Mary Hesch
CNN  — 

Along a windy stretch of Texas highway, a woman walks with purpose. Mary Hesch is on a 1,439-mile pilgrimage from central Wisconsin to the Texas coast – all of it on foot – to honor her mother and raise awareness of the lung disease that took her life.

Hesch, 61, physically embarked on her journey on September 15, but emotionally, it began some 25 years ago after an unexpected phone call from her mother.

“She called and said, ‘I have some bad news,’” the daughter recalled to CNN. “I’ll never forget. ‘I have idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. I have six months to two years to live.’” Pulmonary fibrosis is a debilitating, incurable lung disease that affects more than 250,000 Americans.

An inspiring mother

Hesch described her mother as an inspirational woman with a knack for cooking and a voice that could move you to tears. “She was a mother of 6, and there were many times that was too much. But she got us through. There were so many beautiful lessons of life, of love.”

Hesch’s mother found comfort visiting Port Aransas, Texas, where the sea-level air helped her breathe and the Gulf waters soothed her soul. Planning her own funeral, she asked Mary to draw a memorial card featuring two seagulls flying over the ocean. When her mother passed away, the family scattered her ashes in the ocean off that very beach.

Mary Hesch's mother died of pulmonary fibrosis twenty-five years ago.

A family’s endurance

Walking has always been a part of Hesch’s life. “At least thirty years ago I said to a friend, ‘wouldn’t it be fun to walk to the ocean?’” After the loss of her mother, the idea took on a greater sense of importance. With a starting point of her front door in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, every step to the Texas shore would be a way to honor her mother’s life. Mary’s father and his second wife, Lois, suggested using the journey to raise funds and awareness for the fight against pulmonary fibrosis.

Mary partnered with the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation to organize the fundraising, launched her walking route on Google maps and set off.

“My dad was interviewed the day I left. He was really emotional. He was asked ‘how do you feel about what your daughter’s going to do?’ He answered with two words:

One was ‘proud,’ the other was ‘brave.’ It’s humbling to be thought of as brave.”

The journey

Life on the road is anything but lonely for Mary. Her friend Joan Dold frequently walks alongside her. Joan’s husband, Clarence, drives along in a motor home where the trio eats and sleeps.

Mary Hesch and friend Joan Dold walking somewhere between Wisconsin and Texas.

There are countless animals, cows mostly, Mary finds herself stopping to greet. It’s a habit she picked up from her mother.

But the biggest surprises are the everyday people she connects with. “The cars go by, I look in their eyes and we connect,” she recalled. “How many cars stop … I think in the hundreds. ‘Are you OK?’ ‘Do you need water?’ 90 percent of the days there’s a story where somebody stopped.”

Her connections led to donations to the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation and news coverage that made its way back to Hesch’s hometown.

Her father was particularly moved. He longed to link up with his daughter at the beach in Texas. But amid the threat of Covid-19, the 93-year-old resigned himself to staying home and phoning Mary with encouragement and ideas.

“He had big ideas,” Mary shared. “‘You need to call the President. He needs to know.’ ‘What kind of shoes are you wearing? They should sponsor you.’ ‘There’s going to be a statue of you in Washington, DC!’”

Community impact

This journey is not only significant to Mary and her family, but also to passersby noticing the giant photo of Mary’s mother and the mission statement plastered on the back of the Dold’s motor home.

Joan and Clarence Dold drive along in this RV to accompany Mary on her journey.

“I was at an AT&T store getting my phone fixed. A woman saw my van and came in and said, ‘my husband died a year ago from pulmonary fibrosis.’ She said, ‘Your walk means a lot to me.’”

Strangers, of every political stripe and social leaning have been bonding with Hesch throughout the journey.

“I didn’t expect that. So much kindness and beauty,” Hesch said. “We’re so divided in this country, but we’re really not. The divide is not real. It’s really been opening for me, spiritually opening.”

The physical toll

Mary plans to arrive at Port Aransas on December 30. By then, she will have walked 99 days, averaging 14.6 miles per day. She’s currently on schedule, but it hasn’t been all cows and well-wishers.

Missouri’s Ozark Mountains were particularly grueling.

“It took every ounce of my being to get through it.” At the halfway point, Mary was breathing heavy, crawling, and doubting herself. But she cleared those mountains. It’s been mostly flat ever since and “worth every minute of physical exertion,” she said.

An unexpected turn

On day 89 of her journey, Hesch received a devastating call. Her father had suffered a heart attack. Her biggest cheerleader had passed away. Mary cried for hours and considered postponing her arrival date. But the next morning, she awoke with new resolve.

“I’m physically stronger. It’s like he’s walking with me,” she said.

Her mission now has an additional dimension that will make the walk even more special as Hesch approaches that beach in Texas.

“Now, Lois is coming with his ashes, so he’s going to get there. Our plan is that the last half mile, I’m carrying the urn with his ashes and Lois will walk beside me with her walker.”

A journey completed. A disease fought, and a couple at last reunited in the sea.