Hiker sinks into wilds to help children

  • 2001-04-19
  • Elina Cerpa
RIGA - On April 17, a man named BJ Martin left Latvia to begin an epic 2,658 mile walking journey of the Pacific Crest from Mexico to Canada. But BJ wants to make this trip not just a "Walk for fun" but also a "walk for funds". He is planning to support the "Mes esam lidzas" (we are beside you) children's rehabilitation center in Riga.

Any person, family, group or organization that wishes to participate can pledge an amount - even as little as one santim - per mile that BJ actually completes. It will spur BJ on through those lonely deserts and treacherous mountain trails knowing that his hiking efforts are benefiting many disabled children in Latvia.

Making an appointment to meet BJ was not a problem. Catching him was the only difficulty. For the last few weeks, here in Riga, he has been walking. Constantly.

Encountering BJ Martin in a cafe in old Riga proved an interesting experience. He sat mulling over a two-page list of the things he should pack for his adventure. He seemed calm, yet there was a tumultuous energy lurking beneath the surface.

"I am going to start off in the desert," he begins enthusiastically. "Desert for the first 650 miles, a lot of cactus, very dry, not much wild life. Then I get into the Sierra Nevadas, which will be very steep mountains, with something like nine snow-covered passes I will have to cross. Grand scenery, mountains, water, trees, green. It will be very pretty.

"After the Sierras, I will drop back down to lower elevations and get back into what we call the 'high desert'. From there I will cross into Washington state and the Cascade Mountains , a very wet area that catches a lot of water off the Pacific Ocean. Again, very pretty, very green. The wildlife will range from elk and bear, wolf and fox down to the smaller creatures."

He went on to say that unfortunately with a walk this long, there aren't many people who can accompany you, or who want to.

Even so, there will be other folks along the trail. "I am starting by myself, but who knows?"

It can be a risk if there is a companion on such a long hike, as it is possible that after hardships along the trail, personalities previously pleasant can turn unpleasant. There are benefits to traveling alone.

Martin plans to begin the journey on May 1 and end towards the end of September. To do that he needs to walk about 14 miles a day. He will start walking in the south, and says there will be about 20 miles between water holes.

Why would he attempt such a trip? "I don't know. This is kind of what I do. Once you start hiking long distances, it is hard to come back to this world. Hiking is something you will always go back to. There is something about waking up in the morning, packing up your gear, walking and just seeing what the day will bring," he said with a smile. For nine months in 1995, that is exactly what he did with his wife. They cycled from Alaska down to the southern tip of Argentina.

BJ Martin is convinced he is a lucky person. "I am extremely lucky. Physically I am healthy. I was able to retire from the US Marine Corps and now I can do this. I was born in a huge country where I could travel from one coast to the other. I think I am one of the most fortunate people in the world, and that is why I want to do this now, to help charity, because there are people who aren't so fortunate.

"I am asking people, groups and businesses to sponsor me for every mile that I walk. If someone pledges one santim for one mile that's 26.58 lats that will go to charity. And all of it is for charity."

He has already approached such groups as the American Charter of Commerce and the International 75 Club. The children's rehabilitation center he is walking for has had many hardships in the past, most recently a broken boiler that could not be fixed.

"They had to do a number of quick fund-raisers just to keep their doors open," he said. He hopes to give them a cushion so that every year is not a struggle.

Collecting these pledges is also a motivation for him. "This is a trip where I am going to get tired. I am going to want to stop. I am going to want to quit. The weather is going to be bad, or my legs are going to hurt, but I will think , 'If I walk one more mile a child may eat today'. Then I'll walk that mile. It's as simple as that.

"You have to deal with whatever comes along. If it is just dry, if it is hot, if the trail is steep or seems impassable, you just have to deal with it. And that's the challenge.

"Hiking changes you," he concludes. "It deprives you for so long that you begin to reevaluate your priorities, what is important. Right now I have an electric stove. I have a warm bed to sleep in at night. On the trail I will be without these things. It will be amazing. When you return from such a trip, you really start to appreciate what is around you. You understand what is truly important - very few things, your family, your friends, food and shelter."