing neither of them was alone.

"It's just very eye-opening. People just ask what you're doing. The subject blows people away more than the journey. People are very open. [One man said recently] 'I struggle with bipolar on a day-to-day basis.'. I want them to share that with others. I don't post any of that, but I do encourage them to come forward and share that with people.''

The journey itself may be the lesser story for many he meets, but without it the other conversations wouldn't be possible -- and Mr. Cummins has met all kinds. A guy in the midst of skateboarding 8,000 miles in 35 states in 100 days just passed them going the other way in the Rockies.

Joining him in central Kansas for the journey were Nick Rodgers and Jake Lusardi, both 20 and boyhood friends of the late Ryan Cummins. Each of the trio is pushing a modified jogging stroller loaded with gallons of water, a tent and other supplies. When Mr. Rodgers got on the phone and I asked him why he thought this would be a good way to spend a summer, he answered that Ryan "deserves a tribute as big as this.''

Mr. Rodgers has had troubles of his own, and he said Ryan, "even on his worst days, would say, 'Hey, man, how you doing there?' He was always trying to build me up and give me hope.''

And so he will have done 600 miles in his friend's honor before flying back to Pittsburgh, and the exhausting month among impossibly kind strangers has left him feeling closer to God.

Mr. Lusardi, who trained for this by making daily five-mile runs with a 20-pound vest, said it's been a blast and he'll be walking all the way to San Francisco.

Mr. Cummins, an intensive care nurse at Mercy Hospital before he left, is hardly a stranger to long hours on his feet. But he's at the point now that "I actually feel kind of ill if I'm not up and moving around.'' The trio walked 75 miles in just two days through the dry high plains of southeastern Colorado.

"That's the most I've done on the trip, and that's how it's going to stay,'' Mr. Cummins said.

When he returns home in September, he said, "I might start by sitting down for two days.''

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


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