"There were the two faces of Mexico right there. We have an extremely filthy rich group that's really bored with life; and we have little street urchins with no shoes and no shirt."
For the last leg of his walk, from Albuquerque to Venice, Castañeda was joined by a friend, Mickey Henry; he was also accompanied by the spirit of a friend who had died recently. Says Castañeda, "One of the artists in Taos, Ellie Hamilton, only 28, was killed by an 800-foot fall in the Southern Colorado mountains. When she fell to her death I was a few miles away, and I got a shiver in my spine. She always used to encourage me. Her boyfriend gave me her ashes to spread out in the beautiful places. I scattered some in the Painted Desert, some in the cactus country and saved the rest for the Pacific."
By the time Castañeda reached Venice on Dec. 11, he'd gone through six pairs of running shoes, suffered 42 blisters—one for each year of his life—and had found $12.76 in change, mainly in nickels and pennies, and a gold bracelet. "When I got to the beach I took my shoes off and left my footsteps in the sand. I sat down and watched the tide come up and erase them. It made me feel like my footsteps kept going into the ocean.
"Then I took my celebration run; I ran and ran and ran. After 12, 14 miles of jogging, I found this point where the waves crashed. I went up to throw Ellie's ashes, and this strong wind came and carried out the particles of ash and little bones. They went shwoop! up into the air. Just then this huge wave came towering over me, and I put my arms in front of my face to protect myself; it crashed down right in front of me, but I didn't get wet. Not one drop. I knew it was magic. Her spirit was there saying thank you."
Castañeda stayed in Venice for three days and wrote 482 postcards to all the friends he'd made on his journey. The worst cramp of his trip was the writer's cramp he got when he wrote to everybody, "I made it. I'm very happy. Thanks to you. The victory belongs to all of us."
"Viejo, viejo. Old man. ¿Cómo estás? Hey, Don Juan, ¡ven aquí!" It's December 1983, and Castañeda is addressing a big cottonwood tree full of squawking black crows. "Caw! Caw!" His call swoops up from the back of his throat like a live bird itself, wings up and settles in with the crows. "Caw! Caw!" They look down at him, flapping their great wings like animated umbrellas, rearranging themselves in the leafless boughs of the cottonwood.
"The crows, they sort of cheer you on," says Castañeda, his ruddy face tilted back, oblivious to the rain. "I'm like a crow. Caw! I collect all kinds of junk like they do. I have boxes and boxes of little items. Caw! Caw!" He laughs and goes on his way, walking along the shores of the Rio Grande in Corrales, a suburb north of Albuquerque.
These days Castañeda walks 20 to 22 miles a day in preparation for this June's Western States 100, a rough trail race that's ranked first in the world among ultraendurance races in difficulty. The race over the Sierra Nevada in California will be a mixture of walking and running, and Castañeda, who once held the unofficial world record for walking the greatest distance in 24 hours—142 miles, 448 yards, hopes to complete the 100-mile course in less than 20 hours, which would place him in the top third.
His speed picks up as he glides along the dirt trail, past tangled vines laden with wild gourds that tumble down the bank to the river. If seen walking behind a five-foot-high hedge, Castañeda would look like someone coasting past on a bicycle, his head level enough to carry a book, the knuckles of his high driving fists just hidden from view, his gaze fixed on the horizon.
"I follow the light," he says, grinning and radiant. "I try to capture the light. It illuminates my soul, my inner self." In the big cottonwoods that line this part of the Rio Grande, a few crows follow along from tree to tree, keeping pace with Jesse Castañeda, the man who walks as the crow flies.