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'I did it my way': 82-year-old makes 28-mile walking trek in Minnesota for personal reasons

Jack Nelson, right, celebrates with friends at the Last Chance Saloon in Hendrum, Minn., after walking from Moorhead to Hendrum in 2007 at age 72.1 / 3
Jack Nelson walks U.S. Highway 75 from Moorhead to his hometown of Hendrum, Minn., in 2007. He will make a return trip on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017, at age 82. 2 / 3
Jack Nelson, 82, stops Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017, at the American Legion, Moorhead. He plans to finish a 28-miles walk there Thursday to celebrate a similar walk he made 10 years ago. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service3 / 3

MOORHEAD, Minn. — At an age when many people would be content to walk from their living room couch to the kitchen, 82-year-old Jack Nelson will wake up Thursday morning, pull on his $15 Reebok walking shoes, zip up his red tracksuit, put his Fitbit on his wrist, and walk 28 miles from his hometown of Hendrum, Minn., to Moorhead.

He'll probably stop for a beer along the way.

Nelson, who grew up in Hendrum and now splits his time between California and Wisconsin, is repeating a walk he first made 10 years ago to mark the one-year anniversary of undergoing brain surgery. But he's not doing it to raise money for charity, draw attention to a cause, or set a world record. His reasons are entirely personal and have changed over time.

"I'm doing it to keep off the oxygen tank," he said.

He was diagnosed three years ago with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a condition that makes it hard to breathe, the result of decades of smoking cigarettes when he was younger. He's seen too many friends who suffer from the same ailment that have to cart around an oxygen tank to help them breathe, or have died from the disease.

When he first began long-distance walking after his brain surgery, which was unrelated to COPD, it was to lose weight he gained when he retired following his surgery. He worked for years for the U.S. Postal Service in a physically strenuous job that kept him in shape without having to think about it. But he gained 20 pounds in the initial months after retirement.

Walking was a way to lose weight without having to change his lifestyle, go on a diet, or give up the food he loves. But he also discovered that walking has other benefits.

"I feel so much better," he said. "I don't take naps. If I feel tired, I'd rather go out and walk."

Now he's become, in the words of his wife, Sherry, "a little fanatical at times." He wears a Fitbit wherever he goes. He walked 419 miles in August alone, an average of 13.5 miles a day. On his 79th birthday, he walked 32 miles and then ate a half gallon of ice cream.

Nelson has his own way of doing things. When he first walked from Hendrum to Moorhead in 2007 at age 72, he stopped in Kragnes, Georgetown and Perley en route to rest and meet friends, and had a beer in each town (two in Perley because he was ahead of schedule).

He called his low-speed marathon his "home run march," because it had four stops, like a baseball diamond. It took 7 hours, 50 minutes to complete. He finished at the Last Chance Saloon in Hendrum, where he "slid into home" in front of the bar, before celebrating with friends and champagne.

His goal was to go the distance without drinking any water (he had a little). Everyone told him, drink plenty of water en route to keep from dehydrating and don't drink any beer because it will have the opposite effect. So he did the reverse.

"I did it my way," he said.

Surgery changed him

Nelson never exercised, never worked out, and never even thought about fitness until after his surgery. He loves sports, but purely as a spectator (he now writes about high school basketball in California). He started smoking in high school, which killed his athletic ambitions after his freshman year.

He was born at home in Hendrum in 1935. His dad owned a service station in town. He graduated from Hendrum High School, then got drafted into the Army in 1954. He never left the states, returned after his two-year tour was finished, and entered Moorhead State University.

College "wasn't for me," he said, so he joined the Navy, which is how he acquired his nickname "Sailor Jack." He spent 18 years in the Navy as an electrician, mostly in sunny southern California, stationed at Long Beach and San Diego, a far cry from frigid Minnesota.

When he left the Navy, he returned to Minnesota and went to work for a cousin in Edina. A year later, he accompanied a friend when he went to apply at the U.S. Postal Service and ended up taking the application test himself.

He worked for two years at the Minneapolis post office, where he met his wife. Then in 1980, he transferred to a post office in Orange County near Los Angeles. Later, he switched to a post office in Irvine, and he and his wife bought a house in Laguna Woods.

Ironically, given his current propensity for distance walking, he could barely walk by the time he left Minneapolis. He was diagnosed with degenerative arthritis. He thought he would be in a wheelchair by the time he was 50. But he said the California weather cured his arthritis. Month by month his knees improved.

"It wasn't degenerative arthritis," he said. "It was just three winters frozen stiff in Minneapolis."

Nelson's life changed in 2006 at age 71, and that gave rise to his walking mania. He was on vacation back East, visiting friends and attending two ship reunions when he noticed something was wrong. His walking speed had slowed. He couldn't keep up with his friends.

When he returned to California, he went straight to the doctor, who ordered a battery of tests. On the fourth day of testing, an MRI revealed that he had blood pooling around his brain. He was rushed into surgery. Afterwards, he felt like a different person.

"I looked up, I said, 'Man, I can walk again,'" he recalled. "My legs felt light again. I was feeling pretty good."

Walking easier than biking

Nelson figured that would be a good time to retire, so he did. But without the physical exertion his job required — he walked as much as three miles a day and loaded trucks — his weight ballooned from 150 to 170 pounds in a few months. He went on a diet, but wasn't happy about that.

His wife grew up in Wisconsin, and they had bought land near family there and built a summer house near the town of Birchwood, in the lake country northeast of Rice Lake. Unhappy about dieting, he bought a bike and figured he would get in shape riding near their summer home.

But he soon discovered that the hilly topography of Wisconsin was a good deal more challenging on a bicycle than the flatlands of the Red River Valley where he grew up. The first day he set out to ride 13 miles to a general store owned by his stepdaughter, then return home. He didn't make it. He telephoned his wife when he got to the store and asked her to pick him up. He never rode the bike again.

Instead, the very next day he started walking to Birchwood, a distance of about four miles. He'd have lunch, then return home. Later he changed his destination, walking about the same distance to Mikana, have coffee and read the newspaper, and sit with the old timer's on the "liar's bench" in town. Now he walks into town and home every day.

To celebrate the one-year anniversary of his brain surgery, he decided he wanted to walk a marathon (26.2 miles). He figured it would be quite an accomplishment for a guy who couldn't keep up with his old Navy buddies only a year before.

Originally, he planned to walk a marathon distance in Wisconsin, but friends in the Fargo-Moorhead area didn't trust him to do it without observers. He measured the distance by car from Moorhead to Hendrum, and it was just about right, so decided to walk up U.S. Highway 75 to his hometown.

The first walk had a few misadventures that he'd rather not repeat. He lost his cellphone for a few hours, and a bee wouldn't leave him alone for a quarter mile. But otherwise it was a good time and left a deep impression.

"I remember more about that one day than any other day in my life," he said.

Ten years later on Thursday, Sept. 28, he'll make a return trip, reversing the direction of his original walk. He will leave Hendrum at 7 a.m. from Napstad's Deli on Highway 75 (his father's old service station). He'll stop in Perley (though it will probably be too early for the Perley Place bar to be open) and Kragnes, before finishing up at the American Legion in Moorhead, where he will be greeted by friends.

The route could change depending on the weather. If the wind blows from the south and is significant, the itinerary may be reversed so that the wind will be at his back. If he does that, the walk will finish at Tank's Barley House in downtown Hendrum.

Nelson didn't figure he would be alive to make a second walk a decade after the first, but he's more bold in his hopes now.

"I guarantee if I'm around in 10 years I will do it again," he said. "I put one foot in front of the other one until I get where I'm going. That's the secret."