The low E string stretches along the guitar.
Veteran Van Booth held the weathered instrument by the neck, spinning it to see the chaos of signatures and stickers. Fine wrinkles under his eyes belied the smile beneath his bushy beard.
“Yup,” not usually stingy with words, Booth said, taking his time looking at the final string on a guitar he lugged across the country. “That’s the last string.”
The final string was strung after the final step of 7.1 million steps in a 3,135-mile walk to raise awareness about veteran suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“My walk is music related too, because of Operation Song and Freedom Sings USA,” the retired U.S. Army infantryman said in Myrtle Beach on the last day of the last decade. “It’s going to be symbolism. I said when I get a guitar I’m going to take all the strings off of it. It’s going to be no strings. It symbolizes veterans, soldiers, and people who aren’t here anymore to play their music for us. Every 500 miles I walk, I’m going to put one string on. That symbolizes it’s healing as it’s going, kind of like I am.”
The first string went on at the Utah-Nevada border, the second in Colorado, the third in Kinsley, Kansas, the fourth in Jefferson City, Missouri, and the fifth in Tennessee.
But Booth knows healing is more difficult and complicated. He’s been mired under the weight of retiring from a 20-year Army career, the loss of 15 people he knew in war and memories of one redheaded man from upstate South Carolina.
With hopes of facing the rest of his life outside of grief and pain, Booth set off on a cross-county walk on Feb. 23 from San Juan Capistrano, California, to Plyler Park in Myrtle Beach.
He’d talked to Army buddies once about walking across the country, but that was before he needed the walk. It was before his redheaded friend Channing Bo Hicks was killed by a bomb in Afghanistan. It was before he retired. It was before he holed up in his house in the Tennessee hills for months. It was before the agony. It was before the song.
One night in the rented house in Fayetteville, Tennessee, Booth flipped on the radio to hear his buddy Charlie Daniels on The Grand Ole Opry. He heard the legendary fiddler had donated his time slot to Operation Song, an organization that pairs veterans, active military members and their families with professional songwriters to help share their stories.
His curiosity piqued, Booth discovered the Operation Song people were meeting at a Nashville bar to showcase some of the songs. He made the trip, grabbed a beer, pulled his ball cap low and sat in the back of the bar to listen. After the show, a few men approached. They knew by his look that he was a veteran, and they offered him a spot in a retreat.
Apprehensive, Booth went to the retreat where he was paired with songwriter Chuck Jones and student songwriter Ed Cawthon.
“A skinny red-headed kid from South Carolina.
Packed dip in his lip and cherries in his moonshine.
He grew up quick on our second trip to Iraq
He was funny as hell when the day was done,
dead serious when he got behind that machine gun."
That homage to Hicks, “My Brother Bo,” was written at the retreat. It was recorded in Nashville and Booth was armed with the recording when he decided to visit Hicks’ grave on the fifth anniversary of Hicks’ death. He drove through the night from Tennessee to Greer. He had the compact disc, a chair and a cooler full of beer. He’d planned on sitting with his friend until he noticed another redheaded man with similar features show up at the grave.
“I hadn't been out to his gravesite. I just hadn't. I wasn't ready,” Booth said. “My goal was to sit at his grave all day so he wouldn't be alone.”
Retelling the story, Booth reenacts a double take of his reaction to meeting Hicks’ uncle Dennis “Pepper” Hicks. He knew his friend’s family members from years of Hicks telling stories of growing up in Greer. He knew “Pepper” but they’d never met. He knew the matriarch “Mimi” through Hicks’ stories. The meeting by the grave led to Booth visiting his friend’s grandmother, “Mimi,” who was in hospice care, and sharing the song he’d written.
“She was just laying there. She shut her eyes and she really listened to it,” Booth said. “Tears rolling down her face, she just kept saying, ‘My Bo, my Bo, my Bo.’”
A few months after their meeting, “Mimi” died and is buried beside Hicks.
That’s when it all came back to him, Booth said. Music is healing. The songs composed in Operation Song are music therapy and more people need to know about it. More people need to know about the 22 veterans who committee suicide daily. More people need to know about post-traumatic stress. He plucked the Army-buddy conversation about walking across the country out of the past and decided he had a purpose to make the walk.
“I had originally called it ‘Walk for My Life’ with the ‘My’ really small. I changed it to ‘Walk for Life,’” Booth said of creating a Facebook group page to let people know about his purpose.
He had decided not to connect himself with sponsors or to take donations because he was dealing with trust issues and had been warned by others who had made the journey about shady folks ready to pounce on inexperienced cross-country trekkers.
He self-funded the 10-month walk, costing him more than $7,000.
“I want to be successful,” he said of spending almost a year planning. “Wouldn’t that be crappy if you get killed on your own walk called ‘Walking for Life?’”
He drove his new Toyota Corolla and parked it at a friend’s house in Orange County, California. He loaded a cart with camping gear, water, some food, a gun, bear spray, pepper spray, a first-aid kit and the stringless guitar. He stepped in the Pacific Ocean and starting stepping eastward.
“We was just like brothers
Always had each others back
Every day I’d tell him, ‘Don’t forget son, don’t you dare get hit
When you draw fire, run fast
You never know which day’s your last
Keep your powder dry and that ginger full head low
Stay strong. Stay true. Don’t forget your infantry blue’
He was one of the bravest boys I’ll ever know
My brother Bo.”
Those eastwards steps were made more than halfway on U.S. 50, dubbed “the loneliest highway in America.” Somewhere in Missouri he split off U.S. 50 and wound back home to Tennessee to spend Thanksgiving with family members. He peeled off again after the holiday to visit Hicks’ grave again and finally huffed along rural roads through the state to end up in Myrtle Beach on Sunday even though he planned on finishing the last three miles of the journey at 1 p.m. on Tuesday.
“That bridge? That one over the waterway? 501? That one gave me a real pucker factor,” he laughed of crossing the U.S. 501 bridge leading into Myrtle Beach. “I could see the towers by the ocean from the top. There’s no shoulder. No shoulder. My buddy had come down from Florence to walk about seven miles with me into Myrtle Beach and he had to help me push the cart over the bridge. I was walking backwards the whole way and cars and semis were whizzing by. We had the cart up on two wheels sideways just trying to make it. It was bad. It wasn’t as bad as the one in Missouri. It was just like it, but about two miles long. That one gave me a real pucker too.”
Hearing of a few fatalities on the U.S. 501 bridge in years gone by, Booth cringed then laughed at the possibility of a man named Van being killed by a van a few miles from the end of his 3,000 mile journey called “Walk for Life.”
“Yeah. That would have been something,” he said.
Along the way, he’s seen so many things and taken about 8,000 photos and videos. Continuing a habit he developed in the Army, Booth kept a journal of the trip and is thinking of writing a book about his experiences.
One entry, he said, is of a chance meeting with another cross-country traveller in the Nevada desert. The two were going in opposite directions when they met. He also crossed paths with other cross-country trekkers separately – a woman from New Zealand, a man from Holland and another man from France.
He crossed paths with wildlife too, he said.
Once in the Nevada desert, which would leave him 153 miles between houses at times, he saw a snake stretched across U.S. 50. He said he tried to push it out of the way because he didn’t want to run over it with his cart when the snake balled up, bowed up and began to blow and shake it’s tail. He got away from the snake quickly, but later found out the snake was a non-threatening Great Basin gopher snake that mimics the behavior of deadly snakes.
Once seeking shelter from a storm, Booth found himself in a “ghost town” in Kansas and the only refuge was behind an empty post office. After the storm passed, Booth looked down to see a skunk at his feet nibbling on bugs that had washed up in the storm.
“I was as still as a mannequin in a Montgomery Ward department store,” he said of avoiding the infamously smelly spray.
He’s struggled to breathe in the Donner Pass high the Sierra Nevada mountain range. He rode a steam train in Nevada, was flown in a bomber in Colorado, saw the place Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated in Alton, Illinois, and was taken for a few laps around Darlington Raceway. He’s hiked several trails, including the Oregon Trail. A Navajo man crafted him a traditional arrow and he’s woken up next to the ruins of a Pony Express station. “It’s been amazing,” Booth said. “I've camped on civil war battlefields. It’s been a whole lot of that.”
Traversing the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, Booth smiles about his favorite encounter with wildlife during his walk.
“It looked like the whole entire mountain was moving,” he said of seeing a litany of bighorn sheep. Rams kept watch from above as female sheep taught the lambs how to jump cliffs.
“People are blowing by me and I’m like, they don’t even realize what's happened. … You see so much walking than you do at 70 miles an hour,” Booth recalled perching on a guardrail to view the creatures as RVs and other vehicles passed him.
On one bitterly cold night after a day of not seeing anyone save those passing in vehicles, Booth said, a barefoot man approached him asking for a spare pair of shoes. Booth offered the man one flip flop explaining the other flip had apparently flopped out of the cart the day before.
About 30 minutes later, a deputy stopped Booth and asked if he’d seen a man wandering around without shoes. Turns out, the deputy told Booth, the man had been camping with a woman and she drove off without him but with his shoes in the middle of the night.
Once an earthquake woke him in the night and he didn’t know what had happened until he reached the next town in Kansas to read about it in the newspaper.
And, inevitably, Booth said there were comparisons with Forrest Gump as he met strangers and explained he was headed to South Carolina.
“I had fun with it,” he said. “I’m going to wear my Gump shirt when I walk to Myrtle Beach. I haven’t worn it yet the whole time. It’s the muddy, smiley face one. Forrest ran and I walked, but yup, I’m Gumping it. Been Gumping it.”
Shortly after he announced the journey in 2018, Booth’s mother started the Forrest Gump comparison.
“My mom drove to my house and she goes, ‘Why do I feel like Forrest Gump’s mom right now?’” Booth said.
Joking, he replied, “Mom, you make a good Sally Field.”
Blending another Tom Hanks movie character, Booth said he passed a small teddy bear with a pink heart on the chest. It was sitting in the road when Booth picked it up, brushed it off and tucked it inside the weatherproof cover on the guitar.
“He had Wilson the ball,” Booth said of Hanks’ character in “Cast Away” who used a volleyball as company on a deserted island. “I’ve got her. I named her Wilsonette.”
Through it all, Booth said he’s worn out five pairs of shoes. He’s only had one injury – a bug bit his right pinkly toe and Booth scratched it until it became infected. Once a doctor gave him some antibiotics, the toe healed.
Knowing he has more work to do on his own healing, Booth is ready now, having gained a newfound love of his country. He knew the trip could have made him jaded, but he’s coming out of it happy and optimistic, similar to the feeling he had when he enlisted in the Army while still in high school in 1994.
“I was like, I want to travel the world and I want somebody to pay for it,” he said of seeing over two dozen countries and being stationed overseas in places such as Germany and South Korea.
But this trip has left him in bars crying with grown men as they retold war stories, comforting a woman who talked about her father’s suicide after he served in the Vietnam War.
“A lot of them feel that they don't have a sense a purpose anymore, and that no one’s listening to them,” he said of meeting people along the way to Myrtle Beach. “A lot of times I just sat and listened. I didn't have to say much.”
Gathering up his belongings and looking up Frontage Road on Tuesday morning, Booth took a deep breath before beginning the last leg of the journey.
“We were going to get together on his next leave
The next time I saw Bo was when we laid him in the ground
With three months left, he was KIA
I bet the last thing they heard him say was
‘When you draw fire, run fast
You never know which day’s your last.’
Keep your powder dry and that redneck fool head low
Stay strong. Stay true don’t forget your infantry blue.
He was one of the bravest boys you’ll never know
My brother Bo
Oh, I miss him so.”
The last leg of the journey to begin to heal, three miles, faced Booth on New Year’s Eve.
Joining retired Staff Sgt. Booth for the early-morning route from Comfort Suites in Myrtle Beach to the Vet Center were fellow veterans Shawn Laurie of Florence, Tony Husbands of Fort Jackson, Eric Harris of Fort Bragg and Kyle Killinger of Indiana.
Booth served with Husbands and Harris while they were in the U.S. Army.
Last year, Killinger ran in front of Booth’s house in Tennessee while on an annual 300-mile run to raise awareness for veteran issues. Booth flagged him down and convinced the man to take a break from running for a quick lunch and they started a lasting friendship.
Laurie answered Booth’s call on Christmas when a wheel on Booth’s cart failed while passing through Florence. Laurie helped him repair the cart and joined him Sunday to walk about seven miles, including helping him on the U.S. 501 bridge leading into Myrtle Beach.
The men, laughing and catching up, paced themselves to the Vet Center off Grissom Parkway.
After a meeting with veterans and family members, the group followed a motorcycle escort of Rolling Thunder veterans and police to Plyler Park.
As peopled lined the way with American flags, Al Jarvis of Freedom Sings USA surprised Booth on Ocean Boulevard with a hug steps away from the finish line.
Booth asked Jarvis to join Ira Braden, a veteran who also served in the Army and met Booth in Colorado and Chattanooga during his walk, to put the final string on the guitar.
After more than an hour of talking about the journey and smiling for photographs with onlookers, Braden, Killinger and Booth grabbed the guitar for a slow walk to the ocean.
Booth stood, holding the guitar by the neck, as one wave lapped over his shoes.
“OK, I’ve got to go get Myrtle Florence and eat,” Booth said, referring to his cart he had named Myrtle since the beginning of the journey and added Florence after the sole breakdown on Christmas.
Before Tuesday, Braden had told Booth: "It's the end of the walk, but the beginning of the journey."
Laughing, Booth yelled out that he would be back in Myrtle Beach in May to lead the Veterans Parade on Memorial Day.
“I’m tired,” Booth said, reciting the Forrest Gump line at the end of Gump’s cross-country run. “I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now.”