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Castañeda made his third attempt on March 16, 1973. In perfect weather at 6 a.m., he set off on a counterclockwise walk in which he would cover 302 miles in 102 hours and 59 minutes. "I learned every crack of that track," he says. "To prepare myself for the walk I would get up every morning between 3:30 and 4 and walk 2½ hours in the dark, teaching myself to walk in my sleep. I got to where I could do eight laps without opening my eyes." Although at times during the long haul he'd hoped to be able to close his eyes and rest them, his plan was foiled by a cable that lay across the track, bringing electricity to his support trailer; it was an obstacle that required looking out for.
He lost 12 pounds in the 4½ grueling days, during which he took breaks every three to four hours to use the bathroom in the trailer; his longest such interruption was three minutes and 30 seconds. "Every hour I drank 12 to 16 ounces of water while I walked, to replenish the liquid loss," he says. "I ate very little food: milk shakes, spinach and pea soups, bread."
To keep himself amused and awake he devised all manner of mental games. Sometimes he'd play imaginary hands of poker. At other times he'd "take a quick glance at the stars. Then I would multiply the number of stars I could see in one glance times five to equal how many footsteps I would take until I would do it again. Sometimes I would count the number of steps per lap and estimate how many steps it would take on the next lap. If I missed, I would give myself two fast laps."
Some people might consider it an achievement just to stay awake for 4½ days in the most comfortable of circumstances. But to stay awake and walk 302 miles, the distance from Boston to Philadelphia! Says Castañeda, "Sometimes your mind gets tired, says, 'It's time to quit; why are you doing this?' Then I talk to myself in a loud voice. I say, 'Hey! I'm going to make it somehow or another. I'm going to make it. I have the chispa.' That's one of my favorite words; it means spark, like you use to build a fire. I've always had that little chispa in me. I've never quit. I've dropped but never quit."
Such extended sleep deprivation had him hallucinating on the last night. "At three in the morning I suddenly saw the sign of a Holiday Inn by the track," Castañeda recalls. "I said to myself, 'Look! Look!' I remember walking to the motel and checking in. There was this big, bald, heavyset man in a tuxedo with a red carnation. He said, 'Come on, Jesse. Come on. We got the biggest softest water bed. Come on, come on.' Then the curve of the track began to grow sides, and I felt I was trapped in an aqueduct. All of a sudden the luminarias [small beacons] along the track became red cartons of milk. The track was a big conveyor belt, carrying all these cartons of milk around and around.
"After daybreak I thought I was in England, walking along a rolling country road. At 1:59 that afternoon someone came over and whispered to me, 'Jesse, you should consider stopping.' I put my hands on my knees and said, 'This is enough.' Everyone came out, three or four hundred people, and poured champagne on my head."
The walk raised $3,000. Half went to Rocky Disanti, a promising Albuquerque baseball player who'd been paralyzed in an automobile accident; the rest was used to purchase a small bus for Agua Prieta, a little community in Sonora, Mexico where Castañeda's mother lives.
Castañeda's vision of walking through the English countryside became a reality a year later when he was invited by the British National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to come to England and receive the Topham cup. This award was given to him for his support of humanitarian causes—fund raising—while setting the world record for nonstop walking. "I was invited to a luncheon at the House of Commons," he says. "I had lamb and green mint jelly; it was great. I loved it. I met Crawshaw, a spry little man." Princess Margaret took a shine to Castañeda, and Castañeda, at 5'5" himself a spry little man, took a shine to London, although he did receive a phone call in his hotel room from a man who said, in an Irish accent, "Sir, I just want to advise you that there is a bomb planted in the garage. Leave immediately or you'll get killed." Castañeda informed the woman at the front desk of the call and then went out for a brisk walk.
Castañeda first took up walking when he was less than a year old in Nuevo Casas Grandes, the little desert town in Chihuahua where he was born. "I would pull back the screen on the window and sneak out to explore the flowers and follow the turtles around the outside of the house," he says. On his father's side he's part Tarahumare Indian; the tribe still leads a primitive life in remote Copper Canyon in the Sierra Madre mountains. One of the Tarahumares' traditional games is to kick a carved wooden bowl as they walk. When Castañeda runs in the big La Luz trail run every year, he kicks a soccer ball the nine miles up the mountain. He says the Tarahumare in him makes him do it. "Something to kick, you know?" he says. "The Indian spirit nurtures me a lot, because Indians like simplicity. They remain conscious of the animal life, the earth, the soul."
Although he's happy to assume kinship with Carlos Castañeda, the popular author who wrote of the mystical teachings of the Yaqui Indian, Don Juan, Jesse is even prouder of another relative, Pedro Castañeda, a chronicler who traveled with the Spanish army in the mid-1500s. "He explored the Southwest with 1,000 foot soldiers who were there to discover and conquer new land," Jesse says. "Again and again he was offered a horse, but always he refused. He said he'd rather walk." Jesse grins. "I am following his footsteps."