Mac McQuown, a former United States Marine and Army Reservist, arrived at Cherokee County Fire Station No. 19 on Saturday and spent the last few days at the Acworth fire station planning the next leg of his trip.
“People here have been phenomenal,” McQuown said of local residents. “I walked from Marietta Station No. 1, and all day long people were honking their horns and waving, some shook my hand. The reception was amazing.”
The 51-year-old began his journey Sept. 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, leaving his home in Stafford, Va., and walked to Ground Zero in New York, then continued south.
He said his decision to begin the years-long trip came after a lot of prayer.
“When veterans were coming home from combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, I noticed they were being forgotten about whether they were wounded or paid the ultimate price or even came home in one piece, they were soon forgotten about,” McQuown said. “That didn’t sit very well with me. I wanted to do something to bring attention back to the veterans.”
“I prayed about it for the longest time and one day it occurred to me that every state produces a veteran, so what better way (to honor veterans) than to go to all 50 capitols,” he said.
Though McQuown has taken breaks at many fire stations, it wasn’t originally part of the plan. On McQuown’s second day of walking, he said a local fire chief stopped him on the road and invited him to stay at his fire station.
“Most firefighters I’ve met are veterans, so they’re more than happy to help,” McQuown said, adding the firefighters often drive behind him as a safety escort and sometimes help transport his 60-pound cart packed with two days worth of supplies.
At the Acworth fire station Tuesday, Sgt. Stan Ice called nearby Bartow County fire officials and helped McQuown plan his next stop in the neighboring county.
Ice said he’s more than happy to help. He wrote a message on a Bartow County Facebook page Monday to notify area residents McQuown was on his way and said it got over 40 comments.
“He’s been to fire stations all over the country,” Ice said. “It’s not going to be any different when he comes here.”
McQuown said he’s gotten an incredible response from supporters, with several people telling him they’ve heard his story on the news in places he hasn’t reached yet.
“This walk has changed my life in ways I never imagined,” McQuown said. “I wasn’t a real trusting person; I didn’t trust others when I first started. People have been so nice sometimes it’s almost scary. It’s really made me believe in humanity again.”
McQuown walks each day in full desert camouflage uniform — including combat boots — and wears a GPS device to track his journey as well as notify law enforcement if he’s in danger.
“In the first month or two, I had to get acclimated back to them,” he said of the thick work boots. “It’s been a long time since I’ve worn them.”
He said blisters and a heel spur sometimes cause discomfort after walking 10 to 15 miles per day, but he instead prefers to focus on helping his fellow veterans.
“On my worst day I have bleeding blisters, and I think, what have I really got to complain about?” he said. “There’s veterans confined to wheelchairs, confined to beds, confined to respirators, confined to their homes for the rest of their life and they’re 22 years old. I’ve got no complaints. Even if I get robbed of everything, I’ll just continue to walk.”
He also credits his innate sense of adventure as a driving force for the trek.
“I’ve got that x-factor in me,” he said. “My family refers to me as the nomad of the family — I can’t stay in one place too long.”
After leaving Acworth this morning, McQuown’s next stop will be in Dalton, where he attended high school, to visit former classmates. Then he’s heading south towards Atlanta again and will cut west after hitting the city limits.
Once McQuown reaches California, he said he’ll be about a third of the way done with the entire trip.
“I’m knocking out Hawaii and Alaska via cruise ship,” he said. “As it sails, I’ll walk around the deck of the ship a couple of hours a day.”
When he gets back from the two non-continental states, he’ll swerve in a serpentine path hitting each state Capitol on the way back to the east coast with his final stop at Arlington National Cemetery.
“I often tell people, I get to see this country at 3 miles an hour,” McQuown said. “I get to smell the smells, meet the people, hear the nature — all my senses are being stimulated at 3 miles an hour and that’s phenomenal.”
Though awareness is his primary mission, McQuown is also raising money for Silver Star Families, a non-profit group supporting homeless and wounded veterans. So far, he’s helped raise about $6,000.
“Our goal is (to raise) $1 million,” he said. “It will take about six years. I know we can get there and I refuse to believe otherwise.”
After serving in the Army Reserve 18 months, McQuown received an inter-service transfer to join the Marine Corps as a radio operator and then served as an embassy guard until 1988.
Now his number one mission is to bring the focus back to those serving the country.
“It really angered me that we don’t have that spotlight where I think it should be. Even if you disagree with the war — you have that right — but don’t forget our veterans,” he said.
McQuown’s journey can be followed at www.operationwalkamerica.org.