Wby Nicholas Plante ’18
“What’s your biggest dream?”
When Danny Finnegan ’11 jokingly asked coworker Abby Bongaarts this question, he did not expect a serious answer.
The two were out eating after a day of service for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, and they had agreed not to talk about their work or the volunteer house in which they lived. Despite the sarcastic tone in which Danny broached this new subject, Abby decided to answer honestly: “To walk across America.”
Barely thinking before his response, Danny blurted out, “I’m in.”
And just like that, a life-changing series of events was set in motion.
“I was passionate about the idea since I was 18,” explained Abby, a 24-year-old from St. Louis Park, Minnesota. “I knew I’d do it one day; I just had to wait until the timing was right.”
In March 2016, that time had finally come.
Danny and Abby spent a full year planning their trip. For inspiration, they read the stories of individuals who had already walked across the United States – a feat which only about 10 brave people accomplish per year. The two also conducted heavy research regarding the route they would take and the equipment they would bring. They published a website, walkacrossamerica2017.com, to share a detailed description of their plans as well as journal updates, interviews, and photos from throughout the walk.
The two sat down every two weeks to discuss the logistics of the trip, and their enthusiasm continued to grow with each meeting. Any doubts about this dream becoming a reality were quickly forgotten.
“A lot of people told me they wanted to do this over the years but obviously never followed through,” said Abby. “However, I could tell that Danny was really committed.”
Danny and Abby have a hard time citing just one motive for their walk. They were driven by a desire to meet new people and experience the country in a new light, but they also sought to learn more about themselves along the way.
“As time went on, I continuously found new and exciting challenges in the plan,” explained Danny. “It was a test of endurance – of physical strength – but it also had an introspective nature to it. After all, we’d be spending large parts of each day by ourselves.”
Since the trip was entirely self-funded, Danny and Abby decided to put any money they were offered towards JOIN, the nonprofit they had worked for through a Jesuit Corps program. This organization supports the homeless and seeks to obtain affordable and permanent housing for them, a cause that Danny was especially drawn to during his studies at Fordham University and his subsequent community service experiences. Danny and Abby humbly planned on raising $1,000 at first, but that number was surpassed on the first day. The two then set up a Fundly page with a goal of $20,000, or roughly $5 a mile. They ended up getting $23,204 from 184 donors on the website alone! With the money they received from family, friends, and people they met on their journey, their total ballooned to $30,000. Halfway through the trip, JOIN received a grant that would match any donation of $500 or more given to Danny and Abby, bringing the grand total to over $50,000.
From the time they began working for JOIN, Danny and Abby have made a strong impression on the organization, recalls Deputy Director Will Harris.
“They both jumped right in at JOIN, managing the chaos of a small homeless service provider, doing big work with lots of heart and too few staff,” Harris noted.
After seeing the great lengths Danny and Abby were willing to go in support of JOIN, it was clear to Harris that the two young volunteers were “compassionate, insightful, inspired, and inspiring,” he said. “Good people achieve extraordinary things; Abby and Danny are proof of that.”
The big walk began in Long Beach, Long Island, not too far from Danny’s hometown of Rockville Centre, on March 1 of this year. The duo embarked on their trek towards San Francisco – 3,200 miles away – with not much more than sleeping bags, tents, toiletries, and other basic camping supplies for when they would have to spend the night in the wilderness or someone’s backyard. Danny and Abby had an estimated travel time of six-to-seven months, which comes out to between 20 and 25 miles each day.
Some of the people they encountered in the first week of their journey were shocked to see the small sign that read “Walking Across America” taped to the front of their trusty cart (which was affectionately nicknamed “Caddy”).
“They were always polite, but they didn’t seem to think we’d really do it,” observed Danny.
Even in the midst of a tornado scare, consecutive days without food or drink, and the brutal desert heat of the West, Danny and Abby persisted onward towards the Golden State until they completed the trip on September 16.
The best part, Danny says, was the slow pace at which they walked. It allowed them to really absorb the sights and sounds of America in all its natural beauty.
Surprisingly, the duo agrees that their favorite state to see was also the toughest to walk through. This state was marked by many drastic changes in elevation, and at times the nearest town was 100 miles away. On top of that, water was impossible to find in some areas during the summer months they were there. Still, Danny and Abby agreed that Utah was the state to which they most wanted to return; they just may not walk from one end to the other the next time!
The trip was filled with surprises. Neither Danny nor Abby expected there to be much to experience in Kansas based on some uneventful drives they’ve had through the state. After walking through it, however, Kansas became one of their “favorite places in the world,” as Danny put it.
You’ve probably never heard of Strawberry, California, a small town of under 100 inhabitants about 30 miles from Lake Tahoe. Danny and Abby had no idea it existed until they arrived there near the end of the journey, but after experiencing Strawberry’s captivating landscape and the generosity of the people who lived there, they will never forget it. One household actually insisted on throwing Danny and Abby a dinner party before they moved on to San Francisco.
At the end of their 200-day walk, Danny and Abby were greeted by their families and friends before plunging headfirst into the Pacific Ocean.
As noted on their Instagram page, “It was the perfect end to a journey that… changed our perspectives and in the end, left us feeling inspired.”
The two agree that the most noteworthy observation they made along the way was not of the mighty Mississippi River or the golden plains of Kansas; rather, they were struck by the compassion strangers showed them on the trip. Both Danny and Abby gained a new perspective on the inherent and everyday goodness in people.
“It was amazing to see how universally positive almost everyone was towards us,” said Danny.
Abby echoed those sentiments, saying, “Even as kids, we are told to be wary of strangers. However, so many strangers welcomed us into their homes and shared a meal with us….Practically every day we experienced the kindness of others and felt a deep sense of community across the country.”
When they first arrived in California, Danny and Abby were approached by a young man who just so happened to be making a trek across the country himself. He immediately recognized them from their blog, and they ended up spending a few days together.
Danny and Abby have kept in touch with both that young man and many of the people who gave them places to stay overnight, as well as those who simply stopped to talk with them along the way. Whether by sending postcards or chatting online, the two have expressed their appreciation for all the support they received on their trip.
Aside from building new connections, Danny and Abby also deepened their relationship with each other. From long conversations and playing Scrabble to simply enjoying nature side by side, they inevitably made lifelong memories together in those six months.
“I can give summaries of the walk to people, but Danny is the only one who will ever completely understand what it was like,” Abby reflected. “We’ll always share that bond.”
Since reaching San Francisco, Abby has traveled back home and is currently working in a restaurant. She is preparing to volunteer for a crisis hotline and will be applying for case manager jobs in January. Danny is working in sales for an auto-parts company after taking the train back to Long Island from California. He is currently studying for the LSAT with the goal of someday becoming a lawyer.
Even though they have gone their separate ways, their mutual experiences – that “bond” to which Abby referred – will continue to guide them moving forward.
One can only imagine where such insatiable curiosity and desire to serve will take Danny and Abby next in their spirited walk along the path of life.