A bearded man with a backward hat and sunglasses walks along the side of the dusty highway under the blazing sun. He pushes a 120-pound cart filled with clothes, food, camping supplies and enough water to last him for days. He walks 26-30 miles per day. His feet hurt. His toes hurt. In fact, everything hurts, but it is not enough to make him stop.
This was the scene, from April to November, as Jared Reichbaum, a student at Penn State Altoona from 2004-07, walked more than 2,700 miles from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Reno, Nevada. Through thunderstorms, windstorms, cornfields during tornado warnings, swarms of mosquitos, and temperatures rising up to 107 degrees, Reichbaum marched on to raise awareness for bone marrow donation and to encourage people to chase their dreams.
Among the supplies in Reichbaum’s cart were swab kits, which he used to swab cheeks and register more than 500 new people to Be The Match, the world’s largest bone marrow registry, and film equipment, which Reichbaum used to capture the whole experience for a documentary that is now in post-production.
“It was such a successful adventure,” Reichbaum, 29, says in a phone interview from California, a week after finishing. “I got to raise awareness for a cause that is near to me, and I really enjoyed the experience for seven months. It was more meaningful than anything I’ve done before.”
The Pittsburgh native is a photographer, filmmaker, world traveler and a deckhand in the yachting industry. Reichbaum was a statistician and PA-announcer for Penn State Altoona athletics, a member of student government and the 2005 Homecoming King.
Though he loved his time at Penn State, Reichbaum transferred after his first semester at University Park to enroll in a Semester at Sea program, and to pursue a major that wasn’t offered at Penn State.
Reichbaum’s cross-country walk was inspired by his friend Joselyn Miller, who he met during his Semester at Sea. In 2012, Miller was diagnosed with a rare blood disease and given only months to live. Her last hope for survival was a bone marrow transplant. Her brother was her perfect match, and saved her life.
With a new outlook on life, Miller encouraged those around her, including Reichbaum, to live life to the fullest. A friendly competition developed between the two to check items off their respective bucket lists. Miller’s bucket list included completing a triathlon, skydiving and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. She accomplished all three. Reichbaum’s list included walking across America and saving a life. Soon, his two goals became intertwined as Reichbaum formed an idea that would change his life—and the lives of many others.
Reichbaum realized the significance of registering with Be The Match after he and Miller’s son registered. Miller’s son got called on as a match and saved the life of a 65-year-old stranger in Italy.
Every three minutes, someone is diagnosed with blood cancer, according to Be The Match. Marrow donors between the ages of 18-44 are called on more than 90 percent of the time, and those who have the same ancestry are more likely to match. However, 70 percent of those in need of a marrow transplant don’t have a match in their family, making the world-wide registry that much more important.
“There are thousands of people that can’t find their match, and they will die. One in only 540 people are registered with Be The Match. I said, ‘540 people? I can register 540 people,” Reichbaum says. “I had the inspiration and the motivation. One day I called Joselyn and her husband and told them that I was going to walk across the country in her honor to register donors. Once it was in my head, it was a thought that I couldn’t get rid of. The only thing to do was to get driven to the ocean and take the first step.”
Reichbaum started a campaign on Kickstarter.com to raise funds for his documentary. In one month, Reichbaum raised $14,352 for his film, under the working title, “Walking Across Amarrowca.”
One week before starting his trip, Reichbaum got approval from Be The Match to walk on their behalf. He completed an online training to become educated on bone marrow donation and learned how to swab cheeks.
On April 14, Reichbaum began his journey in Atlantic City. He walked out of the Atlantic Ocean and took his first steps west.
Though the scope of Reichbaum’s project was grandiose, his every day navigation was simple. “I really winged it. I used Google Maps. I knew where I was going the next day, and that was about it,” Reichbaum says with a laugh. “Everyone who has walked across America has used their own routes. There’s not one best way to get across America. I was on U.S. Route 30 for the first two to three months—I really liked that highway. I got on Interstate 80 in the west, from Wyoming to Nevada, and that was a whole other ballpark.”
Reichbaum describes his journey on Interstate 80 as “loud, unsafe, cars flying by, and walking against 18-wheelers all day.”
“I had a ton of close calls with cars. People texting and not paying attention would swerve onto the shoulder of the road. Luckily, there are rumble strips on the interstate,” Reichbaum said.
Among his biggest daily challenges was pushing his enormous cart in the elements and sometimes up and down mountains. Reichbaum’s cart contained a tent, a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, various camping materials, a little stove-oven to boil water and cook, a large bag of food, a first-aid kit, a solar-powered phone charger, summer and winter clothes, and tons of water.
“Water is really the most important thing. There were times when I was walking alone for days, and there may or may not be a gas station in a small town, so I had to have enough water with me to last me for about three days at all times,” Reichbaum said. “And because of all the walking, I was eating twice as much food.”
At night, Reichbaum would either pitch a tent on the side of the road (though that was more dangerous on Interstate 80), reach out to potential hosts in towns he was passing through, or crash on people’s couches through couchsurfing.com.
A few times, Reichbaum’s Penn State Altoona connections came in handy. He was housed by two former classmates outside Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and he once stayed at a fraternity house of the same fraternity he belonged to at Penn State Altoona.
Along his journey, Reichbaum made countless media appearances to raise awareness for bone marrow donation, including one in Spanish for Telemundo in Denver. He threw out the first pitch at a Pirates game, visited patients in hospitals, and set up registration drives at hospitals and universities. Reichbaum interviewed the people he met and documented their stories. He encouraged everyone to create bucket lists and check off at least one item per year.
“When I gave people information, most were very eager to register. For a lot of people, they register after a family member gets sick. It shouldn’t take a close call to register,” Reichbaum said. “If you go to bethematch.org, you can order a free swab kit from the website. They’ll mail it to you, and you can mail it back for free. If you are a match, you’ll never get a bill. Everything is paid for. It’s painless, and 20 percent of the time, they only need your blood. It’s a very small price to pay for saving someone’s life.”
Halfway through his journey, Reichbaum had two important encounters. At a hospital in Nebraska, Reichbaum met a 12-year-old cancer patient named Emily. He spent a couple of days visiting with Emily and her family, and other pediatric cancer patients. Reichbaum subsequently named his cart, Emily, in her honor; the enormous weight he pushed symbolic of her struggle.
“That visit really hit home for me. It made me realize that there are real people waiting for matches. Their only hope is that somebody registers to find their match,” Reichbaum said. “The personal stories motivated me to keep going.”
In Omaha, Reichbaum met a 24-year-old named Shane Nelson, who was also walking across the country and filming a documentary about it. Shane’s mom had died of lymphoma, which connected him to Reichbaum’s cause. The two walked together for 10 weeks, registering donors, until they parted ways in Nevada. From Nevada, Reichbaum drove about 540 miles to Long Beach, California, to coincide the conclusion of his trip with the Long Beach Be The Match Walk + Run, an event to raise money and register donors.
On Nov. 14, 2015, Reichbaum ended his journey the same way he started: in the ocean. In front of a large crowd of cheering supporters, Reichbaum walked across the sand and into the Pacific Ocean. Though it was the end of the most meaningful chapter of his life, it may prove to be just the beginning of an even greater one.
Of the 540 people that Reichbaum registered with Be The Match, two of the donors have already gotten calls that they are potential matches for someone in need, and are currently undergoing more testing to see if they are the perfect match.
As he works on his documentary for the next few months, Reichbaum is hopeful that the film will continue to inspire people to register for the bone marrow registry and to live their best lives. On Reichbaum’s Instagram, there is a quote that sums it up best: “Do everything possible to do everything possible."