Mike Tittinger’s goal was to raise funds for scholarships. But during his journey across the United States, he also discovered a lot about history, his country and even himself.
Tittinger, a Philadelphia native who attended Cardinal Dougherty and Temple University, is back in his old stomping grounds this week. But his route home from California was unusual.
His trek officially began on June 18 at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. But his journey started long before that.
In December of 2000, Tittinger’s wife, Deanna, died after a failed heart transplant. Ten years later, Mike remembered a promise he had made to himself to help people in similar situations.
“It was around the holidays,” Tittinger said. “I was really down. I got real depressed. It had been 10 years since Deanna passed, and it just kind of snuck up on me. I knew I had to do something.”
“Something” turned out to be a cross-country walk to raise money for the Onny and Oboe Scholarship Fund, which helps pay for college education for families affected by a heart transplant (to contribute, go to www.mikeywalks.com and click on the “donate now” button). The recipient could be an individual who has received a heart transplant, or it could be the child or sibling of someone who has received a heart transplant. As Tittinger says, a heart transplant affects the whole family.
Onny and Oboe were Deanna’s imaginary friends from childhood. Her heart condition (cardiomyopathy) prevented her from participating in many outdoor activities that children take for granted. So Onny and Oboe, a girl and a boy, became her friends and kept her company.
So how did the idea of raising scholarship funds and awareness of organ donation turn into a 3,000-mile walk across the United States?
“I always thought about walking across the country,” said Tittinger, who lives in Los Angeles. “When I was younger, I thought about it as a man vs. nature crazy kind of thing. Then I combined the idea with raising money, and everything just kind of clicked.”
Tittinger decided to run the idea past his wife, Brooke. But Brooke, who married Mike in 2006, was way ahead of her husband.
“Even before I said anything, Brooke said, ‘You’re going to walk home, aren’t you?’” Tittinger said.
Brooke had noticed that Mike had trouble planning for the future, “even a week ahead,” he said.
“There was always this sense of unfinished business,” Tittinger said. “This goes a long way toward fulfilling that.”
LONG WAY HOME
This week includes stops in Telford, where he and Deanna lived, in the Northeast, where he grew up, and other parts of Philadelphia. After a long journey across the country, Tittinger is enjoying the benefits of being in and around Philadelphia. He slept at his cousin’s house in Exton on Saturday and spent Sunday night at his parents’ home in Hatfield.
“I won’t be camping out the rest of the way,” Tittinger said.
He also has had family members and friends walk with him this week. But his support group extends far beyond the Delaware Valley and far beyond his family. Yes, Tittinger spent Thanksgiving with relatives in Pittsburgh. But he has found companionship and support from all over the country.
Sometimes relatives kept him company while he walked or picked him up at the end of a long day. His wife, Brooke, walked with Mike for several weeks across Nevada. Nieces and nephews spent part of their summer breaks from school walking with him out West. Other times, assistance and companionship came from complete strangers.
“Very early on, maybe the first week, I was in Elmira, California,” Tittinger said. “I was walking on this dirt road. At least Google said it was a road. I wasn’t so sure. I noticed there was a fence line. I thought I was on someone’s property.
“Then this white pickup truck comes driving toward me. I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m going to get kicked off the property.’ The pickup truck pulls up and this guy says, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m walking across the country.’ He put his truck in park and gets out, then he and his dog walked with me for a couple miles.
“It turns out he was an airman shipping out to Afghanistan. He was home for his last weekend before shipping out. He told me I inspired him and that when he gets back he would like to do something like this.
“That told me from the start that I was doing the right thing.”
Not everyone Tittinger has encountered along the way generates a story as poignant as the airman heading to Afghanistan. But there was a man in Southern Illinois who, while picking up his mail, spoke to Tittinger as he walked past. The man was born with a heart defect and wasn’t expected to live past 30. He’s in his 80s.
Tittinger also remembers the kindness of many people, including the reporter from a small newspaper in Eastern Colorado.
“It was one of those days when I was really struggling,” Tittinger said. “It was 110 degrees, with no shade. All of a sudden, I get this phone call.”
The call was from a local reporter who wanted to do a story on Tittinger’s journey. When she asked where he was sleeping, he said he didn’t know. She sent her husband to pick him up and bring him to their house, where they provided a good dinner and a comfortable bed.
Tittinger admits that when he first started out across the country, he wasn’t very trusting. But as he has met more and more people, he has developed a greater sense of trust. Meeting people from coast to coast – across 11 different states – has also given Tittinger a greater appreciation for the United States.
“We’re a lot more similar than we are different,” Tittinger said.
When asked to expound upon that statement, Tittinger said, “There’s a perception that people in one part of the country are this way and people in another part of the country are another way; that there’s a lot of fear and anger among people. But I was welcomed in by people all over the country. It sort of restores your faith in humanity.”
Hotels and bed and breakfasts provided free lodging. People invited him into their homes for meals. People he barely knew encouraged other people to give Tittinger money for the Onny and Oboe Scholarship Fund.
By the midpoint of the trip, Tittinger, who celebrated his 41st birthday in August “somewhere in Colorado,” started looking forward to reaching the small towns more than the big cities.
“The cities were a little hectic and you’re kind of anonymous,” Tittinger said. “By the second half of the trip, I looked forward to the small towns. People really welcomed you there.”
One of Tittinger’s big-city stops was St. Louis. As luck would have it, he was there during the National League Divisional Series between the Phillies and Cardinals. An avid sports fan, Tittinger was disappointed that the Phillies lost, but was glad he “saw it from the other side,” witnessing the joy the Cardinals fans felt en route to winning the World Series.
Tittinger admits that at one point he regretted that his journey would cause him to miss the football season. But as the Eagles struggled, his longing for football dissipated.
“I probably saw more Eagles games than I wanted to,” he said with a laugh.
One benefit of crossing the country by foot is that you get a feel for the nation’s history. You also get a feel for the land.
“It’s amazing the kind of ground you can cover just by walking,” Tittinger said. “The changes in topography … a few days ago, I was in the Allegheny Mountains. The next day I’m in farm country. Then I’m in Lancaster (with the Amish).
“Seeing the land that way kind of changed me. It opens up your perspective.”
Tittinger says that traveling from California to New Jersey is like seeing American history in reverse.
“It’s almost like you’re going back in time,” Tittinger said. “You start out with the old silver mines in Nevada. They’re ghost towns. Well, they’re like living ghost towns. Then you see where the pioneers traveled. Then all the Civil War stuff. Now I’m walking back in Colonial times.”
Whether walking through the hills and mountains the earliest pioneers traversed to reach the West Coast or walking down the road to the battlefield at Gettysburg, Tittinger feels a connection to the people who followed these paths long before he was born.
“I channel people from back then and imagine what they were thinking,” Tittinger said. “There’s sort of a timeless quality to it.”
He can only imagine how difficult it was to cross America in areas where roads were few and far between. Even with roads, Tittinger knows how difficult it is to cross the country.
“I walked close to 30 miles a day, and there were days when I wouldn’t even reach a town,” Tittinger said. “I’d think ‘What am I doing?’”
But then he’d remember that he envisioned the walk as comparable to a heart-transplant patient’s struggle. It’s a long, arduous trip filled with day-to-day struggles. That’s why he never considered quitting.
“A patient can’t quit,” Tittinger said.
END OF JOURNEY OR NEW BEGINNING?
Within the next week, Tittinger will reach the end of his long walk across the United States. He is hoping to reach Ocean City, N.J., on Dec. 18, exactly six months from when he took his first steps along Fisherman’s Wharf.
Ocean City is where Tittinger spread Deanna’s ashes after her memorial service 11 years ago.
“She loved the beach,” Tittinger said. “She loved Ocean City. Her family used to vacation there.”
The end of the walk, however, will not be the end of the journey. Tittinger plans on holding a fundraising event in the Philadelphia area later this month, before he returns to California. He is planning another fundraising event in California.
Meanwhile, he finishes his 3,000-mile walk an estimated 15-20 pounds lighter and with “energy through the roof.”
“Occasionally, I take a day off from walking,” Tittinger said. “The days off are almost harder than the days I walk. I’ve got to find a way to channel all this energy for the next phase, whatever that might be.”
As he came closer to his destination, approaching his former homes, Tittinger has discovered dormant memories. He said he didn’t remember a lot of things from when he was younger, but now realizes maybe he didn’t want to remember those times. As he nears the end of his journey, those memories have resurfaced.
“Maybe I didn’t really want to forget anything anymore,” he said.
Mike Tittinger walked across the country to raise funds for families of heart transplant patients. Along the way he rediscovered things he thought he’d forgotten and, in his own way, he rediscovered America.
In some ways, Tittinger represents what he has discovered during his journey: the heart of America.