Ian Cummins has crossed more than half the country seeking answers and telling the story of his brother's life.
Through the one hundred days of the Atlantic to Pacific journey, the purpose of Ian Cummins' quest to grieve, to understand and to share his brother's story has evolved.
"This walk has shown me it's OK to accept that I will never know the answers," Cummins said. "I could walk around the world and not know the answers to these questions."
Cummins' 20-year-old younger brother, Ryan, killed himself last November. Cummins left Virginia Beach, Va., in March and is walking the country to cope with the loss and to raise money for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. By the time he reaches San Francisco in September, he hopes to have reached others with a message of openness and understanding.
People who suffer from mental illness need to have the freedom to discuss it without fear of repercussions, Cummins said. "It's a scary place when you feel all alone. You feel even more alone when you try to find people to share this with and you get criticized."
It's easy to find the cold statistics on mental illness, Cummins said, but he is armed with a story about a person whose life did not benefit all those who knew him.
"What you saw on the outside was not what he was feeling on the inside," the 23-year-old Cummins said. "Inside, every day was a struggle for him. … He saw darkness in the present, so he saw darkness in the future."
"He had a life, he was an individual. Suddenly when you look at that, you don't just see the illness anymore." Ryan was studying at the University of Pittsburgh to become a software engineer. He would be in his sophomore year.
"It's easy to forget the individual, to forget the person. You'd never see a cancer patient as being the cancer. It's simple to say that, but it's harder to get people to think it."
While passing through Kansas, Cummins was joined by his brothers' two best friends, Nick Rogers and Jake Lusardi. The trio pushes lightweight, three-wheeled carts loaded with supplies to make the multi-day treks between towns as the population thins out in the west.
The trip has been a surprise in many ways, the biggest being the graciousness and caring of strangers. A man he met in Kentucky acts as his press agent, contacting media outlets and mental health advocates along his route. Strangers offer room and board. They offer to give him a ride to the closest town when the weather gets gnarly.
His only concession is that they agree to drop him off at the spot he was picked up. Every step needs to be made, even it if requires contacting the local police departments to offer an escort across an automobile-only bridge.
"I'm just beyond amazed at the great people across the world," he said. It seems the world is such a terrible place all the time, but he's learned "the good truly does outweigh the bad."
While in Dodge City the walkers were put up in a hotel by Compass Behavioral Health, the southwest Kansas mental health service organization. Cummins met with employees and leaders of Compass before heading out to Cimarron, Monday.
The number people who have been inspired to share with him their stories have been surprising, too. Cummins does not shy away from the details of his or his brothers' struggles. It's a glimmer of hope, people will talk, but maybe not be the first to talk.
"How are we going to be move forward if we don't acknowledge it fully. If the way we deal with mental health can be made better through a story, then I can only hope my brother's life and story will help those that struggle," Cummins said.
He wants people with mental illnesses and their loved ones to know: "You're not alone no matter how alone you feel or how dark a place you're in, you're not alone."
With each step, with each person he meets, he hopes to create a ripple to erode the stigma surrounding mental health.
Cummins updates a Youtube channel and his website at www.ianwalksamerica.com. Anyone who is interested in donating to his cause can do so through the website. All donations are handled by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.