Walking Uphill Backwards

I saw Jethro Daniels coming up the hill towards me while I waited for him at the top on the side of the road. At first I saw a tiny silhouette at the bottom of the steep hill vaguely shaped like a man, a cart, and a dog. As he got closer, I realized that I was looking at his back. He was towing the “chariot,” his makeshift cart loaded with camping gear and needful things, walking backwards up the hill. My mind was boggled.

Going uphill, it’s easier for him to tow the unwieldy chariot walking backwards than forwards. Going downhill, he must keep a firm grip and pull back on the nylon straps to keep its descent controlled. He constantly fights gravity and the cant of the road, which sucks the chariot to the right and threatens to topple it off the shoulder. It looked like hard work.

I thought… Wow, what a metaphor for depression. I am not as much struck by the hand-painted signs secured to the chariot that read “Trek for Mental Health,” as by the chariot itself. He wrangles the chariot — and his depression — with sinew and determination.

So far, including various detours, Jethro has pulled the chariot on foot all the way from Natoma Inn in Folsom to Veteran’s Memorial Park in Monterey, where he turned north to head back up Highway 1. We met for the second time on April 20 at the top of the hill in Davenport, north of Santu Cruz, and exchanged a cheerful hug. His canine angel Akyra greeted me with a hug too. She seemed to have energy to spare.

Jethro is tall, silver-haired, and deeply tanned. There is a band-aide on one knee, another on his shin, and fresh scrapes on both legs. His left forearm bears a tattoo of his name and a butterfly, a symbol of freedom and transformation. He tells his storied past with clarity and humor. The road has weathered him, but somehow, there is fire in his unwavering eyes and his smile is bright and generous. He is full of the ocean.

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Akyra faithfully accompanies her companion to the right of the chariot, sheltered from traffic. She knows well what “Get over!” means. She sometimes wears doggie booties on her front paws. In spite of a recent unfortunate encounter with a skunk followed by a vinegar bath and rain rinse, her thick, soft fur smells sweet to me. She seems level-headed yet carefree, an old soul with a puppy’s heart, not unlike Jethro.

He chose Highway 1 for a reason. Having previously sailed and lived in Florida, the Caribbean, and Hawai’i, he’s keen to the positive health effects of being on or near the ocean. He knew that the coast would be the most invigorating place for him to be. 

After having lived in Tahoe for 5 years, the longest he’s ever lived away from the ocean, Jethro woke up on December 18 at two o’clock in the morning wanting to die. Again. He couldn’t put his finger on the reason. He had a good job and everything on the surface seemed to be going well, yet he was tired and death looked attractive. He decided to take action, but it took a couple of months for the idea to come together. At first, Jethro only knew that he wanted walk.

He had strongly considered walking into Joshua Tree National Monument and never walking out. Instead, he decided to walk the coast with purpose. After selling his car in Sacramento, he started his journey west with Akyra and the chariot on February 23.

Since then, they have covered roughly 300 miles together along highways, bike paths, and city streets. All of this has been on foot, with the exception of a ferry ride from Vallejo to Fisherman’s Wharf and a 3-mile lift he received from a kind stranger with a pickup truck, which enabled him to avoid a treacherously narrow section of Highway 1. He has towed the chariot up to 25 miles in a single day. 

He hopes that those who see him on the side of the road are reminded of their loved ones who battle mental illness. He also hopes to inspire those who are battling and feeling too hopeless or ashamed to ask for help.

Jethro has walked along miles of crashing surf, rivers, creeks, ferns, and redwoods. He has towed the chariot over rolling hills through rain, sun, and wind. He takes rest days when he needs them. At night when he camps, the surf sings him to sleep. If it’s not raining, he sometimes sleeps under the stars. He is exposed in so many ways, but this exposure makes him feel alive.

With vehicles constantly buzzing by, there is an ever-present risk of being struck down. He doesn’t fear death, but doesn’t wish for it. He knows he is doing exactly what he needs to be doing right now. His upright posture and openness show that he feels good about himself. 

Jethro’s Pacific Coast walkabout is now doing more than keeping him alive, it’s given him the new sense of purpose that he hoped for. He’s been surprised and inspired by how much support and kindness he’s received from the people he’s met on the side of the road. After turning south from the Golden Gate to head down the coast, a milestone for him, two women approached him to tell him that that he glowed. He’s conversed with veterans with PTSD, mental health workers and volunteers, people with mental illness or mentally ill loved ones, and suicide survivors. He’s received lots of hugs, thanks, encouragement, honks, waves, and thumbs-up from passers-by, and a few dollars too. He always has just what he needs to keep going and eat healthfully. 

It hasn’t all been a walk in the park, though. He was once forced to pack up his campsite at night and was then turned away from a hostel. At his lowest moment on his trek, having nowhere safe to sleep that night, he checked himself into a mental hospital to sleep side-by-side with seriously ill patients on thin mats laid on the floor. The chariot has also required numerous repairs and enhancements. It’s been a constant work in progress. And then there’s the rain, which he seemed to bear in good spirits.

We shared lunch and stories at the Whale City cafe, then decided to cross the highway to continue our conversation while our dogs played on the beach. Akyra took my Chihuahua Coco’s toothless aggression with aplomb and enjoyed fetching the smooth driftwood that Jethro threw for her. Jethro was already full of the ocean, but I needed a charge. I ran with the waves and let the ankles of my pants get wet and crusted with sand. 

When we noticed the shadows were getting long, we headed back across the street where he’d left the chariot. A live band could be heard covering Santana inside Whale City. I could see that he pined for the music and wanted to linger, but he needed to get to the campground to set up before dark. It was somehow hard to say good-bye. A part of me wished I could drive him a bit further up the road, but the chariot would never fit in my Beetle. And I know that this is his journey to walk. I also know I’ll see him again.

Jethro says he plans to return to Alaska to drive buses for the summer. Afterwards, he may resume his walkaboat. He dreams of one day sailing around the world. For now, he plans to keep doing what makes him feel alive. 

My hope is that when Jethro decides to leave the chariot behind, that he feels freedom… and as soon as he stops feeling free, that he heads back to the ocean.

If you’d like to show Jethro Daniels some love by supporting his Trek for Mental Health Awareness with a donation or kind words, please visit him on his GoFundMe page or Facebook. Thank you for reading.

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