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Walking for hospice: Man makes second cross-country journey

Colin Skinner led a presentation Tuesday at the Bemidji Public Library as he discussed the trips he has made in support of hospice care. In 1988, Skinner walked 6,052 miles in 11 months through Great Britain, Canada and the United States. He now is repeating that journey. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

After walking more than 6,000 miles through Britain, Canada and the United States, Colin Skinner had not expected to repeat the journey.

But then his mother, Monica Pickford, 59, died of pancreatic cancer in 2003.

"It sort of reminded me why I did it before," Skinner said.

Her death prompted him to consider a second trek.

"It was the right thing to do at the right time," he said.

Skinner led a presentation Tuesday afternoon at Bemidji Public Library, talking about his journeys and the need to raise awareness of hospice care.

"I keep trying to spread the message as I go," he said. "The walks are a great way to spread the message to hundreds of thousands of people."

Skinner is a former microbiologist who worked on developing tests to locate mutations that cause genetic diseases in children. He is married with a 13-year-old son.

In 1988, Skinner, then 22, walked 6,052 miles in 11 months throughout Great Britain, Canada and the United States. He wrote a book, "Beyond the Setting Sun," about the journey, which ended in San Francisco.

His current 2,500-mile trek began in August in New York City and will end in mid-December in Minot, N.D. He is now on his seventh pair of sneakers.

He started the repeat journey in 2007 as he completed the 1,100-mile walk through Great Britain. He expects to return in 2010 to North Dakota to walk from North Dakota to California.

He's doing it in memory of his mother - and to raise awareness and support for hospice care.

"Hospice focuses on quality of life; that's the most important thing," Skinner said.

Throughout his journeys, he's met countless people, including numerous hospice patients.

One was Hank Tubbs of Deer River, Minn., who he met during his first American cross-country trip.

Tubbs, according to Skinner, had been diagnosed with an illness in his lungs and was given just a few months to live.

But then his daughter got pregnant and Tubbs fought to stay alive for his grandchild's birth. He did.

And then another daughter got pregnant. He fought longer and lived to see the birth of several of his grandchildren.

Tubbs told others to make the most of their lives, to never give up, Skinner said.

"That was a real inspiration to me (during) my walk," Skinner said.

And there were times he needed it.

During his first journey, Skinner collapsed from heat exhaustion, braved temperatures down to 30 below zero, dodged snowplows and logging trucks and kept wild dogs at bay. He got food poisoning from pheasant meat, fed to him by a host family.

"My attitude was to take each day as it came," Skinner said.

He also saw some spectacular sights, such as sunsets in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan along Deer Lake.

"A bat swooped down and touched the water; there were ripples across the lake," he recalled. "It was absolutely beautiful."

He practically had the entire Yellowstone National Park and Grand Canyon to himself during winter.

More so, Skinner said, the people he met along the way energized him and reinforced his decision to support hospice care.

There was Cathy Carter, a woman who beat cancer at age 16 only to have it return as an adult.

Rae Kuenning, who was battling cancer, lived up a mountain in Montana. Hospice nurses worked to ensure she could stay at home. Kuenning said the view of the mountains gave her strength.

"I would get to hospices tired and all worn out ... they would breathe life back into me" Skinner said. "Meeting hospice patients was what kept me going through the heat and the cold."

Once the trek came to an end as he crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, Skinner said he was met by a throng of media. The mayor proclaimed it Colin Skinner Day in San Francisco.

He met with hospice workers and met Ralph, a hospice patient who had AIDS. His family and friends had deserted him.

"Because of hospice, he had a place to stay," Skinner said.

It was Ralph's birthday. Hospice workers planned a party for him, and his new friends celebrated, he said.

"It was one of the best days he'd had," Skinner said, "and it was because of hospice."

Skinner is encouraging people to not only seek out hospice care, but to do so sooner rather than later.

"In the experiences I've had, I've seen amazing things," he said. "You hope more people get that support, that care."

He hopes that through his walks and the media coverage of the walks, people will consider how they can volunteer or support hospice care.

The question he poses to other is: If I can walk 12,000 miles to help hospices, what can you do to help?

"There is something everyone can do," he said. "It's just finding that right thing."

Follow his journey online at