It’s hard to miss Jack Fussell running down the road in his neon yellow fitness shirt pushing a baby stroller he calls “Wilson.”
Fussell, a Talking Rock resident, arrived in Dalton on Thursday as a stopping point in his awareness journey from Skidaway Island in Savannah to Monterey, Calif. He is visiting Alzheimer’s Association offices, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other locations as he works to raise $250,000 for the Alzheimer’s Association in memory of his father who died in 2000.
He and Wilson hit mile 508 of 3,591 when they entered Dalton Thursday afternoon on his way down from Fort Mountain. Two women who described themselves as Fussell’s “biggest fans” were waiting for him at the Alzheimer’s Association on Morris Street when he got there. Molly Myers, a registered nurse with Peace for You In-Home Care Inc. in Dalton, and volunteer Sally Hart said they heard about Fussell’s epic journey through the Alzheimer’s Association and media coverage and wanted to meet him in person.
They promptly had him sign their purple T-shirts in support of his cause and greeted him with enthusiastic hugs and questions about his journey.
It’s a journey with an external cause — fighting Alzheimer’s — but also a very personal one.
A sedentary lifestyle
Fussell wasn’t always the type to spend his weeks traversing the American countryside on foot.
In fact, Fussell was more the type to enjoy eating a diet of whatever pleased him, being more than 100 pounds overweight, leading a sedentary lifestyle, and, he said, being so stressed that he suffered from a bleeding ulcer that nearly killed him.
In 2000, his father died after battling prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. About nine months later, Fussell was admitted to the hospital with a bleeding ulcer and told he had just two hours to live. Then something happened that changed his life.
While he was undergoing a test that involved monitoring his heart in such a way even he could see how fast it was beating, the young nurse asked her then 50-year-old patient whether he was scared. Fussell admitted he was. She empathized.
“I would be scared, too,” he remembers her saying as she laid a hand on his arm. Then she asked jokingly if he was married and feigned disappointment when he told her he was. His rapid heart rate immediately began slowing to normal. Another person’s care and sympathy, he said, had made all the difference in the world in his stress level.
“I have always since then thought ‘I want to do that for people,’” he said.
A different person
Fussell began to recover but was told he’d have only another year to live unless he made significant lifestyle changes. So he wasted no time. He switched to a carefully planned diet and began exercising at Amicalola Falls State Park, 22 miles from where he lived. Up and down the canyon he went, climbing the 604 stairs along the trail multiple times a day. He lost 100 pounds in about a year and eventually built up to his goal of traversing the stairs 50 times in a row. The step marathon took more than 17 hours.
Fussell was proud of himself, so proud, he said, that for a while after he achieved peak fitness he became too “cocky.” At some point after his hospital stay as he transitioned to a healthier individual, he said he also became a different person from the man his family had known; he and his wife divorced but still have an amicable relationship.
‘The right thing to do’
With no major fitness goals on his radar for the first time in more than five years, Fussell began feeling down. Then he had an idea to run across the country from coast to coast.
“As soon as it popped into my mind, my energy went very high,” he said. “I started smiling, and I knew it was the right thing to do.”
It wasn’t hard to decide what he would run for. His father had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for a year-and-a-half before he died at age 76 after a difficult battle with prostate cancer, Fussell said. He said he considers his trip across the states a way to make his own contribution to that memory. He spent 529 days training and preparing for the journey, building up to 100 to 150 miles per week. Most of his mileage was on the steps at Amicalola Falls.
He had already made a life for himself before the journey. With a son, a daughter, 20 years under his belt in the air conditioning and refrigeration industry, another 20 years in the insurance business and several more years as a receiving manager for Belk — that was the best job because of his daily interactions with the same people, he said — Fussell set out to make new ruts in the road.
With a Bob stroller as his constant companion — named after the volleyball Tom Hanks’ character cherishes during his solitude in the movie “Castaway” — Fussell said he prepared for the rigors of the road by taking along a sleeping bag, dehydrated meals, liquids, a device that emits a frequency to stop dogs from attacking and another device that allows him to send out an emergency alert from anywhere. He also has a smartphone with GPS and solar-powered batteries. Yet most places he’s been he meets people or business representatives who put him up for the night and offer him hot meals. Hampton Inn and the Oakwood Cafe did the honors in Dalton.
A changed perspective
Fussell’s outlook toward people has changed drastically since his time in the hospital. Describing himself as somewhat pushy and more inclined to be angry at people who wronged him, he said he now recognizes that the wrongs are nothing personal. Instead, he said, they’re a reflection of the fact someone is hurting, that something in their life isn’t right. Many people have responded to his kindness toward their rudeness and come back later to apologize, he said. His changed perspective allowed him to develop confidence and trust, which in turn allow him to be more kind to others and share experiences he wouldn’t have otherwise had.
For example, not long into his journey, which began Jan. 12, a local police officer stopped him and urged him not to enter a predominantly black neighborhood known for being a rough area. Fussell thought about it and decided to go anyhow. Those people needed his message as much as others, he decided. Within a few minutes, he saw a crowd of young black kids on a street corner watching him. It crossed his mind to run the other direction, but then he thought to himself how shunned the group would have felt to have him running away. So he didn’t.
“I went straight at them smiling,” he recalled.
They greeted him and told him how they’d seen him in the news. Fussell went through the neighborhood without incident.
Another time, some people in a pickup truck yelled at him as they drove by — then they turned around and drove by again. Finally, the truck stopped and four shirtless, heavily tattooed Hispanics jumped out and came running toward him. A police car came by at about the same time to check on Fussell, but all the men ended up doing was getting their picture made with him.
The journey is often emotional, he said. On one of his stops, he met a man who was in perfect health physically but who had lost the ability to use his mind. The Georgia Tech graduate had at one time worked for NASA.
Fussell expects to finish his trip by the end of the year, and he expects to have a large reservoir of memories by trip’s end.
“This has just become unbelievably encouraging to me to talk to the people,” he said.
Follow Fussell online
• Most common form of dementia (loss of memory and other intellectual abilities that interfere with daily life).
• No current cure, but symptom treatment is available and research is ongoing.
• An estimated 5.4 million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s.
• 24/7 Helpline: (800) 272-3900