When Ben Walther dipped his toes into the Atlantic Ocean on a frigid November afternoon, the lifelong Californian had accomplished a goal that had not seemed possible just a year or two before.
Walther is a cancer survivor and an advocate for Medicare for all, no matter their age. If not for Medicaid, he says, he wouldn’t be alive today and certainly wouldn’t have treked alone thousands of miles across the country.
“Cancer really knocked me off my rocker,” he said. “I was just kind of wallowing in self-pity for about two years and decided it wasn’t going to fix itself, and I had to do something.”
The answer to getting out of his funk was to pack a bag and hit the road. Despite only a day’s worth of hiking experience, Walther set off for Lewes from San Francisco.
Walther didn’t quite follow the American Discovery Trail – a 6,800-mile trail from San Francisco to Lewes. Along the way he utilized many of the trail amenities, such as host families.
“I think it’s a great resource and really keeps people’s spirits strong,” he said. “When you’re in the dark, you have some light to look forward to.”
Walther’s life changed in 2013, when a healthy 20-something unexpectedly started having trouble breathing. A student without insurance, Walther relied on physicians at his college health clinic to diagnose his ailment. After three months of inconclusive tests, he decided it was time to go to the emergency room. He was diagnosed with stage 3 diffuse large cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
After getting the first hospital bill, which surpassed $42,000, Walther investigated his options and learned he qualified for Medi-Cal, or California Medicaid. Without Medicaid, he said he would not have been able to afford the medical treatment required to battle cancer.
“If it hadn’t been for Medi-Cal, I don’t know how bad I would’ve gotten before paying any price to be treated,” he said. “Because I knew I had it covered, I went in earlier and caught it at Stage 3 rather than Stage 4.”
Though his cross-country journey is about learning more about himself and getting out of the bubble, he also embarked to raise awareness and money for Physicians for a National Health Program, a nonprofit research and education organization of 20,000 physicians, medical students and health professionals who support single-payer national health insurance.
Among the highlights of Walther’s journey was hiking through Kansas during the solar eclipse.
“A week before, I realized I was going to be right in the exact middle of the path of totality,” he said. “Some people were planning it for years, and I just happened to be there.”
Walther’s path took him through 12 states. He finished the end of his 6-month, 11-day journey by walking from Milton to Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes.
The night before, he visited Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, where he met Mariah Calagione, wife of founder Sam. Though he’s not a big beer drinker, he said, he is an admirer of how Dogfish runs its business.
“I read an article about Dogfish in the New Yorker a couple of years ago,” he said. “I’ve always been inspired by them. Most businesses are about doing what works and playing it safe, but they’re doing their own thing, and if people like them great.”
Walther spent almost every night on his hike outside, sometimes setting up a tent in a copse of trees beside the road. But when he spent nights with a host family or interacted with people along the way, he said, most were friendly and kind.
“A lot of strangers saw me on the side of the road and asked what I was doing,” he said. “They’d invite me in for the night. That was the coolest part of this whole trip. These are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. The hospitality and generosity is mind-blowing.”
After completing his quest, Walther spent a few days in Lewes before hopping onto the Cape May-Lewes Ferry to New Jersey. He caught a bus up to New York City, his first time in the Big Apple. He hopes to then spend some time with family in North Carolina and may try to find a job on the East Coast.
If he stays, the weather will take some getting used to.
“I’m from California, I don’t know what weather is,” he said, while wearing shorts on a low-40s day in Lewes. “Just the other day I was like, ‘The air hurts, what is this?’ I’m totally ignorant to what East Coast weather is like.”
To learn more about Walther’s experience, go to www.facebook.com/myownmomentum. To learn more about Physicians for a National Health Program, go to www.pnhp.org. To learn more about the American Discovery Trail, go to www.discoverytrail.org.