Ohio man passes through Marshalltown on journey across the country
Joe Hall had it all mapped out in his mind. Ahead of his 40th birthday on Nov. 22, he would embark on a life-changing walk across the United States and arrive in San Francisco with a “light that shines through the clouds” appearing before him.
“Everything was going to be illuminated, and I could kind of restart my life after that,” he said.
Of course, reality got in the way, and Hall realized that if he was going to make such a journey, he should do it for something more than a vague notion of self-actualization. He had dealt with frustrations at work, a serious motorcycle accident in 2020 and his own mental health demons — in his own words, depression, anxiety and “a severe lack of self worth” — over the years, and the son of a close friend he had graduated from high school with in Enon, Ohio, committed suicide just weeks before his 17th birthday.
Hall, now a resident of the nearby Dayton suburb of Fairborn, found a surprising piece of inspiration from the singer Mike Posner, who made a similar trip across the country back in 2019 “to become somebody he was actually proud of.”
“I was like ‘I’m gonna do that.’ Originally, I admit, I was gonna try and do it for me. This was gonna be to start over, but I started thinking ‘That’s not enough to keep you going if things get hard,'” he said. “I started thinking like me, Joe Hall, isn’t worth this walk. It’s not a good enough cause.”
Mental health was the obvious choice, and Hall is also using it as an opportunity to raise money for the Dayton Children’s Hospital’s behavioral health unit on behalf of his friend who lost her son to suicide. Before he left on the walk from Rehoboth Beach, Del. on May 15, that fundraiser had already drawn in about $38,000 in donations, and if it gets to $50,000, a local donor has agreed to match the contribution.
Although one might assume that a walk across the country would require meticulous planning and mapping, Hall, who trekked from Tama/Toledo to Marshalltown on Wednesday night, ate at the American Legion and stayed at the Police/Fire station before hitting the road for Colo Thursday morning, said he’s mostly been “winging it” so far. A chance encounter with Paul Fugate, the former president of the Lions Club in Mount Vernon, turned Hall onto the fact that the old Lincoln Highway route — which, in Iowa, is more or less the modern Highway 30 — runs directly to San Francisco.
“I said ‘Oh, well then that makes it a little bit easier.’ I can have a path to follow rather than just getting to a place at night and then Google mapping what’s about 20 to 25 miles (west) for the next day and then going,” Hall said.
On days like Wednesday, with nothing but scorching heat and flat land ahead of him, consuming the necessary calories becomes especially imperative, so Hall treated himself to an Iowa delicacy before leaving Tama — a Casey’s breakfast sandwich and donuts. He hasn’t had any experiences he would consider negative so far, but he has been stopped by the cops twice on his walk through Iowa, two more than any other state.
“They were both pleasant interactions. It’s not a huge deal. I know I’m not doing anything wrong,” he said.
Almost everywhere he’s gone, Hall has interacted with people who have faced mental health struggles, whether they come in the form of PTSD, addiction or anxiety and depression. He doesn’t have an easy answer to those problems, but he does feel that there is strength in numbers and a better future is still possible.
“We’ve got to pay therapists and what not better because we’re not getting enough people that want to do the job because it doesn’t pay well enough,” he said. “There’s not enough access, and even for the people that can afford it, you go to a town and you might have to wait six months to see a therapist because there’s such a high need and not enough people to go around.”
Ultimately, despite his claim that walking for his own sake — or, as Forrest Gump once put it, because he just felt like running — wasn’t enough to justify such a trip, Hall has gotten a little bit of everything along the way. He’s rediscovered rural America, met wonderful and helpful people and realized that he’s not alone even on his darkest days.
“I really just want to get people to open up a dialogue. I want the people who are struggling and don’t think that they have anyone to talk to to really make an effort to find someone,” he said. “At worst, if you don’t think you have anybody to talk to and you’re struggling, send an email or send a message to the (Facebook) page. I’ve got plenty of time. I’m not licensed, but I can listen and I’ll do what I can for people. It’s just about trying to help people out however I can.”
To follow Hall’s journey as he makes his way to San Francisco, visit https://www.facebook.com/HallAcrossTheCountry or https://www.hallacrossthecountry.com/. He has dreams of someday turning his cause into a legitimate nonprofit organization, but before he can get to that, he’s got a few more pressing concerns to address and a few more destinations to reach.