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'Rotund Challengers' are home

Eleven months and 16 days after they walked out of their Riverside apartment, heading west, three Buffalo men who succeeded in walking across the country returned by train to an enthusiastic welcome from relatives and friends, including some they were meeting for the first time.

Jason Rogers, 33, and brothers Joe and Chris Cooke, 33 and 32, looked tired but happy as they climbed down the stairs of the Lake Shore Limited from Chicago shortly after 9 a.m. Both Mary Banks, mother of the Cooke brothers, and Deanna Rogers rushed to embrace their sons on the train platform as they were swarmed by loved ones.

During their long separation, said Deanna Rogers, “I had a picture of him smiling and I would pick it up and kiss it.”

“I didn’t think it would take a year, but I knew it would take a while,” said Banks. “I’m so anxious to see them that I couldn’t sleep for the last two nights, maybe three.”

A table decorated with balloons and stocked with coffee and doughnuts in the Depew Amtrak station sparked the curiosity of other travelers. “We didn’t really understand what was happening,” said Alan Pedder of England, who was traveling from Toronto to Cape Cod with Murat Hakkani of Turkey. “We thought it was a birthday party or something,” said Hakkani.

As the train arrived, the 35 or so greeters, including several who got to know the walkers through their Facebook page, stood in the brilliant sunshine, watching as several doors opened. The sight of Jason Rogers towering above the crowd brought yells and a rush toward the back door of the train.

As Rogers and the Cooke brothers posed behind a large banner heralding their accomplishment on the 2,700 Mile Rotund Challenge – Rogers and Chris Cooke were substantially overweight before their trek started – the Cookes’ aunt, Cherrie Tebo Lovett, asked, “How was your trip, guys?” The answer, to loud laughter, was immediate: “Too long!”

In some ways the final leg was the most difficult for the men, who pushed reinforced baby strollers carrying all their food, water, clothing and camping supplies through rain, snow, wind and blistering sun and heat. Since boarding the train April 29 after several whirlwind days of being shown around the Los Angeles area by new friends, they had slept little and fretted at the price of available food.

“I talked them into a walk, they talked me into a train,” said Rogers ruefully.

The crowd at the station included Pat Bushnell, who avidly followed the trek on Facebook, and her friend Joe Gonda. “I loved their posts and their pictures have been just awesome,” said Bushnell. “But it was the people they met along the way who made it work.”

Besides the walkers’ families, the driving force behind the party was Marianne Schum, who, along with Lovett, rounded up donations from Party City and Paula’s Donuts. “This is our little applause for them,” she said.

The three had different priorities after they finished munching doughnuts and giving interviews. “I’m most looking forward to seeing family, my nieces and nephews and my dad,” said Rogers. Chris and Joe were just eager to shower and get some sleep.

Rather than feeling like the end of a journey, “it feels like the beginning of the next thing,” said Joe Cooke.

And when one of them goes off alone somewhere, will it be strange to be apart after months and months of being together non-stop?

“No, that will be good,” said Joe Cooke.




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