By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Last month, Almitra Von Willcox left her San Diego home and went for a walk. And if all goes according to plan, the freelance photographer won't return from her stroll until June 3, 2005--the date that the self-styled "Photo Gypsy" hopes to complete a ten-year trek around the world on foot. Eighteen pounds lighter and several skin shades darker than when she struck out from a San Diego pier, the 48-year-old nomad arrived in the Valley last week. Taking a load off during a three-day pit stop in Phoenix (the first major city she's encountered in her travels), Von Willcox chatted about the Gumpian jaunt, an odyssey she envisions as a combination personal journey, photo project and charity walk-a-thon.
Von Willcox's decision to become a career pedestrian, while a somewhat unusual vocation, is hardly unique. People from all walks of life now routinely announce plans to trod the country for charity. Not surprisingly, some of these souls are marching to different drummers.
Almitra Von Willcox says she received her walking papers last August.
"I literally woke up in the middle of the night and said, 'This is what I'm going to do,'" explains the divorced mother of two grown children. An animated woman whose checkered r‚sum‚ includes stints as a cocktail waitress, chiropractor and travel writer, the fledgling globetrotter claims that a fateful phone call she received the very next morning convinced her she was destined to take a hike.
"It was a wrong number, a total stranger," recalls the free-spirited grandmother. "But he wouldn't hang up until I agreed to read a book called The Alchemist." When Von Willcox finally tracked down a copy of the cultish New Age novel, the first passage she read practically jumped off the page at her. With eyes widening at the cosmic significance of it all, Von Willcox drops her voice to a reverential whisper. "It said, 'When you really want to do something, the whole universe contrives to help you achieve it.'"
From the sound of it, though, the heavens were flashing her a celestial "Don't Walk" sign from the git-go. Failing to line up any corporate sponsorship, Von Willcox claims she was lucky just to wangle a pair of shoes out of Nike, a camera lens from an optical company and some pants from a sportswear manufacturer. Not that she received much more encouragement from her family. "That's nice, dear--what do you want for lunch?" Von Willcox's mother reportedly replied upon learning of plans for the marathon schlep. In fact, Von Willcox reports that her biggest supporters are a group of homeless street people in her neighborhood who have pledged an eighth of a cent per mile--or nearly $5,000--to the Save the Children Foundation upon her return ten years down the road.
Armed with nothing more than a 75-pound backpack, a $40 bankroll and a starry-eyed idealism reminiscent of a Woodstock-era hitchhiker, Von Willcox finally hit the road. That thoroughfare proved to be rockier than she ever imagined.
Scarcely out of San Diego, Von Willcox became so sick from the heat that she was unable to walk anywhere near the ten miles a day she'd hoped to cover. Because she severely underestimated the intensity of triple-digit daytime temperatures, she's been forced to abandon her plans to camp out on the desert during the day. Now, whenever possible, she hitches rides into the nearest town or gas station, passing the day there until it's cool enough to return to the spot where she left off. Like an interstate Blanche DuBois, Von Willcox is dependent on the kindness of strangers. Initially mistaking her for a stranded motorist, highway patrolmen and passers-by routinely offer her food, water, rides and money. Some make small donations to the Save the Children Foundation, her pet charity. All are invited to sign Von Willcox's trip book, a tome already spilling over with dog-eared business cards, small-town notary seals, snapshots, pressed butterflies and other souvenirs of her travels. Smiling, she recalls one of her more memorable "adventures." When she found herself at a tavern near Aqua Caliente, locals encouraged her to play bartender. At the end of her "shift," a blind man invited her to come back to his trailer to meet the wife and kids. Three days later, she was still there, entertaining the five children while their parents were off at work.
But Von Willcox's itinerary has also been riddled with darker detours. Her plans to chronicle the trip as a photography project fell by the wayside when the jealous ex-girlfriend of a man she'd met on the road filled her camera bag with water. In another incident, a bad samaritan who'd offered to let her clean up in his home barged in while she was taking a shower.
"That was very interesting," says Von Willcox, who was unable to lay her hands on the ammonia-filled squirt gun she carries for protection. "But I dealt with it because I wanted that shower."
Never mind that her world-peace photo project has bitten the dust. Or that the charity aspect of her journey has to date grossed less than $5 a day. Or that she has no clear idea how she'll survive the Midwestern winters, much less a plan on how she'll travel to Australia, the second phase of her trek. Almitra Von Willcox takes life's chuckholes in stride. Mopping her brow as she prepares to march eastward out of the Valley, the vagabond grows philosophical about her self-imposed battle with the elements. "I wonder if I'm ever going to be comfortable," she says. "As I crossed the desert, I realized that the weather is always going to be there.