You can’t help but root for Arthur Hitchcock in the new short documentary Hitchcock Walks. The film follows the then-19-year-old’s trek by foot across the United States and takes you into the heart and mind of a young man reeling from the death of his mom.
“The minute that she passed something in my brain told me that this would be a way to honor the memory of both my parents,” says Hitchcock, who lost his dad when he was two. “And I felt like it would be a good escape. I felt like running away.”
Hitchcock originally had the idea to walk across the country as a way to build his budding photographyportfolio. But after he lost his mom to breast cancer on Oct. 6, 2010, he suddenly had a new reason to set out.
Shot principally by Hitchcock (with the help of a tripod) as he walked, the film was edited by Adam Sjöberg and was just released a little more than a week ago. Since being posted on the Vimeo Staff Pick website, it’s been viewed by more than 44,000 people.
For 16 closely edited minutes, viewers get a glimpse of someone who has reason to check out from the world but instead takes it head on, walking his sadness and frustration away through the mountains of California, the deserts of Utah and the chilled nights of the Northeast.
What could have been a syrupy flop turns into an earnest exploration of Hitchcock’s life and insight into how people deal with loss. This is partly due to Sjöberg’s skills as an editor, partly due to Hitchcock and his story.
“I don’t think [the viewers] are connecting with anything I’ve done,” Sjöberg says. “I really think it’s Arthur, who he is as a person.”
“I was just sitting with Anthony one day and I was like, ‘You know what, how would you feel about coming with me?’” Hitchcock says. “We have been best friends since elementary school and like I expected, Anthony was completely supportive.”
Hitchcock, who ran cross-country in high school, started training by leaving his car at home and doing all his errands on foot while carrying a heavy pack. Before he left he was regularly walking 15 to 20 miles a day.
To finance the trip he wrote letters and e-mails asking for sponsorships. He wanted to raise awareness of breast cancer so he contacted The Breast Cancer Society, which agreed to give him information packets to pass out and $100 each week for food and supplies. America’s Tire Company gave him a new set of tires. Brooks gave him $700 worth of running gear and Osprey gave him two backpacks.
On May 11, 2011 he and Felix started their trip.
Hitchcock had spent weeks researching and mapping a route, but his plan went out the window as soon as he figured out how difficult it was to try and follow a complicated set of directions on America’s back roads.
“I just started thinking in highways and freeways,” he says.
Meanwhile, Felix either waited for Hitchcock at their starting point or ending point each day, carrying supplies in the truck. At night they would set up camp in a tent, sleep in the truck or crash with people they found on couchsurfing.org.
Initially, Hitchcock followed Highway 1 to San Francisco and then turned east on I-80. The highway patrol was not too happy with his decision to walk along the freeway. One day the police stopped him four times. Twice it was the same cop.
“He was livid,” Hitchcock says.
In addition to police threats, other perils of highway travel included a number of sexual propositions from truckers, violent thunderstorms and scorching heat. In Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, Hitchcock ran out of water and was stranded in 100-degree weather, unable to reach Felix via cell. Felix would often misplace his phone in the camper shell or forget to charge it.
“It happened so many times and I was like, really?!” Hitchcock says, laughing. “Go A Team.” Luckily on this occasion, a driver stopped to give Arthur a five-gallon jug of water, which got him through.
“That was just one of many good stories that helped me restore my faith in humanity,” he says. “I couldn’t have done this trip without the kindness of strangers.”
Normally, Hitchcock walked about 25 to 40 miles a day. He challenged himself to add a little more distance over time and one day ended up covering 62 miles along I-80 in Wyoming. To do it he had to get up at 3:30 a.m. and walk for more than 21 hours.
“I wanted to walk until I couldn’t walk anymore,” Hitchcock says. “I wanted to find my limit, and I found it.”
During the 14 hours or so that Hitchcock spent walking each day (he did take days off), he said that he meditated on his own life and tried to overcome the anger and sadness he had when he set out.
“It’s hard to articulate the perspective it gave me, but it completely changed my life,” he says. “I do a better job of putting myself in other people’s shoes, I’m more compassionate, I’m a better listener…. There is no way that I was not transformed.”
Hitchcock originally started filming the trip with a Canon 5D Mark II. He had no idea how he was going to put the footage together but wanted to have it nonetheless.
He met Sjöberg during a stop in New York. Sjöberg, who was a friend of a friend, wanted to edit the footage into a documentary and film Hitchcock when he arrived at his final stop in Augusta, Maine.
“I connected with the story immediately when I met him,” Sjöberg says. “There was a lot of stuff that gave him a reason to feel alone and angry or that some injustice had been done to him, but he still has a grace and a love for people.”
With Sjöberg in tow, Hitchcock’s final day came on Nov. 2, 2011 — 175 days, nearly six months, after Hitchcock and Felix left Long Beach.
Partly out of excitement and partly because he miscalculated the number of miles he had to go that day, Hitchcock ended up running 32 miles to his final landing spot at the Maine State House.
“First off, I was dead tired and I was so happy that I got to stop running,” Hitchcock says about the journey’s final moments. “There was a huge sense of accomplishment and my parents were the first people I thought of.”
After celebrating, it took only five days for Hitchcock and Felix to drive back to California.
Today Hitchcock is living in Oregon with his fiancée, who he proposed to almost immediately after getting back from his trip — an idea he came up with during the journey. They plan on getting married in July.
He’s trying to build his photography business and purposefully enjoying the more mundane life of staying at home.
“It’s been a nice change of pace,” he says.
Photos and video courtesy of Arthur Hitchcock and Adam Sjöberg.