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Three big guys from Buffalo on a trek with big dreams

Nobody thought Jason Rogers and brothers Joe and Chris Cooke could walk from Buffalo to Los Angeles. In fact, it would have been reasonable to wonder whether they could have made it around the block.

Rogers weighed in at 478 pounds.

“I wasn’t moving at all,” he said.

Chris Cooke weighed 340 pounds. Joe Cooke was the svelte one, at 200 pounds.

We “just had a history for 20 years of being the laziest people,” Rogers said. “We’d play video games and watch movies. We’re not the active type.”

Then they started to walk a bit. Then a bit more.

As they shed some weight and began to feel better, Rogers got an idea almost as big as he was: Why not walk across the country?

With little money or preparation, wearing ill-fitting shoes and pushing modified baby strollers packed with supplies, they lumbered out of their Riverside neighborhood on May 17.

Nobody thought they could do it.

Everybody was wrong.

They expect to cross into Arizona on Tuesday. Then comes California.

They have walked every mile but 20 on their journey, and that was when they caught a ride in a snowstorm.

The three men have documented their trek on Facebook, posting photos of blisters, bugs, lonely highways and the bright faces of people who took them in, fed them and sheltered them along the way.

Cross-country treks are not uncommon. People walk, run or bicycle long distances to raise money for or awareness of diseases, to exercise their marathon-honed bodies, to seek adventures and to see the sights in a luxuriously slow way. But to see three spectacularly out-of-shape and ill-prepared men in their early 30s making the trip for no other reason than to accomplish something in lives that had been mired in dullness, that’s different.

Unabashedly billing their trip the “2,700 Mi. Rotund Challenge” on Facebook, the trio have kept their loved ones at home and new friends across the country apprised of their journey, step by step. They also have set up a GoFundMe page with the same name, which has drawn a relatively paltry $5,755 from 157 people in 10 months.

Still, the footsore walkers appreciate the donations.

“Our Facebook group has been really looking out for us, the people are supporting us,” said Rogers, the only one of the three who was comfortable being interviewed by phone. “They find ways to find shelter. Since Ohio, they have provided us with everything we have gotten. They know people along the way. They have been a huge support system. We pretty much couldn’t do it without them.”

The kindness of strangers

The three left in May, with simple goodbyes to friends and family members who were sure they would be back soon, defeated.

“I know before we left our friends and family members did not think that me and Chris could do it,” Rogers said. “They knew Joe wouldn’t have a problem, but they didn’t think we were going to make it out of New York State, and we’re not even that far from Pennsylvania.”

Joe Cooke was perhaps the least out of shape.

“The walking was not a problem for him,” Rogers said. “He was ready to do 20 miles in the beginning. Me and Chris just weren’t.” They had just $600 or $700 in their pockets when they left, enough to pay for food and lodging for a week to 10 days. But they were rich with determination.

Rogers and Joe Cooke quit their jobs, paid six months of rent in advance to another Cooke brother who owns their duplex.

“We spent a big chunk of our money to buy our equipment to leave, and foolishly, we didn’t spend that correctly,” Rogers said. “We didn’t know what to expect out there, so we bought too much.”

The most important part of a walking trip might be the shoes, and here the guys fell short.

“We had two pairs of shoes each when we left, but myself and Chris didn’t have the proper shoe sizes,” Rogers said.

“Our shoes fit perfectly doing three miles a day, but not when you start pushing it. I was at 4E but I needed a 2E, so I was getting blisters.”

The first day went fine until the trio stopped to camp in Lackawanna near the NFTA marina. Police soon rousted them.

“You weren’t really prepared for this, were you?” the officer said.

“And we weren’t,” Rogers confessed.

So they walked to a friend’s house.

After the next day’s walk, they stayed at the house of a Cooke brother, then they were truly dependent on the kindness of strangers.

“The third night we got our first lawn camp,” Rogers said.

A stranger allowed them to pitch their three one-man tents in the yard.

“I remember just looking at Joe like, ‘This is possible. People will allow us to sleep on their lawns,’ ” he said.

Conditions didn’t improve much for the next few days, but the guys kept walking on Route 5.

“I remember being so miserable, we were about five miles from the state line, and we met a cyclist who was going from San Diego up to Syracuse for diabetes,” Rogers said.

The man offered a prophetic and encouraging voice.

“Everything is going to work out,” he said, “you are going to meet so many people who are going to help make this trip possible.”

The walkers were skeptical.

“We were just looking at him like, ‘This guy is full of it. We’ve met nobody and we’ve walked like 40 miles. Maybe it’s different for a cyclist than a walker,’ ” Rogers recalled. “But everything he said has come true.”

“When we made it to Ohio, friends and family were all on board,” Rogers said. “Some were still saying, ‘You can come back now, you accomplished so much,’ but we made a commitment to make it to Los Angeles.”

The good outweighs the bad

Along the way, they have sweltered and frozen, have gotten drenched and sunburned. They wore out shoes and clothing. They learned that while walking uphill is bad, walking downhill can be worse.

“We had such soft feet in the beginning. They are now pretty hardened. Foot modeling is out of the question now,” Rogers said.

Weight loss is not their main goal, but Rogers has lost 68 pounds on top of the 100 he shed before starting the trek. Chris Cooke is down 39 pounds.

Have they noticed a lot of new muscles?

“When they are hurtin’, I guess,” Rogers said.

Staying in homeless shelters and churches and camping on lawns, the trekkers have had surprisingly few bad experiences. In Greenfield, Ind., when Joe Cooke was suffering from a fever and Rogers from painful feet, a church secured rooms for them at a motel.

The desk clerk “treated us like we were below her, like we were homeless,” a frustrated Rogers posted at the time. “She made up lies about the rooms being filled ... She also called the cops on us as we were in the next door’s parking lot.”

But good experiences far outweighed the bad.

Outside Wichita, Kan., where houses were few and set back far from the road, Joe Cooke trekked up a long driveway to ask permission to camp. When he told the woman they were walking from Buffalo to Los Angeles, it would be difficult to say who was more pleasantly surprised.

The woman, Rose, had grown up in South Buffalo.

“She called us the ‘three wise men,’ ” Rogers said. “She’s not on Facebook, so she couldn’t follow our progress. But two months later on the road, she came across us again on Highway 54. It was a weird coincidence.”

In Dalhart, Texas, Chris Cooke asked members of the Central United Methodist Church for a lift to a store to buy a cheap pair of shoes. The church members bought shoes for all of them.

When they reached Liberal, Kan., Trasie Reece Bressler and her family, who had been following the men on Facebook, paid for a hotel room so they could rest, do laundry and have breakfast.

“I am just so inspired by their determination and their guts to do something so amazing, never putting God in a box and having faith that He will meet all of their needs,” Bressler said in an interview.

‘Anything is possible’

Joe Cooke and Rogers are keeping journals, but Rogers doubts there would be a market for a book. They do have one angle.

“Many people have done this walk, but I don’t think anyone has done it at my size,” he said.

Book or no book, the trip has transformed their lives.

“I was more shy, because I didn’t feel comfortable with my size. Now I am more engaged with the people we meet and come across,” Rogers said. “Now there are so many things I can’t wait to do. I’m dreaming again and feel like anything is possible.”

At one point, in Oklahoma around Thanksgiving, the trio ran into a snowstorm. A man named Toby, who had seen the trio walking Highway 54 for a few days, “felt compelled to stop and see what we were doing,” Rogers said.

He ended up taking them in for four days and treating them to Thanksgiving dinner. When they were ready to move on, they considered having him drop them off where he had picked them up.

“But the snow never melted, and we couldn’t get dropped off in time, and it just didn’t seem like it was worth it,” said Rogers, explaining the only 20 miles they didn’t walk.

As they traversed Route 70 along the White Sands missile range, where camping is strictly prohibited, the walkers made contact with members of a sober-living halfway house, who picked up the trio after their daily walk and dropped them off the next day at the same mile marker, so they wouldn’t miss a step.

Their pace was slower than expected. Rogers added three months to the cross-country trek done by a man “in great shape” and figured that they would hit Los Angeles in late December or early January.

“I thought I was in way better shape than I was,” Rogers admitted.

Now he estimates that they will finish in early April.

What then?

“We hope we can make arrangements where we could stay out in Los Angeles for at least a week. But we’re definitely coming back home,” Rogers said.

In the background of the phone interview, the Cookes piped up to add that they miss Buffalo food.

They hope to return on a train with a northern route “to see the other part of the country on our way home,” Rogers said.

They don’t have the money to do that yet, but these now intrepid cross-country travelers aren’t worried.

One thing is for sure, Rogers said, laughing: “We’re not going to walk back!”

email: aneville@buffnews.com