Saskatchewan

'I had a goal, and I set out to do it': Yorkton, Sask., man walks across Canada — just because

Zayell Johnston, 27, wore out four pairs of shoes and earned the nickname Gump as he walked 9,000 kilometres across Canada to keep a promise to himself.

Zayell Johnston logged 11.8 million steps during a 9-month, 9,000-kilometre trek

In 2018, Zayell Johnston walked 9,000 kilometres across Canada. In March, he posted this picture on his Facebook page with the caption, 'If only I knew what I was getting myself into.' (Zayell Johnston/Facebook)

It was mid-February when Zayell Johnston splashed water from the Pacific Ocean on his face in Victoria and set off on a long and often torturous nine-month trek across Canada.

The Yorkton, Sask., man, 27, would earn the nickname Gump from friends and strangers — in honour of the fictional movie hero Forrest Gump — as he logged 11.8 million steps on his Fitbit, trudging through snow, hail and rain in his push to fulfil a personal goal.

That's right. He walked 9,000 kilometres across Canada last year just because he wanted to.

"I'm just a normal, everyday dude," Johnston  said. "I had a goal, and I set out to do it."

Most people who walk, run or bike across Canada do so to raise money for charity or awareness of an issue. But for Johnston, it was a personal journey.

He recorded videos along the way and gave the trip the title "Just out for a walk."

Peace of mind

It all started seven years ago, Johnston recalls, when he graduated from high school and drafted a five-year to-do list to keep moving forward in life. The list included finishing college, getting a job, backpacking across Europe, developing six-pack abs and walking across Canada.

"I don't know how I got the crazy notion of walking across the country, but I didn't want to drive across it," Johnston said. "At the end of the day, you can never see Canada in one go. All of Canada — I think it's impossible, there's too much." 
Johnston averaged 50 kilometres a day on his walk across Canada. (Zayell Johnston/Facebook))

Before his trek, Johnston wasn't having much luck checking things off his list. He did spend two months backpacking in Europe, but was struggling in other parts of his life. After losing his job in Vancouver, he returned home to Yorkton and set his sights on completing a cross-Canada journey.

Why am I putting myself in this situation? Why am I torturing myself?— Zayell Johnston

"At the beginning of the journey, you could say I was running away to kind of reflect on where I was at in life," Johnston told CBC News.

He posted a picture of a highway on Facebook with the caption: "Oh travel be kind, I'm searching for some peace of mind."

He knew the contents of his backpack would be vitally important. It weighed about 20 kilograms and included a tent, a sleeping bag, camp stove, long johns, two pairs of underwear and wool socks. He carried a GPS so his mother could track his movements.

He officially started his walk at Mile 0 of Trans-Canada Highway in Victoria, which is also home to a statue of Terry Fox, whose 1980 attempt to run across Canada with an artificial leg to raise money for cancer research made him a national hero. 

Hitting a blizzard

Johnston had only walked for a couple of weeks before he hit a blizzard on the Coquihalla Highway in the B.C. Interior. He spent a month working at a ski hill, then mailed his winter jacket home to his mother and kept heading east.

When he was pummelled by rain near Revelstoke, B.C., he did some serious introspection: "Why am I putting myself in this situation? Why am I torturing myself?" Johnston says he asked himself. "Like, nobody cares that you're doing this. You don't have to walk through this."

But he had set a goal and was determined to achieve it. 
Johnston celebrates the end of his journey at Cape Spear, N.L., the easternmost point in Canada. 'No words can describe this moment and no camera could truly capture how I felt.' (Facebook/Zayell Johnston)

Over the next seven months, he soldiered through physical exhaustion and loneliness as he averaged 50 kilometres a day.

He wore out four pairs of shoes and choked down many protein bars and peanuts. He also developed a deep love and respect for wool socks. 

Kindness of strangers

Johnston had a budget of $7,000 for equipment and necessities, but rarely used it for motels or restaurants. He pitched a tent in fields and private areas, and couch surfed at the homes of friends and strangers. At times, he went a couple of weeks without taking a shower or doing laundry.

That, he notes, is what made the kindness of strangers so remarkable.

"You can imagine what I smelled like in the middle of the summer," he said. "But there were people scattered throughout northern Ontario who offered me a place to stay, and it was definitely appreciated because of the summer heat there." 
Johnston pitched a tent in fields and private spots, and rarely paid for a motel or campground. (Facebook/Zayell Johnston)

Johnston said he made only two tiny "cheats" when he felt he had no choice but to accept a ride. One was near the B.C.- Alberta border when a forest ranger told him they were doing avalanche control with explosives. The ranger forbade Johnston to walk through the area, but offered him a 10-minute ride through the blast zone.

The second ride was from a stranger outside Winnipeg. "I was walking through torrential downpours and hail for about 10 minutes," when a truck pulled over, its  driver insistent on giving Johnston a ride to an underpass two kilometres away, where he could hide out from the rain.

Pinnacle moment

When Johnston reached Thunder Bay, Ont., he pitched his tent near the monument that marks the spot where medical issues forced Fox to stop his run. Johnston says he was deeply moved by Fox's words etched into stone: "I just wish people would realize that anything is possible if you try. Dreams are made if people try."

In mid-November, just before sunrise, Johnston stepped onto a cliff edge at Cape Spear, N.L., the easternmost point in Canada, for what he calls his "pinnacle moment." He was 30 pounds lighter than when he started, his face covered with a long beard. Chilly winds slapped his face as he hoisted his backpack into the air and let out a triumphant yell. 

"It was surreal," Johnston said. "That moment was so brief, but the hard work took so long to get there. I wish those moments would last a little longer, but that's just the beauty of it. The end. The payout."

Johnston splashed his face with water from the Atlantic Ocean and recorded the final instalment for his video diary. 

He wrote this caption: "No words can describe this moment and no camera could truly capture how I felt." 

Johnston had set up a GoFundMe campaign to help cover expenses, but it only raised $620 and he didn't need most of it. So at the end of his trip, he divvied it up and sent cheques for roughly $50 to branches of the Canadian Mental Health Association in all 10 provinces.

Now that Johnston can check his cross-Canada walk off his list, he says he can move on to other goals, such as paying off his student loan, becoming a forest firefighter, and the continuing quest for those elusive washboard abs. 
The total steps near the end of 2018. (Submitted by Zayell Johnston)

About the Author

Bonnie Allen

Senior Reporter

Bonnie Allen is a senior reporter for CBC News based in Saskatchewan. Before returning to Canada in 2013, Allen spent four years reporting from across Africa, including Libya, South Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone. She holds a Master's in International Human Rights Law from the University of Oxford. @bonnieallenCBC

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