Ben Leinin, Boston, Massachusetts, was passing through Kanab, on Sunday, April 24, on his way to Oregon, but not in the usual form of transportation. He was trekking through the country on foot.
I was on a Sunday afternoon drive with my kids when I passed Leinin, who was pushing a stroller with a sign that said, “Walking Across America”.
Intrigued, I asked my kids if I should turn around and talk to him; of course, they said no. I hesitated, and then decided to turn around and go talk to him. I’m glad I did.
His goal is to walk across America to bring awareness to mental health after coming out of a bad relationship, wrought with mental health issues. A former NCAA Division-1 cross-country athlete, and no stranger to lots of miles on his shoes, he decided he would attach a cause to his pipe dream of running across America. He is currently eight months in, with three months to go on his yearlong adventure and happened through Kanab by chance, pronouncing it “Ka-nob”.
Starting in Boston, Massachusetts, he made his way south to New York City, and then hopped on the Appalachian Trail, which spit him out in Georgia. He then followed the gulf coastline until finding rest in Austin, Texas. He journeyed up through New Mexico, then Pagosa Springs, Colorado, Monument Valley to Page, Arizona, then through Kanab, where I ran into him.
Upbeat and positive when I stopped him, he said, “I really enjoy stopping and talking to people, and appreciate when others stop me; it lifts my spirits and reminds me why I started in the first place.” He continued, “Halfway through my trek, I found out my ex-girlfriend committed suicide. Some days it’s hard to continue on. I ask myself what’s the point, but I realize I can’t control other’s choices, but if I can bring a little education or help others educate themselves, it’s worth it. Everybody matters!”
When it’s all said and done, he will have traversed over 5,600 miles of the beautiful country we call home. When he hits Las Vegas in a few days, he will have hit the 4,000-mile mark, before hitting California, on his way to his finish line in Bandon, Oregon. He has received donations along the way and plans to donate it all to Activeminds, an organization that works to educate and bring awareness to mental illness. You can follow his trek or donate by going to his Instagram page @reals_harmony.
As a teenager, hearing that my grandma struggled with depression opened my eyes to a disease I was oblivious to. How could my seemingly happy go lucky, care-free grandma struggle with anything, especially depression? Ever since then, it’s been a topic I’ve been interested in. Around the same time, I remember hearing about a middle-aged male neighbor who hung himself, which also shocked me. This was real. This was around 1997, when these topics were much more taboo than they are now. Thankfully, part of why it’s easier now is because of brave people bringing awareness to a topic that is often hard to talk about. I didn’t want to talk about it back then, but I should have.
One main reason I’m glad I stopped to talk to him is because when I got back in the car my six-year-old daughter asked, “Why is he running across America, Dad?” I replied hesitantly, “He’s running to bring awareness to mental health issues, and because his ex-girlfriend committed suicide.” She responded, “What’s that?” I replied with even more reluctance, “It’s when someone takes their own life, or kills themselves.” Her jaw dropped open in shock, and asked, “Why would anyone do that?” Our sad but needed discussion continued, which opened a dialogue with all of my kids on a very important topic that I hope and pray they feel comfortable talking to me about.
We may all struggle from mental health issues at different times in our lives. Sometimes it hits instantly, knocking us down without warning, without care and without ever realizing what is causing it. Or it may start its hideous descent into your life in a slow and gradual process; noticing its every move you try to outmaneuver it and stop it, but you can’t. At other times, you may struggle and feel helpless, not with the disease itself, but how to help and support a loved one caught in its vicious wares. Mental illness has crept into all of our lives in one form or another, and thanks to people like Leinin who bring more awareness to it, we can fight this debilitating illness together.