PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – For the next few months, a young man from Pittsburgh will be taking a long, long walk.
Ian Cummins has just started it – setting out from Virginia Beach, Virginia, headed west. He doesn’t intend to stop walking until he reaches San Francisco.READ MORE: 11 Trees Planted In Schenley Park Commemorate Lives Lost 3 Years Ago At Tree Of Life
What could drive someone to undertake such a monumental journey? For Ian, 22, it’s a profound sense of loss combined with a profound desire to help others.
Before he set off on his mission, we spoke at his home in Dormont as he was making sure he had everything he might need for the coast-to-coast hike.
“I could probably spend another year preparing for something like this,” Ian says. “But I would just drive myself crazy.”
He expects the walk will take five to eight months – leaving the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in March, arriving on the shores of the Pacific sometime between August and October.
He’s taken long practice hikes – breaking in his hiking shoes, getting comfortable with his backpack and getting mentally set. It’s clear he’s given the mission lots of careful consideration.
For starters, “I bought myself a pair of waterproof pants,” he says, looking over the gear arrayed on his dining room table. Plus “an aluminum cookware set… a water filtration unit… nutrition bars… rain jacket, umbrella”… not to mention a first-aid kid (complete with a snakebite kit and EpiPens) and a solar-powered battery charger for his phone and tablet.
And he’s paying especially close attention to his footwear, packing a generous supply of socks and foot care products.
“That was the number one thing people were telling me,” he says. “You’ve got to take care of your feet”
And he knows that not everyone – and everything – he encounters along the route will be friendly. That’s why he’ll be packing bear spray.
“If it works against a bear, if somebody does have sinister intentions – which I’m really hoping that they don’t – this’ll be what I use,” Ian says.
He plans to walk from Virginia to Kansas with a 43-pound pack on his back – camping where he can, splurging on the occasional motel. In Kansas, he plans to trade the pack for a cart. He’ll load it up with enough drinking water to make it through the mountains and the desert.
The prepping turned into a full time job. But until a few months ago, Ian was working as an ICU nurse at UPMC Mercy Hospital.
“Being in the ICU for about a year has taught me so much about what I need to do to survive,” he says.READ MORE: Tiniest Pumpkins: UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital Nursing Staff Dresses Newborns For Halloween
Ian left that job to give this mission his all. And it’s given him what he so badly needed: a purpose.
“I felt, what’s the point of living, what’s the point of staying here on earth when he’s gone?”
It was last November when Ian lost his younger brother – his only sibling – Ryan, 20, to suicide.
Ryan Cummins had been a brilliant kid. At 14, he built a computer from scratch. But in his high school years he began describing feelings of anxiety and gloom. He’d eventually be diagnosed with depression and ADD; one doctor said he might have bipolar disorder.
Medication and therapy help many patients. But Ian says for whatever reason, Ryan didn’t get better.
“We tried with what we had and it failed,” says Ian. “Why did it fail? It’s because we don’t know enough about it. We have a lot of research, we have a lot of ways to treat mental illness, but I don’t think we have enough.”
Ian will walk to change that.
On his website, he says he’s out to spark discussion and minimize fear, so that “those who suffer will not feel ashamed of their struggle, but be able to relate with how Ryan felt and come forward to share their feelings so we may better understand the reality of mental illness, what causes it, and how we can treat it.”
He says, “I want to use Ryan’s story, I want to use how Ryan was feeling to hopefully bring the people who are still here – who are still struggling – out into the open.”
With whatever attention his walk receives Ian hopes to advance his cause: opening up lines of communication about mental illness, ending any stigma surrounding it. And he hopes to tell others – as he wishes he could again tell his brother – you’re not a burden. There is support. There is understanding. And there is love.
Says Ian, “My dad always says, Ryan, you weren’t a burden when you were here. We knew that you were struggling. The burden is now. The burden is that you’re gone and there’s nothing that we could have done.
“If he’s listening right now, I’m not angry. I just wish – I hope – that down the road, people who are struggling like you can get the treatment that they need. The right treatment. The treatment that’s going to help them.”
KDKA-TV News will keep you updated on Ian’s journey.MORE NEWS: 'I Can't Believe It's Been Three Years:' Community Prepares To Remember, Reflect On Tree Of Life Shooting