Tony “Fourpaws” Palacio broke up with his girlfriend, Sara, almost three years ago, and fell into a deep, depressive funk.
“I spent a month liquidating the assets of my computer business … into alcohol,” he said. “I wanted to figure out why I was so addicted to being in this relationship.”
So he got up on his own two feet and walked — putting about 4,056 miles behind him in the pursuit of, well, he wasn’t really sure. His goal was the desert, to be “reborn again, kind of a vision quest, an aboriginal walkabout,” Palacio said. “These rites of passage have kind of gone away; there are not feats that test the young. It’s all about video games, cell phones, alcohol and sex.
“Kids used to play, to run and jump,” he continued. “Now you can’t even get hurt without your parents suing your neighbors. The further we’ve gotten from nature, the closer we get to destruction, the further from ‘right’ in this world.”
Palacio arrived in Brookings at the beginning of December, almost three years after his departure — and light-years older in maturity and thought.
He came from an unstable family life, and never felt he fit into any group. His mother was abusive, and the men who came in and out of her life were hardly ideal father-figures. As a teen, he’d joined gangs, experimented with drugs, contemplated suicide. He’d lived half his life in institutional foster homes. He was surrounded by chaos, Palacio said, with all those around him deep in their addictions and pains. He was “poor Indiana river trash.”
His backpack, a castoff he found at a thrift store, was falling apart. His bulky sleeping bag swung from side to side, a gallon jug of water hung from a string — hardly the adequate preparation needed to walk across the nation.
“Someone told me, ‘Don’t worry about things you can’t control,” Palacio said. “I decided to walk as a culmination of all the experiences I could put into one journey I could control. I thought about it more and more, and it left me feeling calm.”
His trek led him to Atlanta, then south to Mississippi and Louisiana. Palacio said he was bowed by the devastation still left from Hurricane Katrina, yet uplifted by the people and their hope.
“It seems everywhere I went, people were really poor,” he said. “And yet, all of them had really good hearts — still.”
That leg of his “long and dreary walk” ended when a man from Texas gave him a ride.
“He said, ‘I don’t usually pick up hitchhikers, but you seemed OK. I know you’ve come a long way, but your journey will not begin until you get to New Mexico,’” Palacio said. “He was right — (I’d learn) who I was as a person, what I was capable of.”
He kept walking: Roswell, Pilar and Taos, N.M. Some places he stayed a day; others, months on end.
Palacio experienced near-death experiences and divine interventions, but he made friends, too. He knew some survival skills — but some, like learning to urinate to mark territory to keep wild boars away from a campsite, were learned along the way.
He spent two months in Crestone, Colo., where he picked up the Australian shepherd/border collie he dubbed Nature. He farmed with a Buddhist monk.
Palacio and Nature continued to walk: through the Canyonlands of Utah sleeping under a statuesque water-and-wind-carved arch; over the Wasatch Mountain Range; across the Great Salt Flats — a section of land so flat, one can see the curvature of the Earth; and north, into Bend. He spent a year there, climbing Smith Rock, hiking through the Deschutes National Forest, through the Three Sisters and Mt. Bachelor.
“I could have been easy to get stuck there,” he said with an easy smile. “I made friends. I got gigs, as a magician, a card-sharp. I met a girl.”
But he was still looking to prove himself — and now he had a goal of getting to the Pacific Ocean.
“I wanted to do something, to do something great,” he said of his trek. “I’d never done anything great in my life.”
He picked Brookings because Google said it was the warmest place in Oregon — and winter was coming on fast in Bend.
“I decided to take this step,” he said. “I decided to walk here.”
It’s been worth the effort, too, he said.
“Within the past month, all these great things have been happening,” Palacio said. “I have a place to live for now, I’ve been networking. ... If I hadn’t left Florida when I did, there’s no telling.”
And he’s grown along the path.
Although he said he has no profound stories to tell of his long journey, there was a day when he was striving to get to Weatherford, Texas, yearning to get there to see the sun set.
“I was chasing the sunset, I was stressed, sweating,” he said. “And then I thought, ‘It’ll always come back around. It’s like my relationships. Don’t chase it, and it’ll come around again when it’s the right time. And when you have that attitude, more doors open.”
His future lay ahead, hopefully working with disadvantaged youth and with his new girlfriend, Zen, who’s in school in Bend.
And he hopes his trek inspires others to seek out what they, too, are capable of doing.
“I learned what I’m capable of,” Palacio said. “There are people who burn with a fire, and it can get snuffed out. But it can always get relit.”