On Highway 60 at mile marker 86, John Martin resumed his cross country walk Saturday morning. The highway was quiet, with little traffic. The trucks that did speed past honked enthusiastically and Martin waved back at them with his American flag. Y-shaped radio antennas, part of the Very Large Array, can be seen in the distance. It is the longest stretch of straight road that Martin remembers walking, which is saying something since his journey began in Georgia almost three years ago.
Half of Martin’s reflective vest is filled with pins, one for each stage of his walk.
“I lost count, but I think it’s about 330 something that I have on here, but I need 484 total, so I still have 150 more to go. August 19, 2023, that’s it, that’s the last day.”
Martin has been walking through Socorro County, four miles at a time, for at least four weeks. On Saturday he was prepared for another small milestone, crossing into Catron County.
Martin is continuing the journey of 98-year-old WWII veteran Ernie Andrus, who is waiting to meet him two states away. The walk is scheduled to end on Andrus’s 100th birthday.
Andrus already holds the record for oldest person to run across the United States. At 90, he set off from California and made his way to St. Simmons Island, Georgia. Andrus finished the run on his 93rd birthday.
Martin heard about the cross country run and flew out to join him for a run in Louisiana. Andrus says when Martin learned there wasn’t a plan for a crowd at the end, he helped organize a gathering for the finish line.
“People from all over the country showed up,” said Andrus, in a phone interview. “I had about two thousand people. Half of them were running with me. We had marching bands. It was the fabulous, biggest crowd they’ve ever had on St. Simons Island, Georgia.”
Andrus moved to a new home, only 45 minutes away from Martin, and the two really became friends, running together in California.
On his 95th birthday, Andrus announced he wanted to make the journey again, this time going back the other way, east to west.
“When I announced it, that I was going to run the other way, the family all jumped, ‘Oh you can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry I won’t be alone, right John?’”
A firefighter, Martin took an early retirement so he could join the nine-state journey.
Andrus decided to use the run as an opportunity to fundraise for the maintenance of the LST 325, a ship identical to the one he served on during WWII, the 124. He’s still fundraising on his website, coast2coastruns.com, where people can also sponsor the run.
“Sailors love their ships. We love our ships, so when we found one identical to the one we served on, we went and got it and take it around to different ports about twice a year and give tours. It’s docked in Indiana.”
Shortly after Andrus’s 97th birthday, he had to return home for medical care. Once home, he caught COVID and spent 20 days in the hospital. Although he’s not able to return to the highway, Andrus still walks on the same days as Martin, three miles a day, three days a week with his walker.
Martin felt compelled to finish the journey after learning it was one of the last items on Andrus’s bucket list.
“’I’ve got to go back and finish this now for you,’ I said. ‘I owe you your bucket list. That can’t just vanish.’”
Walking without Ernie can be lonely. Martin finds himself counting to pass the time—keeping track of how many telephone poles there are on average per mile, using mile markers to measure how long the road runs straight before it curves.
Martin’s often given an escort from the state police to help him return to his car. They weren’t available Saturday, so he expected to hitch his way back. Instead, he had a pair of surprise visitors, friends from Louisiana who wanted to walk with him and came bearing boudin.
Wendy Lanclos is determined to walk at least once in every state on the journey, and her husband Andre is happy to drive her there and join in. When Wendy first read about Ernie Andrus in 2015, she decided to join him walking as he passed near her town in St. Landry Parish.
Making friends across the country is what made the first run so fun that Andrus wanted to do it again.
“I have thousands of people who run with me across the country and they have become friends for the rest of my life,” he said.
Martin is one leg of the journey closer to reuniting with his friend. He expects to cross the New Mexico state line into Arizona in March. He has 19 months before he reaches the ocean.
“I’ll be happy and I’ll be crying,” said Martin. “I’m not going to lie. Happy that I did it and sad that, what am I doing tomorrow?”
Andrus plans to be there at the finish line.
“I promised John I’ll be there at the finish. He’ll finish on my 100th birthday. I told him I would be there and run into the ocean with him. I might have to hold on to somebody to do it, but I plan to be there.”