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Walking Home: Many Small Steps Against Cancer

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RICE LAKE, WIS. -- She comes loping down the side of a country road, pushing a three-wheeled stroller ahead of her like some crazy lady trying to run off with a baby.

Crazy? Maybe, she says, smiling. She is, after all, speed-walking to Spooner.

But there's no baby. The jogging stroller is stuffed with survival gear: water, maps, ibuprofen, pepper spray. Names scrawled on the stroller's canvas, dozens of names faded by time and exposure, represent not babies but women who have survived breast cancer: Stella from Ireland. Katey from New Zealand.

When Polly Letofsky reaches her old south Minneapolis neighborhood in mid-October, she'll have walked more than 12,000 miles across 22 countries on four continents. She will be four-fifths through a walk around the world that began from her home in Vail, Colo., more than four years ago.

She's doing it to raise awareness of breast cancer and money for research.

She started in Colorado, aiming for Minnesota by heading south, then west, by way of New Zealand, India, Turkey, France, New York City and Rice Lake, a pretty northwestern Wisconsin town with boulevards rimmed by petunia beds. Letofsky arrived one hot day last week after a 5-mile trek from Chetek.

She'll cross from Superior to Duluth on Wednesday.

"I've always enjoyed walking," says Letofsky, 41, over a spartan lunch of chicken, cottage cheese and orange juice at a truck stop in Chetek. "It's been my thinking time.

"If it's raining, I might be a little disappointed; there'll be no picnic stop, no time for dawdling, and I like to dawdle. One time in Europe, I walked through five days of rain, and that was discouraging."

As a girl in Minnesota, she was captivated by accounts of the four-year world walk by David Kunst of Waseca, in the mid-1970s.

"My mother had started getting me to read the newspaper," Letofsky said. "He was on the last leg of his trip. I cut the stories out and saved them.

"What the hell did I know? I was 12. But the idea really took hold in my brain. As I got older, it never went away."

Lions and curlers

In a parking lot on the south side of Rice Lake, Letofsky is welcomed by half a dozen Lions wearing their colors. Bethani LeVan, 19, is there, too, representing an honor society at the University of Wisconsin-Barron County.

"I don't know anybody who could do this, who could go this far to fight breast cancer," LeVan says, presenting Letofsky with a certificate.

In Australia, members of a local Lions Club took pity on the slight American who said she was going to walk the length of their great island and do it for the most part alone. "They adopted me off the street," Letofsky said, and provided her with occasional company. Lions have been looking out for her ever since.

And not just Lions. The Rice Lake Curling Club has made breast cancer awareness its cause and Letofsky its hero, and the club wants her to come back to headline its next big fundraiser. "You'd be a bigger draw than the Dixie Chicks," one member told her.

Letofsky grins, but she says later she isn't so sure. She has raised about $120,000 so far, a third of what she thought she might raise.

"I think I've come to terms with the fact I can't raise a lot of money," she said. "I don't have a big team, and the awareness work is more along the line of what I can do. So it's not disappointing."

Still, the $2,500 she raised in Thailand was enough to start a breast cancer department at a regional hospital. In Singapore, Malaysia, Turkey and Ireland, the Lions have formed permanent relationships with women's groups.

Letofsky started out wanting to walk around the world. Then she decided she wanted to walk with purpose. When a friend died from breast cancer, she had her purpose.

Just before she left Rice Lake for Spooner, she walked to the local hospital, where two women waited to meet her. They were in for chemotherapy.

Usually bouyant, even boisterous, Letofsky was subdued after the hospital visit.

"That's when I feel insignificant, when what I'm doing seems insignificant," she said.

Hard road in India

In more than four years, Letofsky said, she never once came close to quitting.

"I had a mental and physical list ready when I started, a guide to how I was going to punch myself through that thought," she said. "But I never had to use it."

There were difficult and unpleasant moments. Walking through India was hard, especially in isolated areas, where she often was taunted by men. "A woman walking alone, it just isn't done," she said.

She also was frustrated by overly protective people.

"In Malaysia, in Thailand, people never let me go anywhere alone," she said. "One time in Turkey, I had an entourage of four cars following me -- military police, Lions and the U.S. Embassy.

"I stopped at a store for crackers, and all these men got out of their cars and came into the store with me. Then they all started arguing about which were the best crackers."

Letofsky tries to eat five small balanced meals a day and sometimes forages for a snack. In Wisconsin, "I picked blueberries near Wausau -- it took me four hours to do 2 miles," she said. "And a woman gave me a jug of strawberries she had just picked."

Her weight has fluctuated by about 15 pounds, she said, but she's in about the same shape -- trim and athletic -- as when she started.

"I've always worked out," she said. "Before I did this walk, I was always riding bikes up mountains, going to the gym and swimming.

"But I'm usually staying with people, and a lot of people around the world measure their success as hosts by how much you eat. They shovel food at you, so I've gained a lot in some parts of the world -- including in Europe, where pizza and pasta were options."

Her walk in Thailand ended with 300 magical steps up to a temple summit overlooking the city of Chiang Mai, then back down the steps to a long and festive dinner with the U.S. consul and Thai friends.

She walked across Turkey, Greece, Italy and France like a budget-strapped collegian, alone except for the occasional woman who joined her for a few miles: a woman who had survived breast cancer or who wanted to honor and remember someone who hadn't.

"In England, there was such a hop in my step because I could speak English -- and people understood me!" Letofsky said. "The passport guy, my first conversation in English -- I just went off on this poor guy! 'What brings you to Great Britain?' he asks, and I tell him my whole story -- everywhere I'd been, what the weather was like. I'm sure he's still recovering.

"It was the same getting back to the U.S. I just floated from New York to Wisconsin -- and Minnesota is next! My home turf!"

Friend Stephanie promises lunch in Duluth; Dawn and Bud, dinner in Grand Rapids. Uncle Wally and Aunt Lue and Grandma wait in Detroit Lakes.

"Just seeing a map of Minnesota gets me excited," Letofsky said, "more excited, I bet, than anyone's ever been by a map of Minnesota."

Readjustment coming

She has crossed paths with other people doing something similar. A walker from England, a man she met traversing New Zealand, is crossing Canada now, walking parallel to her. Letofsky plans to visit him in Winnipeg. (She has taken breaks to heal, rest and arrange a next leg, always returning to where she stopped walking.)

"I'm finding that people who've done things like this had an awful, awful time readjusting," she said. "They're worried about me.

"I know that I'll need to find a job. I'm already kind of anxious about that. I'm pretty much broke, and everybody in my family has been lending me money to help me finish the walk. Once I hit Kansas, I think I'll start networking.

"I know I can't go home to Vail and get a job with four walls around me. Maybe I can do something in sales. The foreign service, maybe? Maybe some writing? Whatever I do, there'll have to be some of this freedom."

Chuck Haga is

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