If 8-year-old Jesse Casta√±eda, who had been paralyzed from the waist down in an automobile accident, hadn't been told by three doctors that he would never walk again, he might not later have felt moved to walk across the U.S., or become the first man ever to walk 300 miles without stopping, or walk himself deep into the consciousness of New Mexico by covering more ground in that state than sagebrush does. Call directory assistance in New Mexico and ask for Casta√±eda's phone number, and the operator may answer, "Oh, you mean that man who walks everywhere." It took him just 6½ months to walk out of his wheelchair back in 1949, and he hasn't stopped walking since.
"You put one foot forward and follow with the other," says Casta√±eda, 44, a native of Mexico who walks as the crow flies—straight ahead, from here to there, with little regard for canyons, buttes or shopping malls. "And you feel proud and happy about doing it."
He walks the way some people fly in their dreams, traveling unbound by the usual restrictions of routes, weather or time. In the dead of night he crosses a mountain range as unabashedly as an ant crosses a yard full of stacked junked cars—up and over, up and over. On the flats he's smooth, gliding with the speed of someone at an airport hotfooting it along a moving walkway. "His style has a pronounced cadence to it," says Bruce Gomez, an Indian friend from the Taos tribe who runs with Casta√±eda. "He's very deliberate, very steady."
Anyone who doesn't mind feeling like a snowsuited toddler scrambling to catch up with an adult fleeing an unpleasant scene could accompany Casta√±eda on one of his rambles. His pace is quick and steady, his form a modification of that of a race-walker. But he's not a race-walker, although occasionally he shifts into an orthodox race-walking gait for variety, exaggerating the swiveling of his hips and sashaying along with arms driving hard back and forth. He has learned to walk efficiently enough to walk, without sleeping, the distance of 12 consecutive marathons, a marathon being as long in his imagination as a driveway is in most folks'.
March 26, 1984
Putting one foot forward and following with the other is now transporting Casta√±eda along the La Luz trail in the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico, where he has made his home for the last 29 years. Sandia means watermelon in Spanish; the range is aptly named for its rubescent glow at sunset. Seen at dusk from Albuquerque, where Casta√±eda lives, his rapidly ascending figure might look like a watermelon seed squirting out of a slice. He has walked to the 10,695-foot summit of Sandia Peak, the highest point in the Sandias, more than 300 times.
"Ah, I call this my ostrich egg," he says, stopping briefly to pat an enormous rock along the trail that's bordered with rabbitbrush, broomweed and yuccas. He takes a deep breath that he doesn't need. "Ha!" It's a lusty pronouncement, a triumphant hooray that he's likely to utter whether he's making a deposit in his bank or has just inadvertently smashed some ornaments on a Christmas tree in a school gym during one of his soccer demonstrations. On this wintry December afternoon, the sky overcast with swirling gray clouds, the pi√±on trees stooped in dark twisted shapes, the most luminous pockets of color in the landscape are Casta√±eda's grinning blue eyes. La Luz means the light; his eyes have contributed regularly to the trail's gleam.
"If you believe you can, you can!" he exclaims. "iSí se puede! It can be done!" It's a message he spreads in his travels, a message of optimism and encouragement he has delivered in lectures to nuclear physicists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, to incorrigible adolescents, to prison inmates, to knee-high children, to friends, to truck drivers who throw beer cans at him as he walks along the road, and now he seems to be offering it to an egg-shaped rock. "Ha!" says Casta√±eda, the author of several small volumes of inspirational poetry and essays, and he picks up his walking stick and proceeds briskly up the trail.
It was in 1972 that Casta√±eda read in The Albuquerque Tribune that a member of the British Parliament, Richard Crawshaw, had just set a world record of 255.8 miles for a nonstop walk. Casta√±eda, then a Spanish teacher and soccer coach at the Albuquerque Academy, said out loud to his first wife, Suzanne, "I can do that."
His attempts to break Crawshaw's record took place on the Academy track, a 440-yard dirt oval, and they attracted the press and many supporters who took turns walking with Casta√±eda to encourage him and keep him company. Casta√±eda was able to walk only 78.5 miles on his first try for the record, in May of 1972, because of the day's intense heat. After 18 hours and 10 minutes in the hot sun he collapsed and was taken to the hospital. "Everyone came and told me not to do that anymore."
That October he tried again, walking 217.5 miles through intermittent rainstorms in 90 hours and 10 minutes, but he went to sleep while walking. His support team tried unsuccessfully to revive him and finally took him home, where he slept for 10 hours. "The track was really flooded," he says. "I was wearing Sears rain boots going splish-splash, splish-splash. The kids would come and bring sawdust. I saw the evaporation process of water four times."
Casta√±eda made his third attempt on March 16, 1973. In perfect weather at 6 a.m., he set off on a counterclockwise walk in which he would cover 302 miles in 102 hours and 59 minutes. "I learned every crack of that track," he says. "To prepare myself for the walk I would get up every morning between 3:30 and 4 and walk 2½ hours in the dark, teaching myself to walk in my sleep. I got to where I could do eight laps without opening my eyes." Although at times during the long haul he'd hoped to be able to close his eyes and rest them, his plan was foiled by a cable that lay across the track, bringing electricity to his support trailer; it was an obstacle that required looking out for.
He lost 12 pounds in the 4½ grueling days, during which he took breaks every three to four hours to use the bathroom in the trailer; his longest such interruption was three minutes and 30 seconds. "Every hour I drank 12 to 16 ounces of water while I walked, to replenish the liquid loss," he says. "I ate very little food: milk shakes, spinach and pea soups, bread."
To keep himself amused and awake he devised all manner of mental games. Sometimes he'd play imaginary hands of poker. At other times he'd "take a quick glance at the stars. Then I would multiply the number of stars I could see in one glance times five to equal how many footsteps I would take until I would do it again. Sometimes I would count the number of steps per lap and estimate how many steps it would take on the next lap. If I missed, I would give myself two fast laps."
Some people might consider it an achievement just to stay awake for 4½ days in the most comfortable of circumstances. But to stay awake and walk 302 miles, the distance from Boston to Philadelphia! Says Casta√±eda, "Sometimes your mind gets tired, says, 'It's time to quit; why are you doing this?' Then I talk to myself in a loud voice. I say, 'Hey! I'm going to make it somehow or another. I'm going to make it. I have the chispa.' That's one of my favorite words; it means spark, like you use to build a fire. I've always had that little chispa in me. I've never quit. I've dropped but never quit."
Such extended sleep deprivation had him hallucinating on the last night. "At three in the morning I suddenly saw the sign of a Holiday Inn by the track," Casta√±eda recalls. "I said to myself, 'Look! Look!' I remember walking to the motel and checking in. There was this big, bald, heavyset man in a tuxedo with a red carnation. He said, 'Come on, Jesse. Come on. We got the biggest softest water bed. Come on, come on.' Then the curve of the track began to grow sides, and I felt I was trapped in an aqueduct. All of a sudden the luminarias [small beacons] along the track became red cartons of milk. The track was a big conveyor belt, carrying all these cartons of milk around and around.
"After daybreak I thought I was in England, walking along a rolling country road. At 1:59 that afternoon someone came over and whispered to me, 'Jesse, you should consider stopping.' I put my hands on my knees and said, 'This is enough.' Everyone came out, three or four hundred people, and poured champagne on my head."
The walk raised $3,000. Half went to Rocky Disanti, a promising Albuquerque baseball player who'd been paralyzed in an automobile accident; the rest was used to purchase a small bus for Agua Prieta, a little community in Sonora, Mexico where Casta√±eda's mother lives.
Casta√±eda's vision of walking through the English countryside became a reality a year later when he was invited by the British National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to come to England and receive the Topham cup. This award was given to him for his support of humanitarian causes—fund raising—while setting the world record for nonstop walking. "I was invited to a luncheon at the House of Commons," he says. "I had lamb and green mint jelly; it was great. I loved it. I met Crawshaw, a spry little man." Princess Margaret took a shine to Casta√±eda, and Casta√±eda, at 5'5" himself a spry little man, took a shine to London, although he did receive a phone call in his hotel room from a man who said, in an Irish accent, "Sir, I just want to advise you that there is a bomb planted in the garage. Leave immediately or you'll get killed." Casta√±eda informed the woman at the front desk of the call and then went out for a brisk walk.
Casta√±eda first took up walking when he was less than a year old in Nuevo Casas Grandes, the little desert town in Chihuahua where he was born. "I would pull back the screen on the window and sneak out to explore the flowers and follow the turtles around the outside of the house," he says. On his father's side he's part Tarahumare Indian; the tribe still leads a primitive life in remote Copper Canyon in the Sierra Madre mountains. One of the Tarahumares' traditional games is to kick a carved wooden bowl as they walk. When Casta√±eda runs in the big La Luz trail run every year, he kicks a soccer ball the nine miles up the mountain. He says the Tarahumare in him makes him do it. "Something to kick, you know?" he says. "The Indian spirit nurtures me a lot, because Indians like simplicity. They remain conscious of the animal life, the earth, the soul."
Although he's happy to assume kinship with Carlos Casta√±eda, the popular author who wrote of the mystical teachings of the Yaqui Indian, Don Juan, Jesse is even prouder of another relative, Pedro Casta√±eda, a chronicler who traveled with the Spanish army in the mid-1500s. "He explored the Southwest with 1,000 foot soldiers who were there to discover and conquer new land," Jesse says. "Again and again he was offered a horse, but always he refused. He said he'd rather walk." Jesse grins. "I am following his footsteps."
When Casta√±eda was seven years old his family moved three miles south to the city of Chihuahua. His father was a traveling salesman for a dry-goods company. "He opened trade routes in isolated villages in the mountains," Jesse says. "Sometimes I would go with him with the mules and we would camp out, sleeping in abandoned graveyards. Once a month I had the privilege to go to the movies. I used to watch Tarzan. He was my hero."
It was late one fall afternoon when he was in the fourth grade that Casta√±eda was hit by an automobile. "I was coming out of the Colegio Palmore and David Rico came running out of the school," Casta√±eda says. "I chased him to tag him and a car hit me right here in my back. Ai! I flew. My teeth hit the pavement when I landed and I was dragged underneath the car for 200 yards, skinning all my back and my legs. They took me to the hospital and put me in bed on my side. I couldn't straighten my back. Three doctors told me I would never walk again. Finally a fourth doctor came and told me, 'Follow my advice and believe. If you believe you can, you can.' That wheelchair experience—I hated it."
After a year he was walking well enough to run away from school. "One time I went to a construction site," Casta√±eda says. "The night watchman, he was cooking these beans over a little fire. He fed me. I slept on the foundation and my brother found me in the morning." Later, when he'd been sent to a special boarding school for troublesome kids, Jesse's parents learned he'd run away when they spotted him cruising by in the middle of a parade they were watching, riding a soapbox derby car pushed by a chubby pal.
Jesse was the first in his family to leave Mexico. "Nobody in the family spoke English," he says. "It was one of my father's dreams that one of us could go to America to learn English. In 1956 I took a Greyhound bus to Nogales, Arizona, to get a student visa." He was on his way to an agricultural school in Amarillo, Texas, but the woman who issued him his visa was a former homecoming queen from the Menaul High School in Albuquerque. She showed him an old yearbook picture of herself as a queen, and he was persuaded to try her alma mater. He arrived at the doorstep of Menaul, an excellent Presbyterian school, knowing three words of English: yes, no and maybe. They welcomed him. "My name was Jesus and the principal, Ruth Barber, didn't like that because she was very Christian," Casta√±eda says. "She announced at my first assembly that my name was Jesse." The name stuck.
One of Casta√±eda's dreams was to become a professional boxer, and he was disappointed to learn that Menaul had no boxing team. Then he discovered football. He took to it like a schooner takes to a brisk wind, making a hero out of himself on his very first play, as a left guard. "I thought it was a crazy game," he says. "I didn't think there were any rules. I can still see clearly this big guy coming towards me, making his moves. It was Gene Brito, touted as being great, tough. I was told to stop whoever carries the ball, so I cried 'Ai!' and flew at him. I didn't know you were supposed to tackle low." Both players were taken off the field on stretchers after one of Casta√±eda's teammates had recovered the fumble and run for a touchdown to set the stage for a historic upset. "Then the guys respect me a lot. You know, here's this little guy who was wearing his shoulder pads backwards." Casta√±eda had broken his nose against Brito's helmet, but that didn't prevent Casta√±eda from coming back into the game. Brito, who died in 1965, didn't return that day, though he would go on to be a five-time All-Pro defensive end for the Washington Redskins.
Casta√±eda was captain of the Menaul football team his last two years, and in 1958 he made All-City and All-State, though he weighed only 137 pounds. He played his freshman year at the University of New Mexico but, as the smallest player ever at the school, he found his size to be an insurmountable hindrance. "Those guys were big. Tremendous," he says. "I would bounce off them." His most memorable moment came in a drill between the varsity and the freshman teams when he rode Don Perkins' ankles for 20 yards. "He churned his legs and dragged me and dragged me. It was like holding on to a locomotive. Finally, I put him down." Perkins, who later became a mainstay of the Dallas Cowboys, looked at Casta√±eda and said, "Son, you're really persistent."
After graduating from New Mexico with a degree in physical education and health, Casta√±eda worked as an instructor at the Peace Corps Training Site at the university from 1964 till the summer of '67. It was then that he acquired his habit of going off on regular retreats by himself in the country "three or four times a year to celebrate the new season. You get away from it all and renew yourself. You see all kinds of little animals, snakes, lizards, birds." Casta√±eda has killed more than 50 rattlesnakes, and it's intriguing to watch him explain how to prepare one for cooking—letting an imaginary rattlesnake dangle limp in one hand and, with the other, slicing its long belly, carefully peeling back the skin and removing the rattle.
From 1968 to '78 Casta√±eda taught at Albuquerque Academy. During that time he founded New Mexico's first youth soccer program, the Little League Soccer Association, which started with six participants in the summer of 1972 and has since expanded to include more than 10,000 boys and girls throughout the state. In 1978 he was appointed executive director of the Governor's Council on Physical Fitness and Health, and he toured the state giving fitness and health clinics. He has done volunteer work for innumerable community centers, boys clubs and YMCAs, where he always exhorts children and adults to "Keep walking!"
Now he's working towards a master's degree in sports administration and health at New Mexico. One of his pet projects is Latido, a recently formed organization dedicated to educating the public in the prevention of heart disease. Last December Latido's four founders had a benefit walk that raised more than $6,000 for Carol Hutzel, a 28-year-old woman who had had a heart transplant. Casta√±eda has organized many walks to raise money for people and schools in need. The longest walk he has made to date (he still dreams of walking from Tierra del Fuego to Anchorage) was dedicated to world peace and handicapped children. It was his stroll across the country, which began on Aug. 9, 1982.
"I follow horizon after horizon," says Casta√±eda. "I play a little game with myself. I say, 'I'm going to catch it.' Then later I again say, 'I'm going to catch it.' " The first horizon he aimed for on his transcontinental walk was exactly a block away—it was delineated by a New York skyscraper. His last he never reached. It was out where the Pacific joins the sky, where the sun set in a congratulatory blaze the moment he came to the ocean's edge in Venice, Calif.
Although Casta√±eda wasn't trying to set any kind of record when he walked across the country, he made it from coast to coast in remarkably short time—4½ months, averaging 35.2 miles a day. And during his trek, he regularly took two days off a week to meet local folks: to visit 14 hospitals, address many Kiwanis and Optimist clubs—he'd been Junior Optimist of the Year at Menaul in 1959—and to give 22 soccer demonstrations to schoolchildren. (He can make a soccer ball behave like a well-trained dog.) He spent three days in jail, stopped for 10 days in Albuquerque to help a friend finish painting some apartments and from Phoenix went flying off to Mexico City on a weekend side trip financed by a business man he'd met in New Jersey.
Usually he camped out. "I would collect little wildflowers and put them in food cans outside my tent," Casta√±eda says. "One of the most enjoyable times is when you hear the sound of the creek nearby—whoosh! You put your fire out and the coals are still bright red. You look toward the skyline and there are millions of stars. That's when I take out my little harmonica." Sometimes people put him up, and sometimes he stayed in cheap motels so he could shower.
Casta√±eda set off from the United Nations building with $318 in his pocket, a bandana around his neck and a pack on his back with an American flag sticking up out of it. Three blocks from his departure point the backpack burst. At a nearby sporting goods store he spent half his cash on a new one, a pup tent and a sleeping bag. That first afternoon he was nearly sideswiped by a truck as he crossed the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey. "I could have jumped into the water but I just stood against the rail and the truck brushed against my backpack," he says.
It was the closest he came to being run over (except outside Indianapolis where a car literally flew over his tent), but other forms of wildlife stalked him. In Parsippany, N.J., he was whistling along a sidewalk in the rain when a dog bit him in the leg, and in a grungy Pittsburgh hotel room he awoke to see a man hovering over him with a knife. Casta√±eda fended the intruder off with his walking stick. In Greenfield, Ind. he discovered a big snake under his bed, and in Fort Garland, Colo. a pigeon gave him a scare in his dark hotel room until he figured out what it was. But the toughest adversary he encountered was the merciless wind of Kansas—a word that makes his mustache curl like the tilde over the "n" in his name.
"Kansas! Ai! In Kansas it was like somebody was punching me, hitting me with a baseball bat, pow, pow, pow! Usually a wind just hits you on one side, but in Kansas it hits you here, here, here," he says, turning around and thwacking himself. Hell-bent on getting out of that never-ending state, he had his best day there, 58 miles. "Only telephone poles, cornfields, wheat fields and silos. Oof." he says, smiting his forehead with the palm of a hand. "It was the Wizard of Oz land. The wind picked up my pup tent—fwoop!—and took it away with the stakes hanging on. I never saw it again. I thought everything that goes up must come down. Not so."
The law of gravity did apply elsewhere. Twenty-two miles outside Indianapolis, while sleeping on an embankment near a bridge, a car crashed through a guardrail and came to a stop right beyond his tent. "In the wee hours of the morning I heard this big crash," Casta√±eda says. "I thought the bridge had collapsed. And then this car flew over my tent. I ran out to see how the driver was doing. I covered him with my poncho; I knew he was in shock and drunk. When the patrol came they told me I was very lucky not to have gotten killed. I said, 'Sure, man,' and resumed my walk."
Near Colorado Springs he was picked up off the highway and plunked in the El Paso County Jail for 3½ days for failure to pay child support to the second of his three wives. "In the arrest form it says I'm worth one cent," he says. "I had found one penny on the highway and that was all I had." Among the inmates were accused murderers and rapists. One of his hulking fellow prisoners asked him to share the details of his crime. "Negligence of child support?" he offered meekly.
Casta√±eda's recourse was to make the inmates focus on fitness and not on him. "I started an exercise program," he says. "Everyone was sitting around smoking and depressed. I got them moving." Ghosts of prisoners past must have sat up in their bunks to behold the prisoners, dressed in bright orange uniforms, jogging in place in their cells. Casta√±eda also got the inmates to put together cupcakes from a dinner to form a kind of birthday cake for the prison trusty. "He was an ex-gangster from Chicago," says Casta√±eda. "This hard-core individual with a lot of hate in him, he said to me privately after we sang Happy Birthday to him, 'You know, no one has ever done that for me.' " When two friends who lived nearby came to bail Casta√±eda out, the trusty told Casta√±eda that he was sad to see him go. "No hay mal que por bien," says Casta√±eda. There is no bad that doesn't bring something good.
"When I got out I hiked up the trail to Pikes Peak," he says. "I had such a beautiful feeling being free again and close to nature. When you're behind bars there's such a lack of freedom, but still the light filters through the little window."
Casta√±eda's side trip to Mexico City would have seemed dreamlike even if it hadn't taken place during his trans-America walk. One night he was a humble vagabond, sleeping under the stars, playing his harmonica to a can of wild-flowers, and the next night he was dancing with Miss Mexico at a banquet celebrating the opening of the new ballroom of the Camino Real hotel. He was sent to Mexico City by Alfred Pulaski, an international sales executive for Apollo Technologies, Inc. Pulaski thought Casta√±eda would make a good salesperson and sent him to Mexico City for an interview with Soilex de Mexico. "I felt like the male version of Cinderella," says Casta√±eda of being at the opening-night banquet, which he attended as a guest of the management. "The aristocracy of Mexico was there," he says, "politically and socially." Aristocracy isn't Casta√±eda's cup of tea, and as he left the party to go back to his hotel room, all his distaste for riches surged up in him when he saw a scruffy little boy selling newspapers outside. "I went down the staircase and there was this shivering newspaper boy, hustling, hustling; no shoes, no shirt," he says. "I took my jacket off, put it around him, took him to the ballroom and said, 'Son, go and eat anything you want in this room.' He said, 'But I can't.' All the security rushed around us and I told him to go in, that I invited him. We went in and I got him a big paper bag from the kitchen and we filled it with goodies. He was hungry; eee, was he hungry! He went like a wild little animal filling the bag. The waiters and chefs were so happy.
"There were the two faces of Mexico right there. We have an extremely filthy rich group that's really bored with life; and we have little street urchins with no shoes and no shirt."
For the last leg of his walk, from Albuquerque to Venice, Casta√±eda was joined by a friend, Mickey Henry; he was also accompanied by the spirit of a friend who had died recently. Says Casta√±eda, "One of the artists in Taos, Ellie Hamilton, only 28, was killed by an 800-foot fall in the Southern Colorado mountains. When she fell to her death I was a few miles away, and I got a shiver in my spine. She always used to encourage me. Her boyfriend gave me her ashes to spread out in the beautiful places. I scattered some in the Painted Desert, some in the cactus country and saved the rest for the Pacific."
By the time Casta√±eda reached Venice on Dec. 11, he'd gone through six pairs of running shoes, suffered 42 blisters—one for each year of his life—and had found $12.76 in change, mainly in nickels and pennies, and a gold bracelet. "When I got to the beach I took my shoes off and left my footsteps in the sand. I sat down and watched the tide come up and erase them. It made me feel like my footsteps kept going into the ocean.
"Then I took my celebration run; I ran and ran and ran. After 12, 14 miles of jogging, I found this point where the waves crashed. I went up to throw Ellie's ashes, and this strong wind came and carried out the particles of ash and little bones. They went shwoop! up into the air. Just then this huge wave came towering over me, and I put my arms in front of my face to protect myself; it crashed down right in front of me, but I didn't get wet. Not one drop. I knew it was magic. Her spirit was there saying thank you."
Casta√±eda stayed in Venice for three days and wrote 482 postcards to all the friends he'd made on his journey. The worst cramp of his trip was the writer's cramp he got when he wrote to everybody, "I made it. I'm very happy. Thanks to you. The victory belongs to all of us."
"Viejo, viejo. Old man. ¬øCómo estàs? Hey, Don Juan, ¬°ven aquí!" It's December 1983, and Casta√±eda is addressing a big cottonwood tree full of squawking black crows. "Caw! Caw!" His call swoops up from the back of his throat like a live bird itself, wings up and settles in with the crows. "Caw! Caw!" They look down at him, flapping their great wings like animated umbrellas, rearranging themselves in the leafless boughs of the cottonwood.
"The crows, they sort of cheer you on," says Casta√±eda, his ruddy face tilted back, oblivious to the rain. "I'm like a crow. Caw! I collect all kinds of junk like they do. I have boxes and boxes of little items. Caw! Caw!" He laughs and goes on his way, walking along the shores of the Rio Grande in Corrales, a suburb north of Albuquerque.
These days Casta√±eda walks 20 to 22 miles a day in preparation for this June's Western States 100, a rough trail race that's ranked first in the world among ultraendurance races in difficulty. The race over the Sierra Nevada in California will be a mixture of walking and running, and Casta√±eda, who once held the unofficial world record for walking the greatest distance in 24 hours—142 miles, 448 yards, hopes to complete the 100-mile course in less than 20 hours, which would place him in the top third.
His speed picks up as he glides along the dirt trail, past tangled vines laden with wild gourds that tumble down the bank to the river. If seen walking behind a five-foot-high hedge, Casta√±eda would look like someone coasting past on a bicycle, his head level enough to carry a book, the knuckles of his high driving fists just hidden from view, his gaze fixed on the horizon.
"I follow the light," he says, grinning and radiant. "I try to capture the light. It illuminates my soul, my inner self." In the big cottonwoods that line this part of the Rio Grande, a few crows follow along from tree to tree, keeping pace with Jesse Casta√±eda, the man who walks as the crow flies.