On October, 18, 2012, I fly to Memphis, TN, rent a car, and start driving southeast. My destination is Tupelo, MS. Why Tupelo? That’s where I intercept Mike Ehredt on day 57 of Project America Run, his run that began near the Canadian border in Minnesota and ends on Veteran’s Day at the Gulf of Mexico in Galveston, TX. It’s one of the last opportunities I’ll get with an intercept point close to a major airport. My plan is to have dinner with Mike, run a few miles and plant a flag or two with him the next day. Although my own quest is burdened by physical and some emotional stress, I’m determined to “be there”, and “do that.”
People in Tupelo are so friendly; perhaps this is the South… I come from the Northeast. It’s a detail that’s only important if you want it to be… the same way each day of life is important – only if we want them to be. It’s also a clue about the not-so-obvious rewards of doing Project America Run, one that hints of profound truths embedded in what Mike is doing.
I meet up with Mike and his host family at a local Mexican restaurant. D’Casa. He’s easy to recognize from the online photos and videos. I instantly feel a “kinship” with Mike. I get to meet tonight’s host family, Peg and Tom. Mike explains that he wouldn’t be able to do what he is doing without the generosity of hosts and host families who have picked him up at daily end points, dropped him off at daily starting points, showed him around their home towns, fed him and provided a bed where he can rest before embarking on the next day’s trek. It highlights the generosity of Americans. It demonstrates the vulnerability of being out on the road, and reveals that courage and trust are important nuances of Project America Run.
At dinner, Mike tells me that finishing Project America Run will be “bitter sweet”. Sure, there is the goal, the accomplishment of reaching his final destination having planted one flag every mile along the route. He pulls out his cell phone and shows me a map with all the flags he’s planted from north to south. He refers to it as the “Wall of Flags.” It’s easy to see that in a way, Mike doesn’t want the journey to end as he offers, “I’ve met so many wonderful people along the way”. It would seem that every day, every mile, every step is an opportunity to take stock in life, and Mike is doing just that. We finish dinner and order dessert; fried ice cream. We will need the calories for tomorrow’s leg.
The next day, I pick a spot about 10 miles into Mike’s daily ‘26’ along the Natchez Trace Parkway – Black Belt Overlook. I park the car and wait. It’s a chilly morning, something I didn’t expect in Mississippi in October. Autumn has arrived, even in Mississippi. At about 2 hours into Mike’s run, I’m still waiting with nervous anticipation. I can see about 1.5 miles down the road, but no sign of Mike. I feel like a little kid waiting up for Santa Clause, will he show up? Did I get the right road, the right spot? I try to stay loose. My left foot is injured. Running will cause me pain, but I’m going to try and run at least 1 mile.
Finally, I spot Mike down the road and it’s not long before he’s at our rendezvous point, Mike takes a few sips of water, drops the empty bottle into the trash can, and we’re on our way. A few steps out, we stop to plant a flag. He offers it to me, but I express that I want to complete a mile before planting a flag – my own small, symbolic gesture. He reads the name of the Soldier out-loud, Andrew M. Harper, from Maidsville, West Virginia, age 19. We move on. I can feel my heel beginning to throb, my gait is a compromised run/limp, but I’m interested in listening to Mike as we run and talk, so I keep moving forward. We share stories about our lives and before long, I forget about the pain. It seems much easier to deal with when you’re not alone.
At 1.15 for me, mile 1503 for Mike, we stop to plant a flag. I take the flag, place it in the ground and read aloud – U.S. Army Private First Class Arturo E. Rodriguez, from Bellflower, California, age 19. I’m quietly aware of Private Rodriguez age when he died – 19. At 19 my life was just beginning. On this section of the highway, we’re not allowed to leave the flags in the ground, so Mike takes it out and hands it to me to keep. We move on.
Along the next mile, I can’t feel anything in my left foot. It’s as though I had no pain to begin with. Mike tells me about the stroller he pushes, filled with his basic necessities, and the remaining flags still to plant. We reach 2.15 for me, mile 1504 for Mike – Tockshish – A historic relay point for the Pony Express. We plant another flag. Mike solutes. I read the name aloud, holding my hand over my heart. And again, we move on.
In that last mile I run with Mike, he tells me a story about a “bullet” that he carries with him, one of just a few artifacts he keeps in the stroller. It was given to him by a friend who was a police officer. It was the last bullet in the chamber of a gun that nearly killed him. It’s a remarkable story, but one I’ll leave for Mike to write another time. Suffice to say, Mike’s friend kept the bullet for good luck and gave it to Mike as a symbolic gesture of protection on his journey.
At 3.15 miles, #1505 for Mike, I plant my third flag. Although I feel like I could go further, Mike knows my foot is in pain, and from his body language, I sense that it’s time for us to part ways; for him to continue, and me to return to the car. After all, this is Mike’s journey, not my own. I thank him for what he’s doing, for the opportunity to participate, and we say our goodbyes.
Later I would reflect on Mike’s “Wall of Flags”, the digital depiction on an electronic map, of each flag he’s planted. One might look at it and only see a bunch of markers on a map. Mike sees it as a record of his journey honoring fallen U.S. Soldiers. I see it as a metaphor for how we should live our lives. It shows the sanctity of life in an overpowering way, and hints that we should seize every moment of our lives and live them to the fullest, mile for mile step for step; that we should pay attention and appreciate the simple details; that no matter what our burden or starting point, we can accomplish great things with courage and a positive attitude; but most importantly, it proves that the most fulfilling rewards are in the process, not the result. These are some of the freedoms these soldiers fought and died to preserve. In our busy lives, we tend to get caught up in arriving at our destination, and forget to enjoy the journey along the way. Then it occurs to me that Mike’s “Wall of Flags”, in form and content is a true work of art.