NEWBURYPORT — William Shuttleworth is going strong more than halfway through his 3,000-mile trek to help the nation's veterans.
The 71-year-old Market Street resident left Newburyport on May 15 with a 25-pound backpack and two trekking poles, beginning a 7½-month walk to California to talk along the way with veterans and their families while raising public awareness about the health care, housing and financial issues dealt with by men and women who have served in the U.S. military.
Now 1,700 miles into his trip, Shuttleworth said his spirit hasn't been diminished by long days on the road — rather, it's been lifted by the countless supporters he has met along the way.
"I'm feeling very good," he said on the phone Monday morning as he walked along Route 36, about 10 miles from his next checkpoint in Norton, Kansas.
"You put a pair of shoes on and you start walking across the country, and you'll meet some wonderful, hardworking human beings," he added. "I have seen such incredible love and support."
Walking an average of 31 or 32 miles per day, Shuttleworth has carved a relatively straight path across the middle of the U.S, traversing Massachusetts, New York, northern Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Missouri.
He said his only struggles have occurred on days when temperatures climb to the 100-degree mark, making it extremely difficult to walk and stay hydrated. On those days, he tries to get on the road early — waking up by 3:30 a.m. — to beat the extreme heat.
Other than that, Shuttleworth said he has had two close calls with tornado warnings, one in Indiana where "I literally couldn't see my feet."
Luckily, he was picked up by a driver who took him to shelter.
Since his journey began, media coverage of Shuttleworth has snowballed, making him an online sensation. Because of this, Shuttleworth said he is continuously greeted by people everywhere he goes, some of whom offer him meals or a place to stay, and some who will walk alongside him for up to 10 miles.
"It seems now I've become a national news story, and the media is really helping me spread my message a lot," Shuttleworth said. "This walk has become more than I ever expected it to be. It's a multimedia event, and I'm meeting tons of people every day."
Shuttleworth said the growing media coverage of his trip has helped him get almost halfway to his $100,000 fundraising goal, a small portion of which will help offset the cost of the trip, with the rest going to the Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust, which serves more than a million soldiers a year.
But perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the trip for Shuttleworth has been the conversations he has had with veterans and their families, which he said have helped further his own understanding of the issues they face.
Based on that interaction, Shuttleworth said he has shifted his focus to advocating for better health care for veterans. Specifically, Shuttleworth said he hopes to ensure that veterans are given the same lifelong health care as members of Congress after they serve.
"I think people are really concerned about how many veterans kill themselves every day," Shuttleworth said. "That's a big topic out here and I hear it all the time, but the biggest theme I hear is the trouble veterans are having getting the health care services they need."
Back in Newburyport, Shuttleworth's progress is being tracked closely on a large map in Changing Tides Cafe at 92 Pleasant St., where he had been a regular customer and held his trip's launch party in May.
Dawn Mortimer, co-owner of Changing Tides, said Shuttleworth has been a friend of the shop since he shoveled all the snow from the entrance on its opening day in March. She said she is proud to display his progress on one of the cafe's walls.
"He's an amazing man and a genuinely nice person that wants to help others," Mortimer said. "I think what he's doing is amazing. We're really proud of him."
To keep up with Shuttleworth’s journey west, visit his website at https://vetsdontforgetvets.com/.
To donate to his GoFundMe page, visit https://www.gofundme.com/vets-don039t-forget-vets/donate.
Staff writer Jack Shea can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 978-961-3154. Follow him on Twitter @iamjackshea.
Editor's note: This story corrects the address of Changing Tides Cafe, which was incorrect in an earlier version.