When Darrah Blackwater informed her parents she was going to walk 1,200-plus miles across China, the 2013 Fort Lewis College graduate got a strong response.
“My dad offered to pay me not to do it,” Blackwater, a Farmington native, laughed during a recent phone conversation from the world’s most populous country. “I told him he didn’t have enough money.”
If things had gone according to her original plan, Blackwater would be hitting groundstrokes right now to Chinese youngsters. She’d be sleeping in a cozy little apartment, carrying out a daily routine. All her immediate needs would be taken care of, the tennis court her refuge.
Instead, she’s backpacking 12-15 miles each day along sometimes busy, dusty roads. When they’re not in hotels or restaurants, she and her cohort Ann Liang, a Chinese woman who speaks excellent English, use their gas stove and camp out.
After nearly 400 miles, the daughter of Corkie and Curtis Blackwater appreciates China’s “beautiful culture” and warm people. But she’s been tested by other aspects, such as vendors selling dog meat, a rat eating her apple, sore muscles and blisters.
“I don’t know where this idea came from,” she said during an hour-long call, punctuated by car horns blaring and a few fireworks still celebrating the Chinese new year. “The universe slapped me across the face and said, ‘This is what you’re doing now.’ I said ‘OK, fine. Just don’t kill me.’”
That a 23-year-old half-Navajo would trek across the world’s third-largest country to raise money and support for youths with disabilities seems far-fetched. Where to start to explain?
Let’s go back to high school, when Blackwater was a state tennis champ. After graduating from FLC in December 2013, she looked toward the sport as a means of making a living. She was a licensed coach when she went to instruct at the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch in New Braunfels, Texas.
In Texas, a roommate suggested the possibility of coaching in China. Why not? She arranged to be there about a year, beginning in June 2014. But as she began her stint, it was apparent that what she was told didn’t match reality.
“Unfortunately, the job was just not so great,” she said.
She quit the coaching position, which meant she was also simultaneously forfeiting her living quarters.
After getting a tongue-lashing from her former boss, and with her few possessions in hand, she took stock: She was homeless, jobless and a fair piece from home – Zhongshan, China, where she had few friends and not much of a support system.
It seemed she’d just lost the proverbial match point. But she wasn’t ready to concede.
She got a job at a coffee shop/bar to give her enough income to squeak by. And she began volunteering each morning at New Day South, a foster home for children with special needs. One of the first kids she held was Feng Ming, almost 2.
“I picked up the first baby I saw, Feng Ming (his English name is Matthew), and my heart melted in my chest,” she wrote in a story posted on her blog. “He looked into my eyes to see a new, strange face and smiled, lighting up the room. I looked into his eyes and saw the world.”
After what seemed like routine surgery, Matthew got an infection and died. The nannies and volunteers were torn apart.
“Everybody was just grieving so deeply,” Blackwater said by phone from Yudu, in Jiangxi province. “There’s so much love in this organization.”
She’d already considered making a journey by foot to Beijing. And just before the memorial for Matthew, Blackwater met Jerry Grey, an Englishman who’d just traversed nearly 3,000 miles of China by bicycle. She ended up at Grey’s house looking at maps. Grey’s wife is Ann Liang, and with encouragement from everyone gathered around the maps, Liang decided she would join the trek.
Walking from Mexico City to Durango, Colorado, would be similar to going from Zhongshan to Beijing in latitude change and distance.
“I didn’t think anyone was crazy enough to go with me,” Blackwater said.
Their motto is “ni keyi,” Chinese for “you can.” Their cause is to raise money through donations and per-kilometer-walked pledges for children with disabilities in China.
They left Zhongshan on Feb. 1. They often stay in hotels, but sometimes camp out. When outside, they cook with a gas stove. On a typical day, Blackwater said, Liang wakes her up with coffee “because she knows it’ll get me out of bed.”
They’re met in or outside many towns by people who’ve heard through the grapevine they’re coming. They walk aside rice patties, through mountains and enjoy the sights such as a water buffalo pulling a plow.
And often, people do nice things. A 58-year-old woman carried her pack. Drivers stop and give them water. One driver offered to kill a chicken for them. (Blackwater’s a vegetarian; they declined.) Many people make their own rice wine, and “everybody wants us to try it.”
To Blackwater, China feels safe. She gets the feeling that in the U.S., China gets a bad rap.
“I guess the word ‘communism’ is a scary thing for Americans.”
She readily admits to missing her family, Farmington and Durango. When friends tell her about fresh and deep snow, she longs to strap on her snowboard.
It’s the little things, sometimes, that keep her going on those 18-mile days. She’s a little more than a month into a walk that will take an estimated four, into mid-June.
“Every time I start to think, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ I get some kind of confirmation ... that people would kill to have these kinds of experiences.”
Blackwater calls her parents frequently. She laughs about their original reaction to her plan, but she sympathizes. And it’s made her reconsider the joys of having kids:
“I hope my idiot child doesn’t walk across a country 7,000 miles away from me.”
John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column. firstname.lastname@example.org