By Wayne Drehs
ESPN.com

GRANITE CITY, Ill. – His back aching, his knees throbbing, his body unable to stand any longer, the pudgy, white-haired 56-year-old needs to sit down.

"Maaaam?" he says to the woman leaning on the empty bar stool. "Are you using that chair?"

A pause.

Bill Holden
Bill Holden is walking across America, on a quest to raise money to fight juvenile diabetes.

"I just walked 1,800 miles and could really use a place to sit."

The woman laughs. "And I thought my Honda got great gas mileage," she deadpans. But this is no joke. The man who can barely walk across the room, the man who needs to lean on the bar just so he can stand, has indeed used his feet to get here.

From Arizona.

"My name is Bill Holden," he says, extending one hand while balancing himself with the other. "I'm walking across America to raise money for juvenile diabetes."

The seat's his.

An hour later, a waiter takes Holden's dinner order. "Seth," Holden says softly after eyeing the teenager's name tag, "you tell the chef that you've got a guy out here that just walked 1,800 miles and he wants the biggest plate of spaghetti and meatballs he's ever seen."

"Yes sir," the kid replies.

So this is how you get by. This is how you leave family, friends and normalcy behind, jam your life into a duffel bag and live on the road – literally – for six months. This is how you spend half a year by yourself, crossing the country step by step, on a pair of knees devoid of cartilage, searching for your soul. Strangers become friends. The unfamiliar becomes familiar. And your entire view of the world is refreshed.

"It's like sitting in an empty theater," Holden said. "And every day a new cast of characters comes across the stage to perform for me. You never know who it's going to be, what they're going to say, but it's always a great show.

HOLDEN IN MOTION
This Old Cub ESPN Motion
"It's renewed my spark in life."

It's beyond comprehension. Walk outside, watch the ground pass under your feet and imagine heading for the next town, the next state. Imagine walking over mountains, across rivers, around lakes. Imagine doing it in snowstorms, thunderstorms and sweaty 95-degree heat. Then imagine doing it by yourself, your only human contact coming with strangers who don't believe where you've been and can't grasp where you're going.

This has been the life of Bill Holden since Jan. 11, when, motivated by the story of Ron Santo, he hopped on a highway in Prescott Valley, Ariz., and headed for Wrigley Field with two goals: to raise $250,000 for juvenile diabetes and to arrive in time for the Cubs' July 1 game against the Nationals. (Today, Monday, June 6, he's in Springfield, IL, on his way to Lincoln, IL. About 240 miles still to go.)

Until he gets to the Friendly Confines, the endearing Irishman with a deep voice, puffy red cheeks and an infectious sense of humor is a modern-day nomad. Unemployed, divorced with two grown kids, he wakes up each morning with a singular goal: to make it to the next dot on his map.

"People tell me it's like Forrest Gump," Holden says. "But that's a load of crap; this is the real thing. I look at a map and it's like, 'I actually walked all that?'"

He's already crossed five states – Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri – with half of Illinois to go. He's fought sunburn. Windburn. Jock itch. He's slept in more than 100 different beds, in everything from an RV park in Roosevelt, Ariz., to a palatial bed-and-breakfast in Edwardsville, Ill. He's met thousands of people – in gas stations, furniture stores, casinos, even prisons – who have helped him along the way.

And he's done it all on a pair of knees that Holden's son, Josh, says are bone-on-bone. Holden was scheduled for reconstructive surgery on each of his knees prior to the trip. Unable to pay for the surgeries because of issues with his medical insurance, he canceled.

"What would most doctors say? 'Don't do it. You won't make it,'" Holden said. "Well screw 'em. Sure I'm sore. Sure it hurts. But how can I complain about having sore knees when Ron Santo doesn't even have any legs?

"I take it slow. Didn't the tortoise win that race with the hare? I'm making it."

Bill Holden
Everyone's gotta eat, even Bill Holden. And many strangers have helped him along the way.

For the Cubs. For Santo. For juvenile diabetes. And most important, for himself. Holden is a blue-collar man of modest means, who, after 32 years of teaching, is enduring his second school year without a class. He doesn't have a lot of money, doesn't know where life will take him after the trip, but has enjoyed himself so much on the road, he's not sure if he cares.

"This trip kind of reaffirms to him that he's worth something to this world," said Greg Reisig, a close friend. "Of course it's trying to raise money, but it's also about Bill proving to himself that he can do this, proving that he can make a contribution outside the classroom. It's made him feel good about himself again."

When word of the walk spread to the Boys and Girls Club where Holden worked last year, executive director Casey Knight was in shock.

"I thought to myself, 'Our Bill?' " Knight said. "The Bill who we had to get a chair for if he stood too long? The Bill who we tried to put in the game room instead of the outside activities to help his knees? He's walking across the country?"

Holden's actually done this sort of thing before. Back in 1968, he walked 330 miles from Carbondale, in downstate Illinois, to Chicago to raise money for the USO, which was on tour during the Vietnam War. The next year, he bicycled from Carbondale to Washington, D.C., to celebrate Southern Illinois University's centennial. And in 2000, Holden had tickets for a Cubs-White Sox game but no money to get there – so he rode a bicycle from Arizona to Chicago.

"Put them all together and it's a cakewalk compared to this," Holden said. "But I'm going to finish."

This adventure started on New Year's Eve, when Holden, a die-hard Cubs fan, saw the film, "This Old Cub," which chronicled Santo's lifelong battle with juvenile diabetes. Holden was so moved by the picture that he decided something had to be done to help find a cure for the disease that ultimately cost Santo both legs.

A few phone calls here, a few e-mails there and Holden, a former teacher who was unemployed at the time, connected with Santo's son, Jeff, who directed the documentary. Before Holden knew it, the folks at "This Old Cub" were helping to send Holden on the adventure of a lifetime.

"I can't imagine what it must be like," Ron Santo said. "I told him before he started, 'Look, I wouldn't even drive 2,100 miles.' He's just such an unbelievable individual. I admire what he's doing so much."

There he was a few Fridays back, 300 miles from Chicago, on Illinois Highway 3, in the baggy blue shorts and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund windbreaker, starting his walk like every other from the past five months: packing a cold bottle of water and a cell phone in the pouch around his waist, tucking a gumball-sized wad of chew under his lower lip and cinching down his shoe laces. A $32 pair of Reeboks are the only shoes he's worn the entire trip.

On this day, the walk was supposed to be from East St. Louis to Granite City, Ill., a 10-mile jaunt through one of the worst neighborhoods in the country, "Beirut" as Holden calls it. Instead, Holden coaxed a stranger into driving him to Granite City, charting the mileage along the way. When he arrived there, he walked to a nearby Waffle House, stood in the center of the restaurant and solicited another ride. A janitor from a local Hostess factory drove Holden 10.8 miles out of town so he could walk back to Granite City, compensating for the drive from East St. Louis.

Bill Holden
Sometimes the pain is too much for Holden to take.

"I don't like to do something like that, but there was no way I was walking through East St. Louis," he said. "It just wasn't safe."

His walks are never easy. And this cool, overcast day is no different. Holden stops 24 times for a break. Sometimes he just stands there, his hands on his hips, his knees throbbing. Other times he sits down – in a ditch, on a guardrail, under a tree – anywhere away from the monotony of the road.

After five months of life on the shoulder, his entire view of the world has changed. Things that the rest of us ignore have become the details of his everyday life.

"See that guard rail," Holden says, pointing to the metal railing that runs along a section of Highway 3. "Total crap. The good ones have this flattened surface at the end so you can sit down. This one is junk."

Later, he discusses the fine roads in Texas, using nostalgic descriptors like "precious" and "beautiful" to describe what others might think of as a lonely stretch of pavement.

"They have these great frontage roads – just fantastic," he said. "They're just beautiful – they did a super job down there when they built those things."

Halfway through the walk, he realizes why this particular day has been such a struggle – he's on the wrong side of the road. He initiates a game of human Frogger, dodging cars along the busy four-lane highway, so he can face oncoming traffic while he walks.

"You do something the same way for five months and then mess it up for a day and it screws with your head," Holden says. "That's why I haven't been feeling right today – I've been on the wrong side of the road."

His adventure is old school. No vehicle. No support team. No flags. No whistles. Just Bill and his bag. Squeezed inside are four "This Old Cub" T-shirts, four pairs of underwear, two sweatshirts, two pairs of socks, sweatpants, shorts and a "This Old Cub" windbreaker. Along with all the miniature hotel shampoo bottles he can stuff in along the way.

He had an umbrella, long johns and a pair of gloves, but he's ditched those. He does laundry once a week. The biggest challenge is his bag. Heavy and awkward, it's impossible to carry along the already exhausting walk. So everyday, Holden finds someone to drive the bag to the next town, where he hopes it will be waiting for him.

Each morning, the routine is the same. Wake up, take a shower, pack the bag. Down two bananas, two ibuprofens and an Equate painkiller. Hang out in the hotel lobby, looking for someone to transport the bag. If that doesn't work, try a nearby coffee shop. If that doesn't work, call the local sheriff.

Bill Holden
The man deserves to relax a little, don't ya think?

Meanwhile, Patrick Mahoney at "This Old Cub," back in California, works the phones, soliciting a hotel room and a hot meal that will await Holden at his next stop each night.

"I'm amazed at the number of people who jump right up and say yes," Mahoney said. "We've had incredible luck on this entire trip."

Bill's had his share of luck on the road, too. Sure, hotel rooms have fallen through here and meals haven't been delivered there, but Holden says his worst experience was a Cardinals fan in St. Louis who refused to give him an extra scoop of ice cream for his cone.

"I'm serious," he said. "That's been it."

Holden even left his wallet on the side of a highway in Arizona, but after getting a ride back up the mountain, he found it sitting there later that night.

"I thought that was the end of this whole thing right there," Bill said. "Crossing the country without ID? I might as well walk naked. But there it was, sitting on a guard rail."

Then there was the Saturday when Holden was out for a leisurely morning stroll (he was ahead of his planned itinerary so he didn't need to walk that day) and found himself in dire need of a bathroom. Holden walked up to a nearby warehouse, turning every door handle he could find. Eventually, one opened. Ten feet inside: a vacant bathroom.

"The whole trip has been like this," Holden said. "God is watching over me."

And his knees.

"I am surprised that his legs have held out this long," Knight said. "There comes a time when it's too much, when you just can't take any more. But he's a bulldog. His will has gotten him this far."

If only they could find some luck with donations. As of late May, Wild Bill's Walk has raised $80,000, well short of the $250,000 goal. But the folks at "This Old Cub" are hopeful that the stretch run through Illinois and certainly the city of Chicago should help Holden reach the $200,000 barrier.

Bill Holden
Holden arrives in Granite City -- but he's still got a long road to go.

"I'm hoping that when he walks into Wrigley Field, we'll have 10,000 supporters behind him," Mahoney said. "I hope people will be driving to work that morning, see Bill on Lake Shore Drive, know his story and then make a donation. It's a worthy cause – and Bill has put everything he has into this."

With less than a mile to go until Granite City and his body preparing for shutdown mode last Friday, Holden finds a ditch for one last break. He lies down, pulls out his cell phone and begins calling his friends. He does this on the road, as it's the only way to hear a familiar voice. But before he dials up Reisig for the fourth time that day, the phone rings.

On the other end is Ron Santo. The Cubs have just lost to the White Sox, 5-1. Holden says Santo sounds depressed.

"Ronnie, I've seen the best of America and the best of the American people," Holden says of his adventures, hoping to cheer him up. "It's renewed my entire outlook on the world. You wouldn't believe it."

The two go on to talk for 10 minutes. About the Cubs, about the trip and about how great it's going to be when Holden reaches Chicago. Not only is Holden scheduled to throw out the first pitch and sing during the seventh-inning stretch, but Santo has organized a JDRF rally in Holden's honor at a Wrigleyville tavern.

But what happens on July 2 is anyone's guess. Holden's alma matter, Southern Illinois, has donated a flight home, but he's not sure where he wants home to be. Arizona? Missouri? Illinois? One of the tiny Texas towns that so delicately touched his heart?

"How about Wrigley Field?" Holden says. "Just take two weeks, drink a couple Old Styles and watch the Cubs every day. Now that would be the life."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com . To donate to Wild Bill's Walk, visit thisoldcub.com.



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