The improbable dream that started 11 months ago, when three spectacularly out-of-shape Buffalo guys started walking west, ended in victory Saturday afternoon when they pushed their battered carts onto the Santa Monica Pier, heading for the Pacific Ocean.
“It feels strange that we don’t have to wake up and worry about doing any miles,” Jason Rogers said just before 5 p.m. Eastern time as the three walked onto the pier.
They were greeted by a small but enthusiastic group of Western New York natives and other friends who had followed their trek on the trio’s “2,700 Mi. Rotund Challenge” Facebook page.
Rogers, 33, and brothers Joe, 33, and Chris Cooke, 32, started out from Buffalo’s Riverside neighborhood on May 17 with just $700 in their pockets. They wore ill-fitting shoes and pushed carts loaded with food, water and camping supplies. But their determination was as big as they were.
As they were settled into a hotel Friday night, Rogers wrote on their Facebook page: “Tomorrow this thing that started out as a little idea back on Vulcan Street will be completed. I threw the thought of doing this as a throwaway comment. Never did I think we would start it, let alone finish it.”
The three men started pushing their carts through Los Angeles traffic Saturday shortly before noon Pacific time, a trip of less than 10 miles they estimated would take them three hours.
After arriving at the pier, two of the three headed for the water to dip their blister-scarred and calloused feet in the Pacific.
“I plan on swimming in the ocean,” Rogers said. “Joe is going in.”
They also planned to give away the carts – modified baby carriages that they pushed across the country through blistering sun, stifling heat and freezing cold – to homeless people if they want them, Rogers said. “Also our tents and sleeping bags,” he added.
The contingent of former Western New Yorkers who cheered their arrival were led by Lisa Sievenpiper Davis.
“Bring signs, noisemakers and wear your Buffalo gear!” Davis wrote.
Davis is arranging for lodging, meals and entertainment for the three Buffalo guys until they board an Amtrak on Friday for their expected return to Buffalo. They are expected to arrive back home May 3. Marianne Schum of Lancaster, who is also helping with some of their lodging costs in Los Angeles, paid for their train tickets.
Schum and Davis are just two of the hundreds of people who supported the three men with contributions to their GoFundMe page, home-cooked meals, water, food and places to sleep, whether on their lawns or in their homes.
The trio called their walk the “2,700 Mile Rotund Challenge,” because of their sizes when they started out. Rogers, who once weighed 478 pounds and was severely hampered by his weight, shed about 100 pounds through exercise and diet before setting out on the cross-country trek.
At his heaviest, he said, “I wasn’t moving at all.”
Chris Cooke weighed 340 pounds at the beginning of the walk while Joe Cooke was the svelte one, at 200 pounds. The three have lost significant amounts of weight and also added muscle on their walk.
The last week was a change of pace for the walkers, who intentionally slowed their progress so they could arrive at the pier on Saturday.
“We wanted to set it up so we could end on the weekend, in case people who work wanted to come,” Rogers said. “We decided to slow down our pace when we were 100 or so miles away.”
They stayed from Tuesday to Thursday in El Monte, Calif., some 30 miles from the pier, with a man they connected with on couchsurfing.com. Their host took the trio sightseeing to Pasadena, to Griffith Observatory and to the famous In-N-Out Burger. “Delicious,” Rogers said.
Their benefactor also took the walkers to Sequoia National Park, “our first national park,” Rogers said, and the three posed with the largest tree in the world, the General Sherman Tree. In the park, they climbed Moro Rock.
“I definitely lost my wind going to the top,” Rogers said.
The last 10 miles should be easy for the men, who once walked 26 miles in one day.
They walked every step of the way except for 20 miles in Kansas in late November when a blizzard hampered their path and their host, who had to get to work, couldn’t drive them back to the spot where he had picked them up.
With the end of their cross-country trek in sight, Rogers’ father, Steve Rogers of Buffalo, had difficulty expressing how proud he is of his son and the Cookes. The three have been friends since they met at age 8 or 9 when they attended the same church, Victory Assembly of God on Tonawanda Street.
Steve Rogers admits that he was one of the doubters and even encouraged the three to walk to Rochester and back to see if they could do it. They rejected that idea, and headed directly west.
“We encouraged them to go on but we told them, if you want to give up, there’s no harm in it,” Steve Rogers said.
“In the back of my mind, I know my son, when he makes up his mind about something, he goes for it.”