Some moments that define our lives are crystal clear; at other times, it can be difficult to pinpoint the origin of certain behaviors and desires. Ever since New Jersey native James Leitner learned in high school of the staggering fact that almost one billion people across the world go without access to clean water, his life developed a clear direction.
On May 17, 2017, Leitner began walking from Princeton, N.J. to San Francisco, Calif. to raise awareness across the U.S. around the issue of clean water — lugging 10 gallons of water every step of what will become 3,215 miles.
When he sat down with Capital Area Women’s LifeStyle Magazine in June, Leitner believed Michigan marked 700 miles into his momentous trek that should wrap up in late October. He paused in Flint before reaching Lansing to volunteer in wake of that city’s water crisis; after Lansing, his next destination was ultimately Benton Harbor, hugging the shores of Lake Michigan and making his next big rest stop Michigan City, Ind.
“I guess I still have 2,500 miles or so to go,” Leitner said, who expects to complete his journey on 3 liters of water per day and food where he can find it. “So, it seems like it’s been forever, but I’m still in the very beginning works of the trip.”
Leitner’s journey is inspired by Tanzanians in East Africa who walk about 9 miles per day, 3,200 miles per year to gather water for their communities. While men focus on farming and livestock, women and children are expected to venture forth and find water, regardless of sickness or other impediments.
“I remember seeing one lady who was pregnant — had a kid on her back — try to travel back home, and images like that stuck with me,” Leitner said.
Specific involvement in Tanzania came from Leitner’s work with the Philadelphia Serengeti Alliance (PSA) while attending the University of Delaware. Leitner moved to West Virginia in Jan. 2016 after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies, stepping into a career with the West Virginia Conservation Agency.
Leitner’s always been in shape due to rock climbing, soccer and ultimate frisbee, but he was never a trained athlete. He soon dedicated himself to complete 12 marathons over 12 months, carrying 45 pounds of water during each stretch. By the last marathon in April 2017, he already knew his current journey was on the horizon.
“If someone says, ‘I’m comfortable walking 20 miles by myself,’ I suggest trying to plan out a 30-mile trip by yourself because — that extra 10 miles — you will learn so much more about yourself,” Leitner said.
It took months of planning to customize a walkable path with Google Maps, and GPS devices like SPOT are useful to let loved ones know that he’s okay. So far, only stray animals nipping at equipment have given him any trouble.
While friends, family and acquaintances help find shelter, it doesn’t always work out so simply for Leitner. Local churches serve as an alternative, as well as the backyards of community members willing to hear his story.
“Friends and family-wise, they’re always looking out for me,” Leitner said. “When I’ve been on the road, and I’m kind of at the whim of strangers, I’ve learned everyone has wonderful intentions and would like to help out as much as they can too.”
It’s no secret that Leitner’s vision for clean water is not limited to one geographical location. In the future, he hopes his nonprofit, Mission Clean Water, can leverage the marketing capacity of similar organizations. For now, Leitner’s sights are set on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
“It feels really good,” Leitner said. “Even on days where it’s really hard or physically challenging or really hot, I still can’t see myself anywhere else. Every time I had a bad moment or good moment and meet someone new, I’m like, ‘this is perfect’.”
To learn more about Leitner’s route, stay updated on his journey and contribute to clean water throughout the world, visit missioncleanwater.com.