Although Castañeda wasn't trying to set any kind of record when he walked across the country, he made it from coast to coast in remarkably short time—4½ months, averaging 35.2 miles a day. And during his trek, he regularly took two days off a week to meet local folks: to visit 14 hospitals, address many Kiwanis and Optimist clubs—he'd been Junior Optimist of the Year at Menaul in 1959—and to give 22 soccer demonstrations to schoolchildren. (He can make a soccer ball behave like a well-trained dog.) He spent three days in jail, stopped for 10 days in Albuquerque to help a friend finish painting some apartments and from Phoenix went flying off to Mexico City on a weekend side trip financed by a business man he'd met in New Jersey.
Usually he camped out. "I would collect little wildflowers and put them in food cans outside my tent," Castañeda says. "One of the most enjoyable times is when you hear the sound of the creek nearby—whoosh! You put your fire out and the coals are still bright red. You look toward the skyline and there are millions of stars. That's when I take out my little harmonica." Sometimes people put him up, and sometimes he stayed in cheap motels so he could shower.
Castañeda set off from the United Nations building with $318 in his pocket, a bandana around his neck and a pack on his back with an American flag sticking up out of it. Three blocks from his departure point the backpack burst. At a nearby sporting goods store he spent half his cash on a new one, a pup tent and a sleeping bag. That first afternoon he was nearly sideswiped by a truck as he crossed the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey. "I could have jumped into the water but I just stood against the rail and the truck brushed against my backpack," he says.
It was the closest he came to being run over (except outside Indianapolis where a car literally flew over his tent), but other forms of wildlife stalked him. In Parsippany, N.J., he was whistling along a sidewalk in the rain when a dog bit him in the leg, and in a grungy Pittsburgh hotel room he awoke to see a man hovering over him with a knife. Castañeda fended the intruder off with his walking stick. In Greenfield, Ind. he discovered a big snake under his bed, and in Fort Garland, Colo. a pigeon gave him a scare in his dark hotel room until he figured out what it was. But the toughest adversary he encountered was the merciless wind of Kansas—a word that makes his mustache curl like the tilde over the "n" in his name.
"Kansas! Ai! In Kansas it was like somebody was punching me, hitting me with a baseball bat, pow, pow, pow! Usually a wind just hits you on one side, but in Kansas it hits you here, here, here," he says, turning around and thwacking himself. Hell-bent on getting out of that never-ending state, he had his best day there, 58 miles. "Only telephone poles, cornfields, wheat fields and silos. Oof." he says, smiting his forehead with the palm of a hand. "It was the Wizard of Oz land. The wind picked up my pup tent—fwoop!—and took it away with the stakes hanging on. I never saw it again. I thought everything that goes up must come down. Not so."
The law of gravity did apply elsewhere. Twenty-two miles outside Indianapolis, while sleeping on an embankment near a bridge, a car crashed through a guardrail and came to a stop right beyond his tent. "In the wee hours of the morning I heard this big crash," Castañeda says. "I thought the bridge had collapsed. And then this car flew over my tent. I ran out to see how the driver was doing. I covered him with my poncho; I knew he was in shock and drunk. When the patrol came they told me I was very lucky not to have gotten killed. I said, 'Sure, man,' and resumed my walk."
Near Colorado Springs he was picked up off the highway and plunked in the El Paso County Jail for 3½ days for failure to pay child support to the second of his three wives. "In the arrest form it says I'm worth one cent," he says. "I had found one penny on the highway and that was all I had." Among the inmates were accused murderers and rapists. One of his hulking fellow prisoners asked him to share the details of his crime. "Negligence of child support?" he offered meekly.
Castañeda's recourse was to make the inmates focus on fitness and not on him. "I started an exercise program," he says. "Everyone was sitting around smoking and depressed. I got them moving." Ghosts of prisoners past must have sat up in their bunks to behold the prisoners, dressed in bright orange uniforms, jogging in place in their cells. Castañeda also got the inmates to put together cupcakes from a dinner to form a kind of birthday cake for the prison trusty. "He was an ex-gangster from Chicago," says Castañeda. "This hard-core individual with a lot of hate in him, he said to me privately after we sang Happy Birthday to him, 'You know, no one has ever done that for me.' " When two friends who lived nearby came to bail Castañeda out, the trusty told Castañeda that he was sad to see him go. "No hay mal que por bien," says Castañeda. There is no bad that doesn't bring something good.
"When I got out I hiked up the trail to Pikes Peak," he says. "I had such a beautiful feeling being free again and close to nature. When you're behind bars there's such a lack of freedom, but still the light filters through the little window."
Castañeda's side trip to Mexico City would have seemed dreamlike even if it hadn't taken place during his trans-America walk. One night he was a humble vagabond, sleeping under the stars, playing his harmonica to a can of wild-flowers, and the next night he was dancing with Miss Mexico at a banquet celebrating the opening of the new ballroom of the Camino Real hotel. He was sent to Mexico City by Alfred Pulaski, an international sales executive for Apollo Technologies, Inc. Pulaski thought Castañeda would make a good salesperson and sent him to Mexico City for an interview with Soilex de Mexico. "I felt like the male version of Cinderella," says Castañeda of being at the opening-night banquet, which he attended as a guest of the management. "The aristocracy of Mexico was there," he says, "politically and socially." Aristocracy isn't Castañeda's cup of tea, and as he left the party to go back to his hotel room, all his distaste for riches surged up in him when he saw a scruffy little boy selling newspapers outside. "I went down the staircase and there was this shivering newspaper boy, hustling, hustling; no shoes, no shirt," he says. "I took my jacket off, put it around him, took him to the ballroom and said, 'Son, go and eat anything you want in this room.' He said, 'But I can't.' All the security rushed around us and I told him to go in, that I invited him. We went in and I got him a big paper bag from the kitchen and we filled it with goodies. He was hungry; eee, was he hungry! He went like a wild little animal filling the bag. The waiters and chefs were so happy.