By Richard Wiens
Eddie Gray may be in Klamath by now. One more community to visit, one more enclave of Native Americans, as he literally walks around the country.
Long-walkers seem drawn to the coast highway on sojourns of their own invention. Some say they're doing it for world peace or to raise money for charitable causes. They may seek pledges-per-mile in advance or collect what donations they can along the way as they traipse from, say, the Mexican to the Canadian border.
Eddie Gray is different. First off, he started in Montana and doesn't plan to stop until he's circled, counter-clockwise, all of the border states in the nation's contiguous mainland.
Secondly, he's not collecting donations, although he welcomes you to give to the nearest American Legion post in his name. He checks in at Legion and VFW halls as he proceeds on a 9,000-10,000-mile journey that he figures will take 16-20 months to complete.
That military connection is the third thing that sets Gray apart. Shortly after enlisting in the Marines, he started thinking about this trek as a way to connect with his fellow Americans.
Specifically, he wanted to answer this question: andquot;If I'm going to die for these people, who are these people?andquot;
Gray didn't have to die for them, but he had plenty of buddies who did. He received a medical discharge in 2000 after his sternum was broken in a vehicle accident at Camp Lujeune in North Carolina. His stint was state-side, but shortly after his departure the world changed.
andquot;I lost 11 of my Marine Corps brothers in Iraq.andquot;
During his recovery and a short-lived marriage, Gray still mused about walking around the country. When a potential new job at a jail in Hardin, Mont., fell through, he started planning in earnest. The American Legion National Headquarters declined to officially andquot;endorseandquot; his trip, but an official there agreed to call ahead to Legion officials in each state Gray entered. Nike Corp. agreed to provide his walking shoes he's on his third pair and whenever he asks, the Oregon company will send along new ones to the next post office down the road.
andquot;Who are these people?andquot; Gray shouldered a 70-pound pack and walked out of his hometown of Ashland, Mont., on April 3, a day before his 33rd birthday, to find out.
Across the breadth of Montana and the Panhandle of Idaho, over the Cascades and into the lush valleys of the Pacific Northwest, the answer is taking shape.
They are the campsite and RV park operators who let him pitch his tent for free. The truckers and bikers who enquire as to what he's about, then share their own stories and offer him rides (he turns these down unless they constitute side-trips). The Vietnam veteran in Grand Ronde, Ore., suffering cancer he blames on Agent Orange, who put Gray up for a week and a half. The residents of remote country homes who actually welcome a stranger, sharing their water and sometimes dinner and a couch for the night. The Legion and VFW types to whom Gray is not a stranger. And the tribes who hail the Northern Cheyenne as a fellow warrior.
Gray recently spent a week and a half with the Tolowas in Smith River. When he departed south, he was provisioned with a new backpack courtesy of the rancheria. He camped at Florence Keller County Park and along the beach while spending part of last week in Crescent City.
He's carrying everything on his back for now, but figures he'll need to rig some kind of makeshift trailer to pull through the deserts of the Southwest.
Only two things could stop him from completing his journey. One would be an unfortunate mishap along the road. North of Brookings, as he negotiated a tight spot beside a guardrail, the trailer of a passing vehicle struck the sleeping bag he was toting. Gray was twisted around and believes he dislocated his knee. No medical help was needed because andquot;it basically popped backandquot; into place.
The other would be the military. Though discharged, Gray is on andquot;Inactive Ready Reserveandquot; status. That could mean a detour to the Middle East.
andquot;Happy to do it,andquot; Gray said of that prospect.
This time, he'd know who he was fighting for.