‘Walkin’ William’ strides into Warren to visit with sister

Originally published Oct. 21, 2013.

William Miller is an 86-year-old cancer survivor with two false knees.

But he's also "Walkin' William," a long-distance walker who recently arrived in Warren on foot from Boise, ID, to visit his sister, Carolyn Winters.

Miller started walking cross country for fun in the 1980s, but has enjoyed walking ever since his childhood in the Peru area.

"I'm a happy wanderer," he says, stroking the thick, white beard encircling his face, which is golden from years of sunlight. "I like what I'm doing. I've walked about all my life. Raised on a farm, (did) it with horses, not tractors. So, it comes natural."

Miller's first long walk, in 1980, was motivated by a desire to get into the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest person to walk across the United States, breaking the record of 53 days, 12 hours and 15 minutes, set by Great Britain's John Lees in 1971.

Clad in a sponsor-provided shirt with "Guinness" printed on the front of it, he departed from city hall in Los Angeles, CA, for city hall in New York City, NY - a trip of almost 3,000 miles.

"I walked between 60 and 66 miles a day," Miller says.
"I walked 22 hours a day and if I walked a full 24 hours, I'd get 66 in a day."

His record attempt attracted interest along the way.
After passing through the Mojave Desert, where Miller says he endured 100 to 105-degree heat, he encountered a welcoming committee on his approach to Parker, AZ.

"Why, here comes a school bus with a bunch of little kids in the thing," he recalls. "The teacher got out and they walked into town with me about three miles. And it was the first and second grade and I had to poke along for them."

Though he wanted nothing more than to jump in the Colorado River and soak for a while, he spent time with the fascinated schoolchildren, who had bought him a pizza.

"I didn't want no pizza, but I had to eat it," he chuckles, "and then they wanted me to go to school the next morning."

Miller obliged them once again, conducting show-and-tell sessions with four grade levels, where students discovered what food was fueling his journey: peanut butter, jelly and honey graham crackers.

"That was my chow and I could eat while I was walking," he says. "I showed them that and I bet them kids went home and that's what they wanted."

It was simple, but it was a meal that fueled Miller all the way to New York.

And, more importantly, Miller says it got him there three hours and 15 minutes faster than Lees.

Upon arriving at New York City Hall, Miller made his way through a throng of striking garbage workers to the office of Mayor Ed Koch, who signed a card for him and shook his hand, concluding his journey.

The only thing left was for Guinness to verify the record. But when Miller got their response, the news wasn't good.

"Well, they sent me a letter that (said) they're sorry, I should have (the record) but they couldn't give it to me on the account I had ‘Guinness' on that shirt in the news and everything," he explains.

Indeed, Miller's sponsors had failed to notice a Guinness rule that prohibited the use of the Guinness trademark in any record attempt.

He may not have gotten the record, but he did get his nickname - "Walkin' William" - as he continued long-distance walking, undeterred.

After walking from Key West, FL, to Seattle, WA, he attempted to walk from Alaska to the tip of South America. This was in either 1983 or 1984, recalls
Miller, and he made it as far as San Diego before people who were helping him discovered that getting supplies to him in Mexico would be harder than anticipated, bringing his walk to an end.

Items essential to Miller whenever he walks are his hat and his cart, which he keeps his supplies in. Red Wing Shoes is his longtime sponsor and provides him with footwear.

"I stop at Red Wing stores when I go through some towns," he says, noting that they're aware of what routes he takes and will meet up with him while he's out on the road.

"They look at your shoes and see how you are and all that stuff," he says.

Miller is also on his fourth blank Red Wings Shoes T-shirt, which people he meets while walking sign. His previous three shirts filled up with signatures and his fourth is well on its way to filling up, too.

Meeting people is one of the things Miller most enjoys about long-distance walking.

"They'll stop. They'll come by. They'll have water they want to give you. They'll have sandwiches ... They want to get out and take their pictures with you," he says.

For someone like Miller, though, who lives minimally, sometimes people's kindness can end up going a little too far, like one time when he was offered a motel room.

"I gave in," he says. "I went in and I took the shower and it was about 10 o'clock then and I turned the TV on for the news ...

"I guess I might have been asleep after the news was over - 30 minutes. I woke up and I couldn't sleep; the bed's too soft. I kept crankin'. About three o'clock, I said ‘That's enough of this' and I got up and went down the road."

Miller is happiest lying in his sleeping bag, out under the stars, picturing how things were years ago. He's traversed the country on planes, trains and automobiles and is a firm believer that you haven't really seen America until you've seen it on foot.

"You think you see it in the car," he muses. "It's pretty. It's nice. But you're going so fast that you really don't see what it is. It's a different kind of a picture. When you're walking, you can absorb it."

Miller's love for America keeps him coming back to long-distance walking - after two knee replacement surgeries and a cancer scare.

His cancer has been in remission now for five years. He plans on walking back to Boise from Warren, where he'll spend the winter months recovering from surgery to remove a bone spur from his foot. When the weather breaks in the spring, he says he'll walk back to Warren and then on to Washington, D.C. from there.

The notion of slowing down is further from his mind than any earthly distance.

"I'm going to walk," he says. "I was born to walk."