His body was tortured by heat, rain, hail, bugs, rocks and mountains. But his soul never submitted, for William Croker knew that a walk across the country could not be survived by someone weak of mind or character.
Croker, known as "Walkin' Willie," returned home last week after a 2,762-mile, 66-day trip from Hawaiian Gardens to Washington, which he made to make more Americans aware of cancer. Croker, who weighed about 195 pounds before his trip, lost 36 pounds during the ordeal.
"I suffered a dear price out there," said Croker, 39, who took off a shoe to reveal a foot whose battered bottom repelled the eyes.
"Physically I was torn up, but mentally I never lost it," he said.
Croker dedicated himself to promoting awareness about cancer after his mother died of the disease in 1970. He was accompanied on the trip by two friends, Bob Dill and Eddie Salakory, and pain. By the time he reached Pomona, 55 hot miles into the walk on April 20, his feet were already blistered because of suede tennis shoes.
What hurt worse, he said, was the lack of media interest in the first week. "I couldn't get anybody (news people) out," he said of a disheartening stop in Las Vegas.
After changing into leather-soled shoes and leaving Nevada, things got better. A radio station in Kingman, Ariz., told his story, which gave him a boost he would need.
Mountains Were a Challenge
"I faced the most awesome mountains I've ever faced," Croker said. "Ever been to Flagstaff, Ariz.? Some of the inclines are five miles straight up."
Truckers were not optimistic about the chances for the wanderer in their midst. "He's not going to make it up," they said to one another over their CBs.
"Every one of those big ol' hills was a challenge," Croker said. He would stand and look up at them, spit in his hand, then go over them. And when he reached the other side, he would giddily scan the landscape for the next hill and say, "Give me some more of 'em."
With a leg cramping ("I had tremendous pain"), he limped over stones through New Mexico and Texas. Indifference made him even hotter than the 95-degree temperature and 90% humidity. "It seemed like nobody gave a damn. I went to the Gallup Independent (in New Mexico) and a reporter said, 'Now if you go out and stand on your hands and walk down the freeway, I'd come out and do a story.' I said the hell with this son of a gun."
His big break came in Elk City, Okla. "I was so disgusted and beat up," Coker said. "Walked all them miles, took them hills and I wasn't getting my message out. The news director there at a 50,000-watt radio station taped a 45-minute conversation and played it on the news. Then the newspapers came running and from that point there was never any problem" with media coverage.
People in cars started to honk at him and pull to the side of the road and take his picture. They gave him money, which was needed because Croker entered some towns with just $5. He said the entire trip cost $4,000.
When he recalls the endless stretch of sweltering Oklahoma farmland, "Walkin' Willie" becomes "Talkin' Willie":
"I was right out in the lightning; out there it strikes about five feet away from you and scares the livin' hell out of you. I got pummeled with hail. A storm all night, winds going 40 m.p.h., rain that don't let up. You know what chiggers are? I got attacked by them, you can see where the marks were. I didn't know what they were. I was sittin' there at night itchin'. There's bugs back there I'd never even seen, mosquitos and flies. They're bitin' you all night. We'd grab newspapers and attack, wipin' these dang mosquitos out all night."
Croker, walking 4 m.p.h., averaged 47 miles and six pairs of socks a day. There were times when he took off his shoes and blood poured from them.
"Eddie took a knife and busted them (the blisters)," Croker said. "Then I'm walkin' with knife cuts."
By the middle of the trip the leather shoes were full of holes and it would be a week before he could get new ones.
"I was actually going to turn around and stop, but I was mad. I was gonna prove to the world I was gonna make it," Croker said.
And so, inspired by his Elvis Presley tapes and his own determination, he pushed on.
A Folk Hero to Truckers
To truckers on the interstate highways, he became a folk hero. "They could have wiped me out," Croker said. "I was on their turf. But they'd move away from my lane."
Nights were spent at campgrounds, rest stops and occasionally a motel that donated a free room.
"Rest stops were about 50 miles apart," he said. "In Oklahoma and Arkansas there are some of the finest rest stops you'd ever want to see. I mean they got big trees, they got bathrooms.
"But no showers. I didn't take a shower for four days at a time."
The walk became a mile-to-mile struggle. Dill would stop the camper at a mile marker and wait for Croker and Salakory, who walked more than 2,000 miles himself.
Croker ate baloney and cheese sandwiches and drank fruit punch and water. "Couldn't afford restaurants," he said.