Category Archives: long distance walking

The Man Who Came to Dinner

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 “After all my time on this earth, I was becoming the person I was meant to be.” Donald L. Brown

I am not in the habit of inviting authors on book tour to my home for dinner, but if I were, our life would be more interesting. Nevertheless, I took this step after hearing Donald Brown promote his book, The Morphine Dream, in Seattle a few weeks ago. Having written a memoir of my own, I consider it good form to support other memoirists. And this man’s story is extraordinary.

It is hard to know where to begin with him. As a high school dropout, former Marine, and washed-up professional athlete, Don suffered an on-the-job industrial forklift accident in 1980 that subjected him to multiple surgeries for “severe internal derangement of the knee” and years of confinement to a wheelchair. Clearly his life had changed, and somehow he would have to take matters into his own hands.

Don’s orthopedic surgeon advised him, “Go back to school. You have a fine mind. Put it to work for yourself. It’s time to rely on your intellect, not your body. Put the energy and passion you’ve always had during your athletic career to work for your mind.”

By reading and listening to motivational books and tapes, Don turned his stay at Boston’s New England Baptist Hospital into an opportunity to repurpose his life. “Where do you want to be in five years?” one tape asked him, and Don noted “Harvard Law School” on a pad of paper. Next, the motivational tape asked him where he would like to be in ten years, and despite the fact that physicians had told him he might never walk again, Don wrote down “Walking U.S.A.”

Fueled by morphine for the pain, “I was sky-high,” Brown said. “I was flying.”

“Hospitalization was good for me,” recalls Don. “I had come to realize that my athletic career had been a result of incredibly hard work and focus. I knew I had to get engaged in a new future and work as hard as I did to be a professional athlete.”

In this way Don accomplished each of his goals. From a GED to community college to transfer into Amherst College, Don landed in the Harvard Law School of his dreams. Then in 1997, following graduation, “overweight, over fifty, a diabetic, and…. lucky to be walking at all,” averaging 41 miles per day, Don made the 5,004 mile trek across the continent in 137 days. Starting at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in Copley Square and taking the northern route, he completed his journey by coming over Stevens Pass in Washington, and walking on down the coast through Oregon, Northern California and Big Sur, reaching his destination in San Simeon with the Pacific Ocean before him.

“I didn’t even bother to take off my shoes. I simply walked right in,” writes Don.

His method for turning dreams into actuality was always a carefully formulated plan of execution. While attending community college he distinguished himself by sitting front and center in lecture halls and winning every student award he could. At Amherst—still wheelchair bound—Don moved into a dorm the summer before starting “to figure out how to navigate the hills and dales of the campus, get my syllabi and books, meet my professors, and, most importantly, start reading.” From the start, Don told everyone he met at Amherst of his goal of attending Harvard Law School.

Likewise with the walk, “I knew when I departed Boston that if I could make it through the first two weeks, I would complete the entire journey.” It was a mental challenge as much as anything. Don divided each day’s walk into four ten mile walks in his head, considered crossing state lines a powerful motivator, and basically “realized I must push on, or else the notion of quitting when things got tough would rule the walk.”

Long distance walker Rob Sweetgall had taught him that “if I completed an arduous and lengthy walk one day, and then repeated it the next day without difficulty, I’d be prepared for that distance—regularly.”

Well, what could we say to that? Before us stood a man who in his life had learned so much about himself, tested it, and it held. I’m sure we squirmed a little in our chairs, then made every effort to buy the book.

That is when I invited him to dinner. What I recognized right away was his effectiveness in all things–something he hadn’t even mentioned was the writing of the book and its publication, no easy feat, I know. And at the end of the evening, at his request, Don Brown went off with a copy of my manuscript, the memoir I mentioned.

Shhh…. He is reading it now.

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