Shortly after Rockville Centre’s Daniel Finnegan and his walking partner, Abby Bongaarts, made their way across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, flanked by friends and family on Sept. 16, the cart they had pushed throughout their 3,200-mile walk graced the sand of Baker Beach, where the cross-country trek officially ended.
The two stopped and turned as their supporters, who came to celebrate with them, prepared to run into the Pacific Ocean. “Abby and I both started laughing,” Finnegan recalled. “I was like, ‘I guess it’s over now.’”
The Herald last spoke with Finnegan on Aug. 21, when he and Bongaarts were in Nevada, roughly 400 miles from the end of their journey, which began in Long Beach on March 1. From Genoa, Nev., the two took State Route 207 to South Lake Tahoe, Calif., where they stayed with a friend formerly from Rockville Centre. They then used U.S. Route 50 to pass the Sierra Nevada, journeying through Sacramento and Napa, before landing in the small, picturesque city of Sausalito, just six miles from their final destination.
Family and friends who wanted to walk with the two during their final miles met them there, or at the north entrance of the Golden Gate Bridge. “It was like ‘Forrest Gump’,” Bongaarts said. “Our group kept growing.”
More than 30 people — including the parents and siblings of both Finnegan and Bongaarts — walked the final stretch, and Bongaarts said that a few others, including grandparents, caught up with the travelers at Baker Beach, where the celebration began.
The group continued the fun at a brewery, Finnegan said, ending up at a San Francisco bar called Finnegans Wake.
The idea for the journey occurred to Bongaarts when she was about 18. “A lot of crazy ideas pop into my head, but usually within about a week or two, I forget about it or think it’s a bad idea,” she said. “But the walk across the country [idea], I couldn’t let go for years.”
Bongaarts met Finnegan while volunteering at AmeriCorps and Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, and ultimately volunteered with him at JOIN, an Oregon-based charity that focuses on helping the homeless. She brought up the idea of walking across the country, and he said he would come. “I didn’t think he was serious at first,” she said, “but it turns out he was.”
Along with the natural beauty the two saw while on the road, such as the approach to the Continental Divide in Colorado, surrounded by mountains, rivers and blooming wildflowers, Bongaarts said the best part was meeting the locals.
The people, Finnegan agreed, helped shape his takeaway from the journey. “To trust people and have faith in humanity,” he said. “The highlight of the trip was always the people that we met … people who would pick up our tab at lunch, people who would welcome us into their houses, people who would just drive by and honk and wave out the window. We had strangers dropping off water for us in the middle of the desert. It never seemed to end that wherever we were, people were being good to us.”
Additionally, the two garnered much support in their mission to raise money for JOIN, with nearly $21,000 collected through their Fundly page and a few thousand more in direct donations to the charity.
Bongaarts will return to her home state of Minnesota to live in Minneapolis, where she plans to work as a waitress while applying for case manager positions in the hope of helping homeless adults and families navigate the housing process.
The thought of being done with the walk hasn’t set in for her. “It was almost like going to work every day, except obviously it was a cool job,” she said. “…When we were at the beach, it felt amazing to finish and everything, but I think part of me still feels like I’ve got to go walk 20 miles today.”
Finnegan planned to leave California on Wednesday and return to Rockville Centre by train, making stops in Denver and Chicago. He said he would return to his job as a purchasing manager for an online auto rim company, but has dreams of becoming a lawyer in the public sector, and focusing on affordable housing or social justice and homelessness. He is still adjusting to finishing the walk. “It’s weird to not be on a set schedule every day of exercising for 10 hours a day,” he said.
He is enjoying the company around him after almost a month and a half of seclusion in the desert. The lack of people in between towns, he said, was beyond any physical challenge, and one of the hardest parts of the journey.
“I purposely don’t have any pictures from the last day, which is terrible,” Finnegan said, “but I just never took my phone out. It was great to be surrounded by people again.”