Publicizing PTSD on the long road

A human billboard, Ryan Weldon pushes his custom-built cart up the last hillock approaching Amesville on Tuesday.

The white crew-cab pickup pulled over and the window rolled down to reveal a man with an enormous mustache and an even bigger cowboy hat.

"You waiting for that guy?" the driver asked a bystander and, when the reply was affirmative, he reached into his billfold and extracted a $20 bill. "Give this to him and tell him to stop at a restaurant and have a meal. Tell him I'm empathetic with what he's doing."

A few minutes later, "that guy" crested the hill on Ohio Rt. 550 in northeastern Athens County, heading from the Sharpsburg to Amesville.

He's Ryan Weldon. He's walking from Delaware - the state, not the suburb of Columbus - to San Francisco. He has two reasons for doing so. One is that he wants to get to San Francisco. The other is that he wants to draw attention to the plight of veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly known as PTSD. He crossed Athens County earlier this week.

"I started out in February," says Weldon. "I've seen just about every kind of weather there is, and I've also seen the seasons change, talked to a lot of people, and gotten a look at the country I don't think I could get any other way.

"In Hancock, Maryland, I stopped at a cemetery and saw the grave of a man who was born in 1774 and died in 1812," he says. "His childhood was spent during the American Revolution, and he died as the War of 1812 was beginning. He would have had a lot to tell us."

On his transcontinental stroll, Weldon has spoken with those he met, publicizing PTSD and its effects on his fellow veterans - he himself served as a Marine in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"And really, it's about the whole issue of mental health. People think you're either fine or you're crazy, and it's not like that at all." He also objects to the notion promulgated in the news media that veterans are time bombs, waiting to explode into crazed killers.

"There are a lot of veterans and others who need help," he says. "But not all, and those who do need treatment and encouragement so that they can live good lives. They're not dangers to others. The tragedy is that the suicide rate among veterans is at an all-time high."

He has both a GoFundMe and a Facebook page for the journey, which he has named "5,000 Miles Discovering America's Heroes."

As he walks, he pushes a unique cart that contains his belongings and supplies for the trip. "I designed it, and a couple of my friends in Myrtle Beach (South Carolina) - that's where I'm from - built it for me."

Where has he slept on the thousand or so miles he's traveled so far?

"I've camped on railroad trails, in people's yards. Sometimes I meet people who invite me in for a meal and give me their guest room for the night, maybe let me do my laundry." His route has been varied, too. "I've walked on highways and back roads, a lot of rail trails." He came into Ohio on U.S. Rt. 50, having crossed West Virginia on that highway. "I can make two or three miles an hour when it's flat, the way it is around here. In West Virginia, I made 12 to 15 miles a day."

A video editor by trade, Weldon hopes to find work in the video industry in San Francisco.

"I haven't set a deadline for myself - I've set aside a year," he adds. This means he'll be crossing the plains and the high desert in the heat of summer. "I don't mind the heat. I'm from Myrtle Beach, and it's hot there. The cold is what bothers me, and I've seen plenty of that!"

Surely there have been obstacles, such as cars that come uncomfortably close.

"I've had a couple of close calls, yes." Dogs? "There was only one that raised its hair and meant business, and that worked out OK. The biggest problem was the rail trails, where roads cross them and they've put up boulders to keep people from taking their ATVs on the trails. It's hard getting around those."

He keeps in touch, with both a cellular telephone and a laptop computer, which he keeps charged with a solar array atop his cart.

Before it's over with, he plans to have walked 5,000 miles. "I have long legs and a long stride," he says.

Everyone he has met, he says, has been friendly and open and, like the fellow in the pickup with the mustache, helpful and encouraging.

Still, pushing his cart, especially up hills such as the ones on Rt. 550, has to be a strain.

"These aren't hills. Now in West Virginia, those are hills!"

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