“He did not want to die for nothing. None of us wanted that.”
— Viktor Frankl
Two weeks before Richard Swanson started dribbling a soccer ball to Brazil, his friends toasted him with a boot of dark wheat beer at his favorite German pub. Die Bierstube is in Seattle’s Roosevelt neighborhood,1 near the University of Washington. It sits on a street lined with yoga studios, Pilates studios, a nonprofit no-kill animal rescue, and a center for healing arts that offers classes in Feldenkrais, Chi Kung, dance, interplay, Tui Na, yoga, and transformational breathing. The East West Bookshop, a block north of the tavern, sells crystals, incense, and hardcovers with titles like Buddhist Boot Camp, How to Meditate, and Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself.
Swanson, who was 42 years old, divorced, unemployed, and living with his girlfriend after selling his condo, was about to embark on his journey to South America, he said, because he wanted to “break away” from life as he knew it. He called his expedition “Breakaway Brazil.” In an introductory video he posted on YouTube and Facebook, Swanson talked about how his layoff from a graphic design job left him feeling “a little bummed out.”
“One of the things I’d always wanted to do was go and see the World Cup,” he said. “And not really feeling like I was in a position at that time to do it, you know, not having a job and not having really any income coming in — and plus being a little irritated about the whole situation — I said to myself, I should just walk to the World Cup. And, you know, kind of, Screw what happens! I don’t even care! Take off out the door and start hoofing it. Head south!”
Not only did he feel like hoofing it all the way to Brazil, he figured that since he’d be going there to watch the World Cup, he might as well honor the game by dribbling a soccer ball for all 10,000 or so miles required to reach São Paulo, where the tournament will kick off. Perhaps it wasn’t the soundest of dreams. Even in his agitated and unemployed state, Swanson knew he’d seem crazy. But then a friend told him about One World Futbol, a charity that distributes “virtually indestructible” soccer balls to poor children around the world. If Swanson dribbled one of their balls along the way, the friend pointed out, he could raise awareness for a cause bigger than himself.
“All these pieces started to come together,” Swanson said in his video, “in a way that almost felt like — it felt natural, like I was doing what I needed to be doing, what I should be doing. That this was the next leg in my life. I really needed to, you know, break away. From, I guess, the realities, what we all have to deal with daily. And I just happened to be in a unique spot where I could do that.”
Other people, he noted, have careers and kids to raise and mortgages to pay down. He’d sold his condo. He had no job. The younger of his kids — two boys with the Yakima, Washington, woman he was married to for 11 years — had turned 18 and was living in Ohio. Swanson was free to go. “I just felt all the pieces seemed to fit,” he concluded.
Exactly two weeks after he began dribbling south, and about one minute after he left the seaside hamlet of Lincoln City, Oregon, Swanson was hit by a pickup truck and killed. His death inspired the kind of oddball news story that quickly went national, and then global. Man on a charitable mission is killed, which is tragic. But also: Seattle man on 10,000-mile journey through dangerous jungle and hostile foreign lands is killed in Oregon? After only two weeks? And he was dribbling a soccer ball? And that “virtually indestructible” ball, according to a police spokesman, was “recovered at the scene“?
“I’m going to hell because I laughed at this,” tweeted @BadBoyScoutNYC. “But only for one second. Okay, maybe two.”
“That’s the problem with playing ball in the street by yourself,” joked someone at NPR.com. “No one yells ‘car!’”
Posted a reader of USA Today: “2013 winner of the Darwin Award!”
I flew to Seattle almost as soon as I heard about Swanson’s death, several questions swirling around in my head. I arrived in time to watch the Seattle Sounders honor his two sons at halftime of their game against FC Dallas. The next afternoon, on what would have been Swanson’s 43rd birthday, I joined his family and friends at a memorial back at Die Bierstube. Swanson’s girlfriend, Michelle Terry, arranged flowers below a poster of Swanson standing with his indestructible soccer ball in Seattle’s Gas Works Park. Someone else looped the videos from Swanson’s short trip on one of the television screens that normally show European soccer games. A boot of dunkel weisse was passed around, and then another. Several television cameramen jostled for visuals as the people closest to Swanson grappled with his loss.
“I’m angry,” said his oldest son, Devin. “Angry that this had to happen. It’s too early.”
A friend named Patrick Allen told me Swanson was a big kid at heart, a good dad, a man with a warm and generous spirit who was always playing the ham. Swanson’s father, Tom Roblee, standing alone in the back of the bar, said he was initially opposed to Swanson’s Brazil trip. But then, he said, he came around.
“I told him ‘You’re a crazy son of a bitch,’” Roblee shared with me. He leaned his elbows on a countertop as he spoke. A blue Navy baseball cap covered his gray hair. “But after about two weeks of thinking about it some more, it reminded me of the brass rings we had to catch to ride the merry-go-round at the carnival back when I was a boy. This trip was Richard’s brass ring.”
No one at the memorial knew exactly what had happened in Lincoln City. The few concrete facts: Swanson had been hit from behind by a Nissan pickup truck; he was declared dead upon arrival at the hospital; and the driver of the truck had cooperated with police, had reportedly not been intoxicated, and had not been charged with a crime. Beyond that, the only thing certain at the time was that Swanson had been walking, or perhaps doing something much more reckless, on the wrong side of the road.
“He was dribbling his soccer ball, lost control, and stepped into traffic,” said his friend Luis Limón. “That’s just Richard. I’ve known him for more than a decade and that had to be what happened. That’s exactly something Richard would do.”
Swanson posted 27 pictures of the going-away party at Die Bierstube on his Breakaway Brazil Flickr account. Only one photo documents his actual journey. It’s a shot taken on May 1, about an hour and a half after he set out from the base of the Space Needle. In the photo he’s leaning forward to counterbalance the heft of his new Gregory Baltoro 65 backpack. Strapped to the side of the backpack is his new and rolled-up Kelty Salida two-person tent. A blue-and-green Sounders scarf dangles from a backpack handle. Swanson appears to be dribbling his soccer ball on the paved right-hand shoulder of Airport Way South, meaning he was moving in the direction of traffic, which pedestrians are generally advised not to do. A road sign floating above his head was a warning to motorists visiting the adjacent South Seattle Industrial Park: “Do Not Enter.”
Three weeks after that picture was taken, and one week after he was killed, I stood outside the Space Needle at 6 a.m., the hour Swanson headed out. A drizzle fell on my shoulders, which were hunched to my ears against a chill. Swanson had planned to dribble his soccer ball (or walk when necessary) through 11 countries. He aimed to hug the Pacific Coast until he’d cut across South America. The first match of the 2014 World Cup is scheduled for June 12, in São Paulo. Swanson wanted to be there in time to watch the game.
As I looked south toward the coffee shops and taverns of Belltown and beyond to the skyscrapers of central Seattle, I did the math in my head. That’s 407 days. To make it to the Cup opener, Swanson needed to walk a marathon a day, every day, with almost no days off. He would need to pass through the Sonoran Desert in Mexico, and then through three of the most murderous countries in the world in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. If he survived that gauntlet, the Costa Rican rainforest awaited, as did the Panamanian jungle and a climb to the nosebleed elevations of Bolivia. Complicating matters further, Swanson could speak neither Spanish nor Portuguese.
“He’d always felt that he was destined for something larger to do in his life,” says his girlfriend, Michelle Terry. “Something bigger and more meaningful. He’d been really battered by the economic situation in the last couple years. His confidence and his sense of self took a huge beating. This adventure was sort of a giant reaction against that.”
I didn’t need a full tank of gas to retrace the 270 miles Swanson did cover. I first drove to Federal Way, where he stayed in a hotel room on his initial night. Then I passed through Tacoma to reach Steliacoom, a Puget Sound outpost where he crashed on the couch of an Army doctor, and where he jettisoned almost half his backpack, including a 17-inch MacBook Pro on which he’d planned to manage the Breakaway Brazil website. “Totally streamlined now,” he said in a video recorded on May 5. “Much less weight on my back, and I feel amazing because of it.” On Interstate 5, I passed the spot where a state trooper stopped Swanson on Day 3.
On the Internet, Swanson found couches to sleep on in Winlock, Longview, Woodland, and every other town he stopped in. “I’m overwhelmed by all this amazing support,” he posted on Day 5. At the end of his first week: “Everyone is making this the best experience of my life. I love my life!”
Swanson spent two nights with his son Devin in Vancouver, Washington, before crossing the Columbia River into Oregon on May 10. (“22-year-olds live like animals,” he messaged Terry. “I should have couch surfed.”) He posted a video of a pet goat at the house where he stayed a night in Tigard. In McMinnville he watched a youth soccer game. He crashed one last inland night outside an Indian reservation in Grand Ronde.
Even without his MacBook, Swanson managed to document practically every step of his trip. His website featured a real-time GPS tracker. He posted cell phone snapshots of the bridges he crossed and the meals he ate. He posted videos, too, and in all of them his enthusiasm was evident. He smiled in every photo. He cheered as his Facebook followers — his Breakaway Brazil Army, he called them — grew to 300 after one week and then to 400 a week later. Swanson came across as a man completely enthralled with what he was doing.
His final video, taken in Lincoln City, is the most upbeat of all. “I finally made it to the ocean here!” he shouted, beaming. “I am in Lincoln City near the beach. I’m walking now to the waves. My feet are feeling amazing, having my shoes off and just walking through the water and kicking the ball.” His smile grew even wider as he panned to Pacific waters lapping onto packed sand. “Very exciting moment today! I’m going to be on the ocean for thousands of miles, so this is my first taste of it, and I’m very excited about this. Finally!” He giggled — that’s the right word — as cold surf lapped his ankles. “All right. I just wanted to say good morning. And I am very happy to be here. And hopefully today will be a wonderful day as I walk down the beach and [U.S. Route] 101 and enjoy everything that the ocean has to offer! All right, I will talk to you all later. Cheers, everyone!” Not 20 minutes later, Swanson would be dead.
When I got to Lincoln City, the last person he stayed with overnight told me she had seen that final video on the beach, and all the other videos that preceded it. She’d also fed Swanson dinner and breakfast and had sat with him on her couch talking at length about his adventure. “What people don’t realize is this man was on a death trip,” Susan Ulbright said. “I think subconsciously he knew he wasn’t coming back.”
Dark waves crash against Lincoln City with a steady, droning roar that reminds me of a jet engine in midflight. The beach town sits about an hour south of the Tillamook Cheese factory and about 25 miles north of Newport, which was Swanson’s next scheduled stop. It’s an amalgamation of five small fishing villages that united in the 1960s under a neutral and presidential name. Only about 8,000 people live in the city year-round, a population that almost quadruples during the warmer summer months.
“We used to be able to exhale a few months in the winter, but there isn’t really an offseason anymore,” I was told by Sergeant Jeffrey Winn of the Lincoln City Police Department. Tourists visit in all seasons these days, gambling at the Chinook Winds casino or shopping at the Tanger Outlet Mall. Storm chasers check in to oceanfront hotels to witness the winter squalls that blow in off the Pacific. Whale watchers climb nearby Cascade Head to track gray whales on their migration from the Arctic Circle to Baja, California, and back.
Route 101, Lincoln City’s main drag, covers the full Oregon Coast. About one pedestrian a year is killed on the road within the Lincoln City limits, Winn told me. Yet 101 remains popular with long-distance travelers of Swanson’s mind-set, in part for the ocean views, and in part because in Lincoln City it crosses the 45th Parallel, the midway point between the equator and the North Pole.
“We see people hiking through here all the time, or walking or on bikes,” said Jeremy Ruark, a reporter for the News Guard newspaper. “There’s always somebody walking across America.”2
Swanson arrived in Lincoln City around 6 p.m., his soccer ball dangling from a pouch attached to his backpack. (After only a couple days of trying to dribble while he walked, Swanson put the ball away, taking it out only for photos.) His feet were swollen, and he was cold from a steady rain that fell as he walked down from Grand Ronde. When Susan Ulbright opened her door and saw Swanson for the first time, she let out a laugh, mostly rooted in sympathy. “He could barely walk!” she told me. “He was moving like his feet were bound. He took the slowest and tiniest steps.”
Swanson kept his backpack on as Ulbright led him, slowly, upstairs to her kitchen. Swanson wanted a shower most of all, but when he saw that Ulbright had already prepared a chicken dinner, he agreed to eat before he cleaned himself up.
“There was a beautiful innocence about him,” Ulbright recalls. “He was like a big, beautiful kid. He’d walked in a perfect stranger, but he didn’t feel like a stranger.”
But what, she wondered, was he thinking with this trip? Ulbright is a psychotherapist, specializing in grief counseling. She works with several Vietnam and Iraq veterans — “my guys” — helping them manage trauma that still hurts decades after they last saw combat. Swanson came to Ulbright through her friend, the Army doctor Swanson had crashed with in Steliacoom. As they talked over dinner, Ulbright grew concerned. The optimism he tried to convey didn’t sync with the impression he made when she first saw him.
“I knew he was dead when he walked in,” she told me. “He was glassy-eyed, his expression was glazed over. He wasn’t connecting. I just blurted out, ‘No way. You’re not making it!’ He stood there with a smile on his face. He didn’t wince. He didn’t react. He just smiled as I was telling him, ‘You’re going down to Panama? I’ve lived in Panama! You’re not going to make it, Richard! Panama is where soldiers trained for Vietnam.’ I told him about the heavy-duty boots he’d need and jungle rot and how it can leave feet crippled even 40 years later. And he just stood there with this glazed look.”
Their conversation wasn’t tense, she recalls. Ulbright enjoyed Swanson’s company as he finished his chicken and then a dessert of frozen Greek yogurt and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. He showered and soaked for a while in her hot tub, a treat he found so luxurious he posted a photo of the tub on Facebook. Ulbright washed the dishes before moving into her living room, where she keeps a library of books including The Alchemy of Transformation and The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself. She pulled out a copy of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and started thumbing through it. When Swanson finished in the tub, he dried off and changed into clean clothes. Ulbright invited him to sit with her on the couch. She then launched an intervention of sorts.
First the troubling details: Swanson had sold his condo, which was his only significant possession. He cut into the lump sum he’d received for the condo to pay for a GoPro HD Hero3 Silver Edition camera and his backpack and the rest of his gear. Traveling to Brazil would significantly draw down the rest of his cash — possibly all of it. Even if he was walking, even if he was couch surfing whenever possible, this was a costly expedition. His desire to “break away” was rooted in his frustration at being laid off and his struggle to find new work. His two sons, who hadn’t lived with him since his divorce, were grown and had both launched their lives in new cities. He was abandoning a steady girlfriend he’d been living with. Although he’d bought top-notch gear and had trained with marathon walks around Seattle, he hadn’t researched his trip enough to know it’s illegal to walk along six-lane Interstate 5. And when he stepped into her house on his final night, Ulbright recalls, he looked defeated.
“I’m going to try a word with you, Richard,” she said. “Depersonalization. Viktor Frankl has it in his books. It’s what people who have been traumatized go through. They’re not connected. The world doesn’t have a meaning. They don’t feel like anything is real. And that’s what I’m hearing about you walking to Mexico. You’re numb.”
If Ulbright got through to Swanson, he didn’t say so. He stayed the night, and when he woke up the next morning, Ulbright fried him two eggs, some potatoes, and two strips of bacon. The bulk of their talk concerned foot pain. On the porch after breakfast, they posed for a picture before a wall of rhododendrons pinked by a bright sun. Both of them sport happy smiles. There’s no sign of the doom Ulbright felt would come.
When it was time for Swanson to get going, Ulbright hugged him and handed over another oatmeal chocolate chip cookie for the road. She also gave him a rose quartz, a translucent pink stone smoothed on one side and left roughly unpolished on the other. Rose quartz symbolizes unconditional love, she told him. It was to be a good-luck charm, something to protect him since his schedule didn’t allow for even a sick day. He slipped the quartz into his pocket, thanked her for the hospitality, and then hiked off. His soccer ball remained in its pouch, dangling from his backpack. It was maybe eight in the morning.
The news that Swanson had been killed just two hours later hit Ulbright hard. She realized she was the last person to feed him a meal, the last person to hug him. Her guest bedroom was the last place he’d ever slept. Even the half-empty carton of frozen yogurt chilling in her freezer suddenly gave her a spook. By the time I visited Ulbright, she had watched all of Swanson’s videos and had digested multiple accounts of his short trip. The signs were there, she said, if anyone had wanted to notice them. Even before taking off from the Space Needle, Swanson had told a Seattle TV station that he hoped he wouldn’t get killed on 101.
“So wouldn’t he have been hypervigilant?” Ulbright asked me.
I’d yet to have breakfast when I arrived at her house. She cooked me the same eggs, potatoes, and bacon she’d served Swanson. I toured the bedroom where he slept. I didn’t soak in the hot tub, but I did step out on the porch to inhale perfume from the rhododendrons and take in the first glimpse of ocean Swanson had seen on his trip. When Ulbright and I moved into the living room, I sat where Swanson had sat, and I put my feet up on the same ottoman — still indented, Ulbright said, from where he’d rested his legs. “He was a desperado guy who really needed to find something, an identity,” she told me. “This man was seeking something and he got it, and he found it for the two weeks before he died. And that, perhaps — I’m going to get spiritual, I’m warning you — was what we call his soul journey. Richard completed his journey and found what he came here to get. And when he found it, he died.”
Swanson had found meaning and direction on the road, she said. But, Ulbright also concluded, walking to Brazil — to say nothing of supposedly dribbling a soccer ball to Brazil — was a dumb idea. More reckless than Swanson may have realized, and perhaps that was the point. It’s not a shock that his naive quest ultimately intersected with reality, and in a violent way.
“To me it was a form of suicide, what he did,” she said. “It took us all by surprise, but then again, it didn’t.”
I spent most of the morning with Ulbright. Some of the dark possibilities she raised about Swanson and his mind-set had occurred to me, too. While I was still sitting on her couch, she handed me a rose quartz stone like the one she gave him. I took it hesitantly, hoping it would protect me better than Swanson’s protected him. Ulbright and I also shared a hug before I left, like she’d hugged Swanson. I drove away thinking about how death had given him so much of what he had been looking for. Attention. Love. A form of validation. And a heroic memory for his family and friends to hold on to.
“Perhaps it was purposeful that he got hit by the car,” Ulbright said. “Not consciously. I’m talking metaphysically. Again, it’s woo-woo stuff here. There’s a lot of woo-woo-ness to this story.”
My talk with Ulbright made me want to take a long look at the crash scene. I drove down 101 past the public beach where Swanson filmed his final video. I climbed Spanish Inlet and then descended again to cross the Siletz River. The crash scene is just outside Lincoln City’s south border, just beyond a lumberyard and across from a used bookstore. Fog hung low along a line of coastal pines when I pulled up and parked.
I mapped out the accident as best I could. Sergeant Winn told me Swanson’s body was found up against a roadside fence. I could see the fence, and where the grass around it had bent under the boots of medical technicians and police investigators. I found a handful of cigarette butts in the grass, a couple of red plastic spoons from Dairy Queen, a Styrofoam packing peanut, and an empty bag of Jumpin’ Jack–flavored Doritos, the foil bleached white by the elements.
The paved shoulder was about as wide as my car. A replacement for a mailbox the truck knocked down stood off the pavement. Orange spray paint circled shards of silver-coated glass on the shoulder, evidence remaining from the investigation. I found similar shards farther up the road, beyond the spray paint. I marched back to the mailbox from the farthest shard I found, counting my steps. Glass from the truck flew at least 70 feet upon impact, I calculated. Swanson flew at least 11 feet before smacking into a fence. Richard Swanson was hit hard. The truck that hit him had slipped way off the road.
It doesn’t look like Swanson was acting recklessly. He wasn’t dribbling his soccer ball; that’s confirmed. He appears to have been well off the side of the road. Swanson was walking with traffic, yes, which wasn’t the right thing to do. But Tyler Coulson, a man who walked across the United States two years ago, tells me there are a million valid reasons why Swanson could have been on this side of the road at the time. Maybe he’d just bought a tool at the lumberyard. Maybe there was a wild dog loose on the other side of 101.
“It’s just his bad luck,” Coulson told me.3 “I’ve long said that if enough people do this long-distance hiking, someone will die. It’s just luck — nothing more than luck — that no one before Richard Swanson was killed.”
One day after Swanson died, someone tied a balloon to a yellow fire hydrant a few yards from the crash scene. The balloon has disappeared, but the curly nylon ribbon tied to it remained attached to the hydrant when I visited. The balloon was still there when Michelle Terry made her own trip to the crash site.
I didn’t talk to Terry during the memorial at Die Bierstube. It didn’t seem like the time or the place to ask questions. Instead, I watched as she accepted condolences from friends and sometimes used a cocktail napkin to dab teardrops from the corners of her eyes. When she heard I’d traveled to Lincoln City, though, she reached out to me, and we ended up talking for more than an hour. She also sent me several follow-up e-mails to make sure she was making her points as clearly as possible.
“I would be really careful about the theory that he was fatalistic,” she told me. “It’s not correct. It’s just not.”
Terry and I are from the same part of Illinois. We attended rival high schools at almost the same time. She moved to Seattle about nine years ago for her own fresh start, and soon landed a corporate job. She met Swanson not three months after her move, and they quickly became an item. They’d been off and on since then. (“They’d break up and they would fight but all of us always felt it was obvious they were going to end up together forever,” their mutual friend Kristi Schwesinger told me.) They were “on” enough for Richard to live with Terry after he sold his condo. It was Terry, actually, who’d bought the condo from Swanson, to help with his unemployment money crunch.
Richard was born in Yakima in 1970, to a teen mother. The man he calls his father isn’t biologically connected to him and, as a Navy lifer, his father wasn’t on the scene much after marrying Richard’s mom. There never was much money to go around. Richard started his own family young, marrying at 19 and becoming a father by 20. His second son arrived four years later. Six years after that, he and his wife divorced. He moved to Seattle to start over.
In the city, Swanson found work as a private investigator — mostly insurance fraud. He would sit in a van for hours, waiting to catch people doing things they claimed they were no longer able to do. He liked the job well enough, but after eight years alone in that van he wanted to try something else. Swanson enrolled in school to learn graphic design. He found work designing websites. He’d started branching out into light video production when he was laid off, just over a year ago. He looked for work, preferably something meaningful, but nothing seemed to fit. The months of unemployment started to add up.
“This economy has been extremely tough on a lot of incredibly talented people,” Terry told me. “Richard was not alone there. It wiped out their senses of identity.”
I didn’t see Terry quoted in any of the stories about Swanson’s death. The only public response of hers that I found was a comment she’d left on a Lincoln County News Guard story about the fatality. In that article, a police spokesman said the driver was not intoxicated at the time of the crash, which Terry challenged. She signed off on her comment with a pseudonym, “RichardsFriendsAreWatching,” but the comment linked back to her Facebook page. I noticed her comment precisely because her public profile was otherwise so low. Swanson mentioned her only once on Facebook, and merely as a member of his support crew, which he called Team Richard.
Her visible absence from the Breakaway Brazil project seemed so significant that I’d wondered if Terry was one of the things Swanson wanted to break away from. Terry had thought about that, too. “This was something he had to do by himself,” she said. “This wasn’t about me or about us. This was about him. And I knew he could change over this endeavor. He could become somebody different at the end of it. Somebody I wouldn’t be able to fit into my life anymore, or me into his. But that’s a risk you have to take. He was going from the place he was before to the place where he wanted to be.
“Does it break my heart? For sure. But at some point I needed him to be happy again. And whatever he needed to do to be a happy person, I supported. I was onboard.”
After I talked to Terry, I visited the Breakaway Brazil Facebook page again and read over everything. Turns out she was on the site, subtly, in a way I’d missed. On the first day of Swanson’s trip, at the Space Needle launch, Terry can be seen in a few of the GoPro video captures Swanson posted. The shots are mostly of television and radio reporters interviewing him as he’s about to embark. But Terry is right there, too, in the center, looking at him and smiling. I also found her in the video he posted as he began to walk. Swanson’s early-morning shadow crawled along a sidewalk as he took his first steps toward Brazil. Also visible, upon closer inspection, is the silhouette of a woman sporting a ponytail under a baseball hat, walking alongside him. Terry and her boyfriend began the journey together, and then she let him go.
“He’s not a caricature,” Terry insisted to me. “He wasn’t a happy-go-lucky person who didn’t think things through. He was not a fatalist who wanted to end things. He was a guy trying to figure it out.”
Here are some comments by readers of the Huffington Post, soon after Swanson was killed:
Harrie McMerkin: “At least he died doing something that he loved … Then again, so did David Carradine. This is almost as embarrassing.”
Rod Stiffinton: “The truck driver should get a red card.”
indysteve1227: “While it is a sad and tragic that this man was killed, I come away from this story thinking if only he hadn’t gone on this self-serving, self-promoting journey he would be alive today. And of course, he was posting his travels on Facebook. It was all pointless.”
pagan-vegan: “I don’t wish any harm to anyone but I do get tired of these people that push a giant ball of string across the country for jesus or whatever.”
I’m almost the same age as Swanson was when he died. I’ve never had a desire to dribble a soccer ball to Brazil. Or to walk across America. But I have gone through something that makes me sympathetic to Swanson’s quest. Like him, I’m divorced. A few years ago I was floundering so much at work that it was a stretch to say I even had work. “I’m worried about you,” said a colleague who tried to motivate me. “You’re in dangerous midlife-crisis territory. You’re going to disappear for 10 years to work on a screenplay. We’ll never hear from you again.” My savings were evaporating, and I couldn’t come up with a viable plan for making the money I needed to live. I was in Florida at the time and I kept thinking of an uncle in Miami — in his 40s, also divorced, also struggling professionally — who had climbed into his bathtub and shot himself in his face. I began feeling that if I stayed in Florida the plot was going to get bloody.
What could I do to turn things around? I had no idea. So what did I want to do then, just in general? Not write a screenplay. The only thing I could think of was jogging. I wanted to qualify for and then run the Boston Marathon. It was a bit of a pipe dream, as I’d never run seriously before. It wouldn’t earn me a dollar, and it would cost money to attempt. But it was also pretty much the complete inventory of my ambitions. Screw what happens. I don’t even care. Take off out the door and jog. Head west! It was an indefensible impulse, but no job or mortgage prevented me from acting on it. All these pieces started to come together, in a way that almost felt like — it felt natural, like I was doing what I needed to be doing. So I did it. First, I broke up with my girlfriend. Then I gave away all my furniture, my dishes, and most of my clothes. I liquidated my 401(k) to get at the small nest egg that would keep me alive while I trained. I moved to Boulder, Colorado, a runner’s haven. And when I got there, pretty much all I did was run.
My project required me to get up every day and put one foot in front of the other, just like Swanson on his march to Brazil. Focusing on that one activity, however irresponsible or meaningless it appeared to others, proved fruitful to me, just as it obviously was helping Richard. He sounded depressed in his introductory video on the Breakaway Brazil website. Yet in every video he posted while marching south, he was clearly — perhaps even deliriously — happy.
I ended up clocking a pretty decent marathon, but I wasn’t fast enough to qualify for Boston. I came away with nothing to really show for the almost two years I spent in Colorado, aside from some onerous credit card debt. I was not delivered to the promised land. There was no happy ending.
Except there was, after a while. Moving to Colorado cut my ties to my divorce and my work failures, which I’d left behind in Florida. My time in Boulder gave me space to recalibrate who I was and what I wanted. At some point after I left Colorado, I realized I’d broken away from the first half of my life while I’d been there. I’d moved into the next stage in a better frame of mind, and with a better sense of who I am. It was something I’d needed to go through.
The unattractive label for what I experienced is a midlife crisis. It’s a term that conjures images of hair plugs and sports cars and disastrous sexual affairs. Even without those clichés, my experience was messy, and expensive; I’m still paying for it in a number of key ways. (Financial tip: Liquidate your 401(k) only as a last resort.) When I floated the word “crisis” past Michelle Terry, she almost stroked out: “Please don’t say that. Please. Please! To say he was going through a midlife crisis reduces everything he was doing — changing himself and his life in a big and dramatic way — to make him look like some sort of paunchy dissatisfied older person, it’s just unfair.”
This also just reflects the baggage the label carries. Some use the term midlife passage. I’m sure there are other more palatable word combinations. But even using the traditional term, a midlife crisis isn’t just for Don Draper types and their rarefied problems. It isn’t even just for men. I trained for a marathon, but I could just as easily have flown to India and parked myself at an ashram. Or, to fine-tune things further, perhaps I could have spent three months each in Italy, India, and Indonesia, taking a break to indulge all my senses. What I did was jog. Swanson dribbled his soccer ball.
When I first heard about Swanson’s death, which was the first I’d heard of Swanson, I made three quick assumptions, all of which turned out to be true. I bet he was middle aged, I bet he was divorced, and I bet he was unemployed. I think if I were still 25 years old, I might conclude that Swanson had been doing something ludicrous, that he was just some nut pushing his ball of string cross-country for Jesus or what have you. But I’m not that young anymore. I identified with Swanson from the moment I heard about him.
I don’t think Richard Swanson was trying to kill himself. Just the opposite. I think his self-described “huge” and “massive” adventure to Brazil was an attempt to stay alive, a reason to keep living. He knew he might die, and he was comfortable with that; death wasn’t the worst possible outcome. But I don’t believe he was trying to die. It wasn’t a suicide mission. I don’t think.
What’s more in doubt, at least to me, was whether he was up to the task. He knew how dangerous 101 was, yet he was still walking on the wrong side of the road. He’d trained for his trip, but he left Seattle so naive that he walked on Interstate 5, which is very much against the law. His tight schedule made reaching São Paulo in time for the World Cup extremely unlikely. Even if he avoided injury. Even if his footwear held up through the desert. Even if bandits never stole his passport and tent and the rest of his possessions. Swanson needed more luck than he could have reasonably expected.
I do think he was trying to transform himself, which is something that both Michelle Terry and Susan Ulbright believe, to different ends. “He was hoping that he would inspire his boys. He wanted them to be proud of him,” Terry told me. Said Ulbright: “His sons got more out of his death than they would ever get out of him living. He gave them more than money. He gave them a role model. He gave them a hero, a father that is a hero.” Swanson didn’t need to die to give his sons that gift. He just needed to take that first step, and then to keep walking as long as he could. If he would have failed to reach Brazil — and he would have failed, there’s no doubt in my mind — he still would have gone for it. That’s something. Swanson was moving forward, purposefully advancing toward his goal, right until the moment of impact.
He changed on his trip, brief as it was. He felt roused by all the people reaching out to him. Strangers gave him shelter and food. He looked transcendent in his final posting from Lincoln City. “I’m excited,” he said in that last video. “I’m so happy!”
Upon his death, the number of followers of the Breakaway Brazil Facebook page jumped from just over 400 to more than 8,000. Sting sent his condolences. Respectful messages from around the world (especially from Brazil) flowed onto the Facebook page, and they continue to do so. “I love you dad,” his son Raven posted the day Swanson died. Added his son Devin, in a separate post: “We love you dad … with all our hearts! You are an inspiration to all to continue doing what you love! One day … I will continue your journey in your name!”
“He was a sweet person and he just wanted to accomplish something great,” Michelle Terry told me in one of her follow-up e-mails. “He always knew he was cut out for something great. In the end, he did it by pulling out all of the stops. He conceptualized the mission, planned it, branded it, marketed it, promoted it, wooed and recruited his audience, got a sponsor, and trained like an Olympic athlete. He did everything right and accomplished his goal. He made it happen. He made something good happen and people loved him.”
He didn’t do everything right, obviously. But people did love him. Even after he died, perhaps especially after he died, some people — real people, normal people — felt inspired by what he had set out to do. Unmoored at midlife, Richard Swanson found his purpose on the road. In taking his journey, he transitioned into another state of being.
Robert Andrew Powell (@robertandrewp) is a contributing editor at Howler magazine and the author of This Love Is Not For Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juárez.