The Brainerd lakes area gets a lot of visitors, but not many like Jerry Meadows of Wahpeton, N.D.
The 61-year-old disabled veteran left on foot March 14 from Bemidji in Beltrami County for St. Cloud in Stearns County to raise money and awareness for the Wounded Warrior Project.
"I've always loved my vets," Meadows said as he slowly, but surely made his way south Monday, April 1, as cars, trucks and semis roared by him along Highway 371 toward Brainerd.
The Wounded Warrior Project is a national nonpartisan organization that connects, serves and empowers wounded veterans of the military actions after Sept. 11, 2001.
"I wanted to give something back to the vets," Meadows said of his perilous and arduous journey. "I did some investigating and the best organization I found right now that are helping the vets is the Wounded Warrior Project."
Virginia Miller follows her husband in a motor vehicle as he walks to St. Cloud, offering emotional and physical support to Meadows, who underwent a triple bypass.
"Quite frankly, the hardest thing that I ever did out here was make that first step because that first step committed me to this whole thing, and that's a scary step to make," Meadows said.
"The reason why I'm doing this is because the Wounded Warriors is a nonprofit organization ... but they also have programs for their families."
The Wounded Warrior Project connects wounded veterans, their families and caregivers to peers, programs and communities; provides free services related to mental and physical health and wellness; offers career and benefits counseling; and supports the severely injured for life.
"I've been dealing with the (Veterans Affairs Department) for 30 years, and I've never seen a program such as what the Wounded Warriors has got," Meadows said during a break.
"I got chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. I've got 10 cardiac stents. I'm on oxygen 24/7, so I have to take a lot of breaks and get a few puffs of air when I start feeling low-dazed-but I'm getting through it. ... My goal was simply to come out and tell people about Wounded Warriors."
The publicity stunt and fundraiser would be challenging for a man a third of Meadows' age, so the word "insane" has come up, given Meadows said he has not seen a treadmill in years.
"But once he gets something set in his mind, he does it-you can't change it-so I just learn to live with it," Miller laughingly said of her husband.
Meadows said with amusement, "Nobody in their right mind would do this. ... I started just toying with it, more or less as a joke in my head, maybe three months ago, and then I started taking it seriously about halfway through that, and the next thing I know, I'm in Bemidji heading south."
"She's been nagging for three years for me to take her on vacation, and she says, 'I wanna go see Minnesota.' ... She's never seen the (Babe the) Blue Ox, Paul Bunyan," Meadows said.
"Well, the wheels were turning in my head. I said, 'OK, I'll take you to Minnesota. I'll show you it's a beautiful state,' so she's been driving 2 mph all the way-and that's the God's truth."
The gray skies and 30-degree temperatures Monday afternoon in Crow Wing County did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm even as vehicles whized dangerously close at times.
"Our living arrangements? ... We chose to eat cold hot dogs and a little ketchup on it, and that gets us by," Meadows said. "As far as our routine? It's pretty much walk until 7 p.m. when we shutdown because it's too dark and too dangerous. ... At night, we sleep in the Jeep. I do not feel right if we got a $100 motel when that money could be going to them (wounded veterans). It just sounds sacrilegious."
The goal is to raise $5,000. As of Tuesday evening, the couple raised $55, according to their donation webpage-that figure may not include direct donations from motorists who have come into contact with them-but they hope to arrive by April 14 in St. Cloud.
"It's a mental thing. You've got to prepare yourself mentally," Meadows said. "Obviously, physically, I'm probably not the world-class athlete, but it's about realizing it's going to be cold, it's going to be hard, it's going to be long-and getting comfortable with that."
Meadows and Miller began their epic journey from the Paul Bunyan Park in Bemidji at about 11 a.m. March 14-his birthday-and set out for the trip of a lifetime. The Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1260 in Bemidji sent them off, and they also had a police escort out of town.
"St. Cloud, I think-when I hit the city limits-that's going to do it for me. My plans are getting hold of the VFW, and I want to donate the (prisoners-of-war) flag to their post," Meadows said. "I have never met a more patriotic set of people than Minnesotans."
Meadows said the route from Bemidji to St. Cloud through Brainerd was chosen because it was centrally located. The driving distance from Paul Bunyan Park in Bemidji to St. Cloud is about 150 miles, according to Google Maps.
"We have been very well protected (by law enforcement). We were walking, in one instance, and a car shot by us, a little too close, and a cop was right on him," Meadows said of traffic.
"And it's some of the most beautifulest country that I've personally seen. And even though it's not quite the right time of year, I wanted her (Miller) to see it, too."
Wounded Warrior Project
Miller said she was a caretaker of many veterans for several years when she lived in Tucumcari, N.M., while working for a home care service that assisted families.
"I loved listening to their stories ... so when he (Meadows) started thinking about it, I just thought, 'Well, he's just thinking out loud,' you know? And then ... he says he's doing it, and I was standing there, looking at him, 'Are you nuts?'" Miller said of the ongoing fundraiser.
Meadows is not alone. Another Wounded Warrior Project advocate and veteran is walking 2,674 miles to show his support for the Wounded Warrior Project. Ken Brock left Feb. 1 with his dog Pam from Keystone Heights, Fla., and hopes to finish by July 4 in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
Brock raised $1,315 of his goal of $2,000 as of Tuesday night from almost two dozen donations, according to his GoFundMe webpage.
"I can't walk without getting one or two people to honk, and that motivates me. Some stop to donate, some just want to come up and give me a hug, and say, 'Thank you for your service.' And I've taken more pictures (with motorists). If I made a dollar for every picture I took, I would've made my goal," Meadows said. "But I can't make this successful unless people donate, and that's out of my control. ... But at least I know I did all I could."
How to donate
Those interested in donating to the Wounded Warrior Project can contact Jerry Meadows at 701-403-4993 or visit https://bit.ly/2XK9SBf.
Checks can also be made out to the nonprofit-write "Road Walker" in the check's memo section-and mailed to Wounded Warrior Project, P.O. Box 758516, Topeka, Kan. 66675-8516
For more information about the organization, visit www.woundedwarriorproject.org.