By: Adam Droscha
A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article about James Leitner, a man in his mid 20’s who is walking east to west across the United States pulling 10 gallons of water behind him in a small cart. (If you haven’t read the first article, “You Never Know Who’s Passing Through,” I would recommend reading it to have a better idea of who James is, what he’s doing, and why I am writing about him.) James was on day 29 of his journey when I spoke to him at brewery in Kalamazoo. (I missed him when he passed through Lansing and Charlotte) He started in New Jersey, and ended up in Michigan by traveling through Canada. On his trek to raise money for fresh water wells in Tanzania, James knew he needed to see the Great Lakes of Michigan, and visit Flint, a city in the richest country in the world that had a fresh water crisis.
James passed through Charlotte, and noted the quaint charm of the mid-Michigan town. He didn’t stay long; long enough to cool off on a close to 90-degree day. But when I finally caught up with him the following day in Kalamazoo, he opened up about the first month of his journey. He talked about the details, the who, what, when, where, why. But he also opened up about what and who he’d seen and experienced and learned.
By the time we talked, James was thoroughly calloused on his feet. His skin was noticeably tanner than it was before he started his journey, and he was making all conscious efforts to stay hydrated. He wouldn’t have a beer with me when I arrived at the Kalamazoo brewery because he’d already had one before I arrived, and a second pint right before he continued walking could have made him peaky, or slowed him down in the 88-degree weather.
Although he wasn’t completely worn out thus far, those calloused feet, the need to stay hydrated and strong, and the intense heat were teaching him firsthand about the challenges of women and children in Tanzania. James’ trip was designed with the Tanzania people in mind, both with their needs and their struggles. The struggles are part of the beauty of the journey, according to James. He wants to feel what people around the world have to endure to find fresh water.
“If this trip takes me four months, that represents the amount of time someone in Tanzania walks every year to get fresh water,” said James.
James is also learning a valuable lesson about humanity on this journey. When we talked he still hadn’t encountered any hostility, or awkward rudeness after explaining what he was doing. He thinks this is important for all people to know. While there’s a growing cynical idea that the people generally dislike strangers, or the world is just full of negativity, James is encountering hundreds of kindhearted people who are offering money, food, places to stay, and encouragement.
“For the most part, the general public is in support, and trying to give any assistance they can, giving me back yards, gift cards, and kind words.”
The back yards and fields have been regular stops for James. Occasionally he’ll stay in hotel depending on the weather, and host stays with friends and family are the primary stops in certain cities. But James brought a tent along for campgrounds and the long empty roads of the plain states. While camping in a tent may not necessarily be a part of a Tanzanian’s trek for fresh water, it is further emphasizing to James the importance of having close access.
James is seeing and experiencing the country in a way few of us ever will, and in a way he’s experienced our own community in a way few of us ever will. He’s seeing each tree, each patch of grass, each house, each road close up and slowed down. Each new area he’s taking in all the smells, all the sounds, all the temperatures, blocking out nothing with the comforts of a vehicle, air conditioning, or radio.
On this journey James is an explorer. While everything he’s walking has been laid down and built by men who came before him, he is still choosing to see and walk everything in a way most people won’t. And on this journey across the country he’s not just exploring our communities, he’s exploring people and a global purpose to keep them nourished.
One quote that is driving James on his journey is from Patrick Rothfuss. It reads, “If you want to know the truth of who you are, walk until not a person knows your name. Travel is the great leveler, the great teacher, bitter as medicine, crueler than mirror glass. A long stretch of road will teach you more about yourself than a hundred years of quiet introspection.”
Essentially, James is trying to learn more about himself by learning about other people.
“Everyone is looking out for each other,” said James. “Humanity is wonderful and helpful.”
I doubt anyone in Tanzania will hear about some American guy who walked across his country to raise money for their wells, and that’s not really the point for James. The multi-purpose beauty of his journey is to break the standard habit of just throwing money at a problem by immersing himself in the problem. He’s so deeply dedicated to the cause that he’s willing to place himself in the experience of those Tanzanians who walk hundreds of miles a year for a drink of clean water. James is tying himself not only to them, but also to the larger context of his home. He is tying himself to the people and fresh water needs of those at home and abroad.
All of James’ route is available at www.missioncleanwater.com, as is a donation tab that visitors can click give to James’ cause. More in-depth descriptions of Philadelphia Serengeti Alliance and James’ mission are also available on the website. Interested readers can also follow updates from James on Mission Clean Water’s Facebook and Instagram pages.