TAMPA — Long before he stumbled onto Laguna Beach, Calif., before he was nearly mugged by a street gang in Albuquerque, N.M. and way before he was rousted by the cops in Amarillo, Texas, Harrison Milanian thought to himself: “What the heck am I doing? I could die out here.”
But he didn’t. He braved desert hail storms that ripped up his tent, endured quirky looks from passers-by and withstood a myriad of other obstacles on his walk from Tallahassee to the sparkling Pacific Ocean, emerging victorious in his pilgrimage, a better person for the effort.
The 22-year-old University of South Florida student and out-of-work chef began his journey on May 7. It turned into a social project that offered a glimpse of not only the scenery of this country, but the people who live here.
It didn’t start out so grandiose.
“I wanted to do something challenging,” Milanian said from his apartment in New Tampa last week. So he threw a leash onto his 2-year-old frisky golden retriever, Captain, and started walking. Soon, they were doing 20-mile walks.
He wanted more, and in the back of his mind, a crazy idea emerged. What if he walked — actually walked — across the United States of America? His friends thought he was impulsive. His family pleaded with him not to go.
Undeterred, he began training.
The personal challenge, he said, grew into a bigger thing. The benefits of physical exercise were measurable, even as he trained, he said.
“I started feeling better, my moods improved, I was doing better in school,” he said. He wanted to tout those benefits, so his trek to California took on a purpose: to draw attention to a more involved life, physically and socially.
“This country has such a sedentary lifestyle,” he said. “We are indoors, we are docile in front of our computers.”
All that’s well and good, he said, “but there needs to be moderation. Go out and get some sunshine.”
That was his message, though at first, he and almost no one else knew it.
He drove to Tallahassee and on May 7 began walking west with a sign on his back: “America on Foot.”
He took no cash, no laptop. He had a smart phone on which he posted pictures and a running commentary. His audience grew and attention amassed on the site.
He pushed a gutted baby stroller that carried his stuff: some snacks; a tent, five pairs of socks, five pairs of underwear, four shirts, some shorts and 50 pounds — not gallons — of water.
“Gallons are a worthless measurement,” he said. “You’d be surprised how much water weighs.” (A gallon is 8.35 pounds.)
There was unnecessary stuff at first: a hatchet, a bulky first-aid kit and rope. It wasn’t long before he found out what he needed and what he didn’t and so he gave away his extraneous belongings to homeless people, campers and other travelers.
At first, he took back roads, but they often veered out of the way, adding more steps to his journey. So he stuck to major highways, occasionally interstates. There, more people would see him and the sign on his back advertising his website, www.facebook.com/americaonfoot. “The more eyes on me,” he said, “the better.”
Laguna Beach was his last step on terra firma, and on July 28, Milanian dashed into the water after 3,000 miles pushing the stroller. Three months of beard became his friend and the refreshing Pacific Ocean his reward.
“I did it faster than anyone and I’m the youngest, as far as I know,” he said. “I did 30 or 40 miles ... about 14 hours a day, without breaks. I drank three to four gallons of water a day.”
For most of the first leg of his journey he took in the sights by himself. Facebook was his only link to the outside world. “I would be by myself for a week at a time,” he said. “I had no one to talk to. Dealing with the loneliness was the hardest part.”
Getting into Texas, police stopped him constantly, he said, sometimes three or four times a day. Sometimes the interactions were good, sometimes not.
He walked into Giddings, Texas, and was greeted by a police officer who said he couldn’t walk through town, that he would have to go around the town. Milanian, worried that a detour would put him behind schedule, explained he was walking across the nation as part of a social project and the officer got on the radio.
Soon, a couple more cruisers showed up. Milanian thought there would be trouble.
“They formed a ‘V’ with their cars and escorted me right through town,” the young walker said. “It was the neatest thing. I felt like a superstar.”
In Amarillo, Texas, Milanian came upon a phalanx of police cars blocking the road. He was 1,000 feet from the house of strangers who had offered him shelter for the night, the first night he would not spend in a tent. Between him and that house were three cruisers and two officers on motorcycles.
“It was for me,” Milanian said. “They thought I was some sketchy, vagabond character. I walked up and gave them a peace sign and they got aggressive, like really aggressive.”
Officers put Milanian in handcuffs, piled him into the back of a patrol car, shouting questions at him as they checked his background. He smiled and one cop asked what was so funny.
“This is the first air conditioning I’ve been in in a week,” he told the officer. Soon, he was unshackled and released to continue his journey west.
In Albuquerque, N.M., he was approached by a half-dozen members of a street gang, who began yelling at him to get off their sidewalk. They got belligerent, refusing to let him pass. “They just exploded in anger,” he said. He was reluctant to say what exactly happened next.
“I have a concealed weapons permit,” was all he would say, “And I took care of the situation. I let them in on a little secret. I was carrying.”
Mostly though, people were much less threatening, he said, much more helpful.
Relying on the kindness of strangers, Milanian found they were willing to give. His Facebook views and likes began to take off, and all along the way, he was offered lodging by strangers. People would stop and give him water and treat him to dinners.
“I took no money with me at all,” he said. “It was a test for myself. This was like a rite of passage for me. It was a challenge for me and it was a challenge for my countrymen. I was walking across America and I didn’t bring anything with me.”
And his countrymen answered the call, he said. As an example, he said he wore through five pairs of shoes that were given to him along the way.
“Even though I had no money,” he said, “it was the happiest time of my life. It was liberating to have so little.”
The trip changed from a personal challenge, he said, to something larger. It ended up being about getting to know people who were previously strangers, but now were counted among his friends.
“It’s about making connections,” he said, and about giving. The stroller he used for the trip? He gave it to a young mom in St. Petersburg after he returned home in the air-conditioned comfort of a rental car.
And then there was the scenery. Spectacular vistas in the deserts and the mountains, the small towns and big cities.
“Our country,” he said, “is so beautiful.”