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If 8-year-old Jesse Castañeda, who had been paralyzed from the waist down in an automobile accident, hadn't been told by three doctors that he would never walk again, he might not later have felt moved to walk across the U.S., or become the first man ever to walk 300 miles without stopping, or walk himself deep into the consciousness of New Mexico by covering more ground in that state than sagebrush does. Call directory assistance in New Mexico and ask for Castañeda's phone number, and the operator may answer, "Oh, you mean that man who walks everywhere." It took him just 6½ months to walk out of his wheelchair back in 1949, and he hasn't stopped walking since.
"You put one foot forward and follow with the other," says Castañeda, 44, a native of Mexico who walks as the crow flies—straight ahead, from here to there, with little regard for canyons, buttes or shopping malls. "And you feel proud and happy about doing it."
He walks the way some people fly in their dreams, traveling unbound by the usual restrictions of routes, weather or time. In the dead of night he crosses a mountain range as unabashedly as an ant crosses a yard full of stacked junked cars—up and over, up and over. On the flats he's smooth, gliding with the speed of someone at an airport hotfooting it along a moving walkway. "His style has a pronounced cadence to it," says Bruce Gomez, an Indian friend from the Taos tribe who runs with Castañeda. "He's very deliberate, very steady."
Anyone who doesn't mind feeling like a snowsuited toddler scrambling to catch up with an adult fleeing an unpleasant scene could accompany Castañeda on one of his rambles. His pace is quick and steady, his form a modification of that of a race-walker. But he's not a race-walker, although occasionally he shifts into an orthodox race-walking gait for variety, exaggerating the swiveling of his hips and sashaying along with arms driving hard back and forth. He has learned to walk efficiently enough to walk, without sleeping, the distance of 12 consecutive marathons, a marathon being as long in his imagination as a driveway is in most folks'.
Putting one foot forward and following with the other is now transporting Castañeda along the La Luz trail in the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico, where he has made his home for the last 29 years. Sandia means watermelon in Spanish; the range is aptly named for its rubescent glow at sunset. Seen at dusk from Albuquerque, where Castañeda lives, his rapidly ascending figure might look like a watermelon seed squirting out of a slice. He has walked to the 10,695-foot summit of Sandia Peak, the highest point in the Sandias, more than 300 times.
"Ah, I call this my ostrich egg," he says, stopping briefly to pat an enormous rock along the trail that's bordered with rabbitbrush, broomweed and yuccas. He takes a deep breath that he doesn't need. "Ha!" It's a lusty pronouncement, a triumphant hooray that he's likely to utter whether he's making a deposit in his bank or has just inadvertently smashed some ornaments on a Christmas tree in a school gym during one of his soccer demonstrations. On this wintry December afternoon, the sky overcast with swirling gray clouds, the piñon trees stooped in dark twisted shapes, the most luminous pockets of color in the landscape are Castañeda's grinning blue eyes. La Luz means the light; his eyes have contributed regularly to the trail's gleam.
"If you believe you can, you can!" he exclaims. "iSí se puede! It can be done!" It's a message he spreads in his travels, a message of optimism and encouragement he has delivered in lectures to nuclear physicists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, to incorrigible adolescents, to prison inmates, to knee-high children, to friends, to truck drivers who throw beer cans at him as he walks along the road, and now he seems to be offering it to an egg-shaped rock. "Ha!" says Castañeda, the author of several small volumes of inspirational poetry and essays, and he picks up his walking stick and proceeds briskly up the trail.
It was in 1972 that Castañeda read in The Albuquerque Tribune that a member of the British Parliament, Richard Crawshaw, had just set a world record of 255.8 miles for a nonstop walk. Castañeda, then a Spanish teacher and soccer coach at the Albuquerque Academy, said out loud to his first wife, Suzanne, "I can do that."
His attempts to break Crawshaw's record took place on the Academy track, a 440-yard dirt oval, and they attracted the press and many supporters who took turns walking with Castañeda to encourage him and keep him company. Castañeda was able to walk only 78.5 miles on his first try for the record, in May of 1972, because of the day's intense heat. After 18 hours and 10 minutes in the hot sun he collapsed and was taken to the hospital. "Everyone came and told me not to do that anymore."
That October he tried again, walking 217.5 miles through intermittent rainstorms in 90 hours and 10 minutes, but he went to sleep while walking. His support team tried unsuccessfully to revive him and finally took him home, where he slept for 10 hours. "The track was really flooded," he says. "I was wearing Sears rain boots going splish-splash, splish-splash. The kids would come and bring sawdust. I saw the evaporation process of water four times."