A mother and son walking across Kansas find plenty of ways to pass the time between towns. There are friendly people to meet and historic markers to read, amazing sunrises/sunsets, and an occasional game of “tumbleweed toss” – where walking sticks are used like hockey sticks to pass tumbleweeds back and forth.
Dr. Sandra Billinger and her son Michael Thomas started their 570-mile walk at the western border of the state, just west of Coolidge, and plan to finish at the KU Medical Center campus near 39th Ave. and State Line Road in Kansas City, Kan., by June 7. But there’s more to this trip than a trek along the Santa Fe Trail and a mother/son adventure. Billinger, Ph.D., PT, is an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Her research focuses on the benefits of exercise after stroke.
“We hope that by walking, we will help do two things,” Billinger said. “First, we hope to raise awareness about the benefits of physical activity, especially after a stroke. And second, we hope to raise money for new equipment to help us better understand brain recovery after stroke.”
They hope to raise $50,000 to purchase equipment that will help Billinger and her team of researchers better measure brain blood flow. That may provide answers to key questions, such as how exercise can help the brain recover from trauma.
“Hopefully, we can inspire others to be physically active and help them lower their risk of developing stroke and numerous other medical conditions,” she said.
Billinger and Thomas left Larned Saturday morning as they followed U.S. 56 to Great Bend, walking about 3 miles an hour. For most of the trip they follow the back roads, but they will stay on the highway today as they walk to Ellinwood.
“We’re roughly following the Santa Fe Trail,” Billinger said.
They stopped at Dundee around 1 p.m. Saturday, boiling water on a portable stove so they could turn pouches of dehydrated food into a tasty lunch of salmon and pasta while resting their sore feet. Billinger said she had to perform “minor surgery” the night before, pulling away a toe nail.
From time to time they are joined by fellow travelers; Ann Giessel Bonsignore, originally from Pawnee County, joined them on the walk from Garfield to Larned on Friday. On Saturday, Dr. Cary Savage, who also works at KU Medical Center but is visiting his parents in Great Bend, joined them and arranged for them to spend the night with his family.
They are often offered a place to stay, and some people offer them rides, which they don’t accept, Thomas said. Other times they camp out.
Billinger was inspired to pursue a career in physical therapy after going through a lengthy recovery from a severe car accident in 1993, while she was pregnant with her son. Thomas, who turns 20 during this journey, plans to attend Fort Hays State University this fall as he pursues a degree in health and human performance.
May is National Stroke Awareness Month and Exercise is Medicine Month. Organizers of the walk note that stroke is the leading cause of disability in the United States, and the fourth leading cause of death. Kansas residents experience about 55,000 strokes each year, with a 46.5 percent average mortality rate.
To follow the walk, get more information or to make a donation on the Internet, visit www.walkacrosskansas.com.