Al Slusser double checks the packing list posted by the door of his travel trailer: camera, cell phone, water, medications, suntan lotion, rain jacket, walking stick.
At 80 years old, Slusser is walking the vertical length of Oklahoma--230 miles--following U.S. Route 77 from the Red River to the Oklahoma-Kansas state line. He walks seven to 10 miles per day along the highway, wearing a neon orange vest, before hitchhiking back to his trailer.
“It’s been at times very challenging...it takes daily alertness, daily prayer,” Slusser said."
Slusser said he’s encountered many roadside hazards, from distracted motorists to aggressive stray dogs.
“I’ve never used any weapon other than a bottle of spray ammonia,” he said.
Slusser’s Oklahoma trek is his fifth long-distance walk. It’s also one of his shortest.
“From sea to shining sea”
Slusser was 18 years old when he decided to walk across the United States. Just after graduating from high school in Michigan, Slusser began walking and hitchhiking around the state.
“It was during that time that it was born on my heart to someday walk from sea to shining sea,” he said.
But Slusser didn’t revisit this dream for several decades. He left Michigan, earned a degree in Biblical studies and became an ordained chaplain. He served in the U.S. Navy, worked as a missionary in the Navajo Nation and led a Christian school in Arizona.
Then, one night when Slusser was 61 and having trouble sleeping, he turned on the TV and came across an episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," where two guests were describing their bucket lists.
His teenage dream to cross the country on foot came back to him.
“I never did go back to bed,” Slusser said.
Nine years later, Slusser walked from San Diego, California, to Annapolis, Maryland. Then he hiked from Key West, Florida, to the U.S.-Canada border and became the oldest documented person to walk the length and width of the United States.
His latest goal is to log 8,000 miles by age 80.
Slusser names and dedicates each of his trips. He dedicated his first walk, the “Coast 2 Coast Walk,” to senior citizens and the disabled. His second trek, which he dubbed the “East Coast Walk,” was to honor veterans. He has also walked to raise awareness for homelessness and hunger in Arizona and to fundraise for the American Red Cross.
Slusser’s trip through Oklahoma, part of his national “Walking for Heroes” tour, is in appreciation of first responders.
Through the years, Slusser has been in some dangerous situations. Firefighters once rescued him and his family from a fire that completely destroyed their Arizona home. A search and rescue team pulled him out of a Kentucky forest after his friends’ private plane crashed. As a teenager, he spent 10 days in the hospital after a serious car accident.
“First responders mean so much to me,” Slusser said. “That’s why I’m doing this. I love what they do, I love who they are, and I want to get the word out there that they are important and they deserve every bit of honor we can bestow upon them.”
Slusser said Oklahoma police officers and state troopers wave when they pass him on the highway, sometimes bringing him water or giving him a ride back to his trailer.
“They all know I’m walking on [Route 77],” Slusser said. “They’ve been so supportive and I appreciate that very much.”
Family, faith and fulfillment
In addition to bringing attention to groups that can sometimes go unnoticed, Slusser said he’s inspired by his family and his Christian faith.
He doesn’t solicit donations for his walks, instead relying on his Social Security income and occasional gifts from faith groups.
“That’s one of those promises of scripture, that God will provide my needs,” Slusser said.
Once he reaches the Oklahoma-Kansas state line, Slusser plans to attend a military reunion in Stillwater before resuming “Walking for Heroes,” which will end in California.
“I’m thinking and hoping this is the final [walk] I do,” he said. “I feel like in my own heart this has defined my identity.”
In his second retirement, Slusser plans to earn both a master’s and a doctorate but said he doesn’t know what he’ll use the degrees for.
And he’s already decided what he wants his gravestone epitaph to read:
“He had faith, he talked the talk and he walked the walk.”
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