And suddenly, all too soon, this part of my life’s journey was over.
It had been 286 days since I looked out at the Atlantic Ocean in Newfoundland and asked myself, “How far are you willing to go for someone you love?”
Both the sky and the water were slate grey when we docked in Nanaimo to begin the final stretch of highway, down the island to Victoria. Although it was raining when we stepped off the ferry, I felt good knowing there was very little chance we’d see snow again before we reached the finish line.
The sound of the bagpipes that welcomed us to the island faded as we pushed south, surrounded by flashing lights and sirens. And then the people came. Hundreds of people who came to the roadside.
One man who stopped just outside Nanaimo to make a donation gave me a walking stick, on which he had carved the words “Jesse’s Journey—Coast to Coast.”
On the road, people said all kinds of things to me. I know they meant well but sometimes it was a little embarrassing. One woman threw her arms around me and said, “I love a man with guts.” Another woman, who obviously knew about Jesse, shook my hand and quietly asked, “How’s he doing?” That was ten times harder to deal with and just left me wanting to move on as quickly as possible.
From Ladysmith to Duncan and on to Lake Cowichan, B.C. it was still wet as the clock continued to tick toward the finish line at Beacon Hill Park in Victoria, where I would dip the toes of my running shoes in the Pacific Ocean.
There was little doubt the end of the journey was getting closer as each time I opened the door to the motorhome, I saw more familiar faces as people from home were starting to gather for the completion of the walk.
Despite the chaos and all the additional people clambering aboard the motorhome, Ed Coxworthy did his best to stick to our daily routine. On the third-last day, Ed winked at me as he served up scalloped potatoes and ham for lunch. I knew what that wink meant. When lunch was over, Ed would be the firewall between me and the waves of people who all wanted “just a minute” of my time. I closed the door to the motor home bedroom, thankful for just a few minutes rest, knowing how busy things would be for the next 48 hours. After a somewhat broken sleep, there was a wonderful surprise waiting for me. I stepped off the motorhome into a group of 30 people who had flown all the way from London to be on hand for the final few steps.
The end of the journey across Canada was now getting very close. I didn’t know if it was the excitement along the road or the anticipation of completing the journey, but I hadn’t been sleeping well. Phone calls were now pouring in from radio stations from Newfoundland to Vancouver. The interviews started at 5 a.m. and it seemed like every few minutes someone was sticking a cellphone into my hand to do yet another interview.
On the morning of my second-last day on the road, wisps of low cloud hung in the tops of the fir trees as I walked through Mill Bay, chipping away at the few kilometres left before Victoria and the Pacific Ocean. As we waited for the Brentwood ferry to take us across Saanich Inlet to Brentwood Bay, a group of kids from a private school peppered me with questions about Jesse’s Journey and the things I’d seen as I walked across Canada. They were very polite but seemed a little surprised that someone “as old” as me could walk all the way across the country.
As we crossed Saanich Inlet, the ferry captain let me take the wheel for a minute. It was another small fun moment to record in my journal, especially since the ferry didn’t hit anything or sink while under my command!
When I stepped off the ferry, Sherene was waiting with her blonde hair blowing in the wind and the smile I had been missing for far too many months. She was with family and friends, part of a growing group of supporters who would be with us as we moved closer and closer to Beacon Hill Park.
The morning of Day 286—was my final morning on the road. It was also my birthday. I was thankful to the people of Canada.
By the end of the day, we would have raised $2 million to launch the Jesse Davidson Endowment, which would grow to provide a million dollars a year to find a cure for a disease that robs parents of their most precious gift—their children.
As I prepared for the last day, there was a touch of sadness similar to that final morning in 1995 when Jesse and I reached Ottawa at the end of our journey across Ontario. I was aware that when the day was over, those who had played such a big role in our ‘Journey’ would be shifting their focus away from the routine they had followed for almost 10 months. The road crew would disband as people caught flights home to the families they hadn’t seen, and back to the lives that had been put on hold for nearly a year. In time, the road portion of Jesse’s Journey would be just a memory for those who were there. But before that happened, there was one more day to complete.
As I climbed onto the motorhome for the last time, everything seemed like a series of “last of” moments.
I sat down to what would be my last bowl of Ed’s Newfoundland porridge. There was butter melting on the toast Ed set beside the strawberry jam and sliced oranges. With the steam rising from my last mug of breakfast tea, I smiled as I thought back to one of our great volunteers from Nova Scotia who gave Ed some wise advice. She told him that when it came to our morning breaks on the road, to be sure the fruit was sliced. In a very matter-of-fact way she told Ed, “Men will eat fruit if you slice it up for them. If you don’t, forget it.”
Over this last breakfast, my eyes scanned the inside of the motorhome, which was full of familiar sights. The maps of British Columbia and Vancouver Island were tucked behind the sun visor above the driver’s seat. They would soon be put in a lower drawer already full of maps from all across the country. There was the solid green light on the battery charger in one of the overhead compartments, indicating the two-way radios were ready for their final day of use on the road.
There were dozens of mugs with colourful emblems from schools and radio and television stations in every province. There were jars full of lapel pins from cities, towns and villages all across Canada.
In front of me, hanging over the back of the driver’s seat, was the red jacket I had worn that first morning in Newfoundland and many days since. I remembered it was a very bright red on day number 1 in Newfoundland. Now, at best, it was a faded salmon colour. It had changed, the way a lot of people involved with the Journey had changed. They’d had the adventure of a lifetime and for many it had been life-changing.
Thinking back on our journey across the country, I realized that without a website, radio had been the lifeline that kept us in touch with people who were following the story of Jesse’s Journey. The radio link began on Jesse’s birthday back on April 10 when my great friend Peter Garland broadcast his morning radio show from City Hall in St. John’s, Newfoundland. That was the morning I dipped my running shoes in the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean. Now, Peter and CFPL Radio in London were with us again, this time broadcasting live to an audience in Ontario from in front of the Provincial Legislature in Victoria.
I was on the phone almost as soon as I woke on that last morning, and for the final time, Jesse’s Journey checked in with stations as far back as Newfoundland. Later in the day, through a satellite hookup to Halifax, I did an interview with CBC television as I stood in front of the Legislature in Victoria. Listening in my earpiece, I heard the interviewer, Collen Jones, who was also a world-champion curler, as she told me at the end of our interview, she was going home to hug her kids.
Earlier in the day, the flashing lights of the RCMP escort vehicles let school kids along the side of the road know we were on our way. There were lots of horns being honked and motorists streaming by in both directions gave us a thumbs-up.
By lunchtime it was even more chaotic as people jostled into position for the last few steps of the Journey. Amid all the commotion, I sat down for my final sandwich-and-milk lunch on the motorhome. I hadn’t been seated long when the door opened, and then I jumped up to hug a tiny lady with a big smile. This was the woman who called me every time I stepped into a new province. How she knew exactly when to call I never found out. But each time we were at our first break of the day, on our first day in a new province, the phone on the motorhome would ring and she would make a donation of $10,000. Her identity was known to only one or two others on the crew and she wanted to keep it that way. She’s gone now and out of respect for her desire to remain anonymous, I’ll just keep it that way. It’s what she would want. On board the motor home she said she just wanted to be there with the other well-wishers and to give a card of congratulations to “Jesse’s dad.”
A little while later, as I lay face down on the bed in the back of the motorhome, my legs were being worked on for the last time. A lot of people had kept me in shape over the last 10 months and without them, I don’t know if I would have made it.
Victoria, B.C. was covered by a thin layer of grey clouds and every now and then the sun poked through for a few minutes as we inched toward the Pacific Ocean. The last couple of kilometres had passed in a blur of smiles, handshakes, pats on the back, personal words of congratulations, cheers and applause. We were encased in the sound of a marching band with drums and bagpipes, accompanied by blaring sirens and honking horns. People I knew and people I didn’t kept coming out of the crowd along the road and wrapping their arms around me.
Then almost before I knew it, and almost as if St. John’s was just yesterday, my mom and dad were standing in front of me holding the banner that marked the finish line—8,272 kilometres from where I started.
I broke through the banner and as I held Sherene in my arms, I couldn’t hold back a wave of emotion that swept over me like nothing I have ever experienced. We couldn’t hide from the cameras clicking just inches away from our faces. Sherene looked happy and I could tell she was relieved we had all made it safely across the country.
As I hugged our three sons, I knew the road portion of Jesse’s Journey was over. I also knew I could finally admit, at least to myself, just how tired I really was. It occurred to me again that I might have fared better if I had done this at a much younger age, but in the same instant I again heard the question in my head, “What wouldn’t you do for your kids?” I now had the answer. There wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do. I was thinking that, that’s what all parents would say. And in that moment, we were swallowed up in the crowd that had gathered around us.
I waited with my family for the cameras to move aside before I pushed forward to complete the last piece of business.
From the grass at the top of Beacon Hill Park, there was a long flight of wooden stairs down to the shore, where the Pacific Ocean lapped against the rocks and the dozens of large logs that had broken away from booms and washed ashore (see video below). Jesse’s younger brother Tim came with me as I walked down the stairs to the water and the waiting scrum of media people who had moved into position to capture the final moment. I was carrying the big glass jug of saltwater that had been onboard the motorhome since the day I filled it on the morning of day number 1 in Newfoundland.
From the shore I looked up into the crowd at the top of the hill. I could see Jesse with his shy but proud smile as he watched from his wheelchair, with his mom and his older brother Tyler at his side. With the television cameras and newspaper photographers recording the moment, I dipped the toes of my running shoes in the Pacific Ocean.
I then took the cap off the glass jug and poured out half of the water from the Atlantic. Then I submerged the jug and filled it to the top again. After resealing the top, I shook the jug to mix the waters of two oceans. The jug would go back to the motorhome to be taken home to London.
And just like that, it was over.
At long last I heaved a sigh that perhaps suggested just how exhausted all of us on the road team were after 10 months on the road. I owed a huge debt of gratitude to an incredible team of people who could look back knowing we had raised awareness about a terrible disease and the need to invest in research. Across 10 provinces we had told the story of the devastation Duchenne muscular dystrophy wreaks on families. It was a story thousands of Canadians had never heard. It was a story about a disease that strikes boys almost exclusively. While we have made great progress in research since that time, to this day we still do not have a survivor.
On the road, we had done what we set out to do. The Jesse Davidson Endowment was firmly established. But I knew there was a lot more to be done to keep my promise. In my heart I knew that I still had ‘a promise to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.’
But for now, with the satisfaction of knowing we had done our best, we were going home.
(Editor’s note: I hope you have enjoyed these weekly postings which began back in February of last year. I have enjoyed writing them for you. A special thank you to all of you who sent along your comments. I enjoyed reading them and I appreciated them very much.
I’m going to take a break through February and then I’ll share one more posting about a wonderful young man, and about what comes next as the journey continues. Thank you for being with me as the journey unfolded.
Jesse’s Journey has continued to grow in the years following the walk across Canada and has now provided the research community with more than $10M. Jesse’s Journey now grants more than $1M a year in research funding, thanks to people like you! I’m glad you were there.)