The eyes narrow, as if considering a twisting blue highway, when William Croker talks about his life's obsession--the art of shifting his weight and placing one size-11 foot in front of the other, the act that has twice moved him to span the United States.
To presidents, governors and state legislators, country singers, corporate big shots and personal secretaries, he's known as Walkin' Willie Croker, the down-to-earth Downey gas station attendant who has devoted more than 20 years of his life to walking the country to alert people to the importance of cancer checkups.
Wiry frame, dirty sneakers and all, Walkin' Willie walks the walk. And even though he's missing his front teeth, the 49-year-old can also talk the talk. And how.
Tipping his baseball cap to one side, he talks about losing father, mother and sister to cancer in the 1970s--deaths, he said, that could have been prevented through early detection. He talks about cancer awareness months he's inspired across the country. And about the people who have saved their own lives with a trip to the doctor, moved to action by press reports of Croker and his one-man, roadside anti-cancer mission.
Like the St. Louis woman who heard about Croker's walk and decided to get a checkup. While doctors found traces of cancer, the detection was early enough that the woman didn't lose a breast. Said Croker: "I remember how much she was crying when she met us."
In his own words, Croker is one crusader who doesn't want your donation. "Take your money and kindly use it to provide a new mammogram machine in your own neighborhood," he'll say. He accepts only what he needs to sustain him on the road. What Croker wants is just a few moments of your time, to take an hour or two off from that hectic career, busy social life and houseful of demanding kids to finally do something for yourself: Go get a cancer checkup. Do it now.
The message is getting through. For his first cross-country walk in 1987, Croker had no sponsors and only $80 to start with. He ate bologna sandwiches and slept in bug-infested campgrounds.
That changed the second time around. In 1989, he had a number of sponsors, including free hotel rooms from the Ramada Corp. and 114 pairs of shoes and socks from Nike. He raised $10,000 during a rally the day the walk began, including a sizable donation from former baseball star Reggie Jackson.
Now, Croker has struck a new way to get attention: He's planning a spring 1997 trek along the Great Wall of China to raise cancer consciousness worldwide.
To get ready for the trip, he is walking. And talking.
Because what really makes Croker tick is talking about the pure beauty and adventure of the open road, seeing the country coast to coast, step by step, like the pioneers before him. Only this time doing it with a Walkman, walking along at 7 mph to the bluesy rhythm of his Elvis Presley and Waylon Jennings cassettes.
The man who claims to have walked 75,000 miles in his lifetime talks about trudging through 2 feet of Texas snow in 30-degree-below-zero cold, about having his feet so blistered during a Death Valley trek that blood poured from his shoes each time he took them off.
He describes being pummeled with hail, dodging lightning strikes, being devoured alive by chiggers, mosquitoes and flies. He talks about losing 36 pounds during one 66-day, 2,762-mile cross-country ordeal, about the kindness and compassion of the long-distance truckers who protected him along the way.
And he talks about the gut-gripping determination it takes to cross the country twice in two years on foot, to scale the Rocky Mountains, looking up, spitting in his hand and going over those white-capped peaks--then giddily scanning the horizon for the next range, saying to himself, "Give me some more of 'em."
When President Bush met Croker in the Oval Office after his second nationwide trek in 1989, he extended his hand and said, "Here comes Walkin' Willie!"
Croker likes telling that story the most, how a $5-an-hour blue-collar Joe with a second-grade education got to meet his hero just by doing something he loves.
"I mean, look at me, I ain't no hero," he said, his weathered face punctuated with a smile. "I'm just a gas station attendant. And there's me, walking among all these dignitaries and big shots at the White House who are all whispering, 'How did he get in here?' It was some moment, brother, let me tell you."
But that was seven years ago. Now Croker is busy preparing for his newest adventure. Beginning in March, he plans to walk the length of the Great Wall--1,500 miles--in three months, from the moon-scaped Gobi Desert to the populated heart of Tian An Men Square in Beijing, not to defeat the wall, but to honor it.
Once in China, Croker hopes to sit down face to face with top Chinese officials and talk, not about politics, but about people, to spread his word about cancer prevention to the world's most populous nation.