Finding Meaning Through a Cross-Country Walk

Sam Conley is a young man from Waltham, Massachusetts. On a regular day, you can find him working at this dad’s restaurant or taking pictures for his burgeoning photography business. But what you don’t see on the surface is that Sam Conley has a hidden talent, a superpower some would say.  At only 24 years old, Sam has walked more miles than many of us will in a lifetime – more than 8,500 miles to be exact. He has crossed the United States from north to south more than once, and this year he decided it was time to walk east to west from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

“I always say I’ll never be the fastest, but I will go the longest. I can walk for the entire day at a moderate pace and not feel tired. In 2016, I walked the Appalachian Trail. In 2018, I walked the Pacific Crest Trail, and in 2019, I walked the Colorado Trail. During the Colorado Trail, I realized that I was able to tackle bigger miles without feeling exhausted.”

Sam was first exposed to long-distance walking when he went on an overnight camping trip with a high school friend. While camping, the boys met a man who was hiking the Appalachian Trail, and Sam remembers having a less-than-enthusiastic guttural reaction to the man’s hike.

I remember thinking, ‘That’s stupid. Why would anyone do that?’ But by winter of that year, I had decided that I didn’t want to go to college, and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. And I thought of the Appalachian Trail of all things. That first hike didn’t help me figure out what I want to do with my life, but it did make me realize that I really enjoy walking.”   

When asked what he likes so much about long-distance walking, Sam quickly replies that it’s the people on the trail that make it worth the while.

“The community that you meet out there is super nice. The strangers you meet who are hiking quickly become your best friend and you end up hiking for a month with them. Everyone you meet has a lasting impact on you. You see kindness in everyone that I don’t think a lot of people get to see.” 

One life-changing friendship that Sam found on the trails was with a young man he met while walking across Pennsylvania. His name was Michael Pitney, but because all hikers have trail names, everyone called him Waker. Sam (known as ‘Ramen King’ on the trails) and Michael (Waker) walked together for over a month all the way to the Smoky Mountains.

He was the kind of dude that you would have a conversation with for literally the entire day, and the conversation wouldn’t repeat itself. You would go to bed, wake up, and the conversation would continue. He was super strong, a fast hiker, and just so nice.”

But even in their month-long conversation, Sam laments never realizing the inner struggles that Michael was grappling with.

“I never had a sense that he was not okay. He shared some stories about addiction in the past and about how the Appalachian Trail was the first time he had been sober for that long. But I don’t think anyone realized how much he was struggling.”

In April of 2018, Michael Pitney lost his battle to suicide, and since then, Sam says he has struggled to think about anything else.

“He was all that I thought about for the entire Pacific Crest Trail. Whenever I would have a hard day, I would think about how Waker would want me to keep going. I know he would be upset if the reason I stopped hiking was because of him. I think he wants me out there walking. Whatever hardship I’m going through, I always remember that it doesn’t compare to what Waker must have been going through.” 

Compelled to find meaning in his loss, this year Sam decided to pursue the lofty goal of walking from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean as a HopeRaiser for Samaritans.  His goal was to raise $6,000 in memory of Michael, and he planned to complete his walk within 100 days. Unlike the north-south trails that bring you deep into nature, Sam says he chose to walk east-west because he wanted to connect with people along the way.

It’s a very different type of hiking. You get to see towns you wouldn’t see if you were driving. It’s a different way to see the country because you are seeing the beauty of the people in it, not just the beauty in nature.

Sam says that he almost never was able to pay for a meal on this trek.

When people see my backpack, they think I’m doing something special and they come up to talk to me. In New York, I went intos a Sorbo’s Pizza, and the guy asked why I was walking.  I explained Samaritans to him, and he asked to buy me lunch and gave me 20 dollars for the road. Then the cashier gave me five dollars for a Gatorade. Interactions like that I absolutely love. Those are what make the long distance walking what it is. The most memorable parts are the people along the way.”

Sam surpassed his goal of raising $6,000 for Samaritans only a few days into the start of his walk. His new goal is $10,000, and he already has raised $8,431. Unfortunately, though, Sam’s trek across the country had to end prematurely on day 22 when he started to show signs of heat stroke. He rested for two days at a friend’s house to see if he could recover, but he was unable to keep any water or food down, which can be perilous on a long journey like his. Only 20 miles from the Pennsylvania and Ohio border, Sam had to call it quits.

“It was hard to come to terms with the idea of quitting a long-distance trip like that. It felt so out of the realm for me. It wasn’t something that I ever thought I would do. I mean I couldn’t eat. I know I made the right call, but it’s kind of a bummer for me. It’s hard to accept.” 

But don’t rule out Sam too fast. While his cross-country trek was cut short, he is already busy planning his next adventure. One of the ideas on the table is a 77-mile run down the Smoky Mountains. Whatever he chooses to do next as a HopeRaiser, Sam says he will always carry Michael (Waker) with him.

“Whether you know it or not, somebody you know and see on a daily basis is probably struggling. Reach out to people to see how they are doing because it’s awful to think how alone they feel. Waker had a long life ahead of him. When we talked we were discussing other trails and skiing. I wish he would have had the chance to experience the rest. He didn’t know how much he meant to everyone and how much we miss him.”