Dan Henry | Buckwheat Walking: A 2006 Trip Journal

Buckwheat lets off a signature howl during his transcontinental walk.

Editor’s Note: Thank you to Dan Henry for offering this remembrance of Carlin “Buckwheat” Donahue. Dan writes, “Buckwheat was the founder of many fine events (such as the Skagway Belly Bounce), but is remembered by writers for being a co-founder of the North Words Writers Symposium, now in its 11th year, in Skagway on May 27-30, 2020. Buckwheat took his last walk on October 14, 2019. He is deeply missed.Here is an excerpt from Dan’s journal describing the days he accompanied Buckwheat on part of his transcontinental walk.

I call my family at least once a day.  

My wife Robin sounds worried. A notorious busybody convinced her that I’ve joined Buckwheat on a transcontinental bender. 

The only bender, I assure her, is his addiction to Mountain Dew Code Red, a problem because sometimes he must walk days or even weeks between sources.

In size, zest, intellect and resonance, Buckwheat is Big. While it is true that for many years he held court at the Red Onion, Skagway, Alaska’s historic goldrush saloon and brothel, he went cold turkey when two doctors pronounced him diabetic and doomed. One year later, two congestive heart failures in as many weeks underscored Buckwheat’s precarious health. Upside—because he was visiting a niece, both events occurred near a hospital in Juneau. Downside—squeezed between towering mountain walls and a hundred miles by water to a doctor, Skagway was a horrible place to have a heart attack. Atop a grocery lists of health challenges, an additional heart attack prompted physicians in Juneau and Seattle to predict Buckwheat’s demise in under a year. 

Not one to settle for a half-assed life, Buckwheat started walking. Through the following January he strolled 439 miles through a month of subzero temps from Skagway to Dawson, Yukon Territory. At the end of the walk he announced his intention to raise money for Dahl Memorial Clinic with a 7,200-mile body-powered tour from Miami to Skagway. Rather than succumb to the seduction of anesthetic self-pity, Buckwheat recommitted himself to living large and with a cause. Whether his body had ten months or ten years to go, my 54-year-old friend’s passionate declaration of love to Skagway moved me in the heat of a moment to promise to accompany him for two of his most godforsaken weeks when, as a reporter for an NPR station, I would produce a program about the walk.

“How about early March in the high prairies?” he retorted. Done and done.

Telling the story again calms Robin. 

“Well, I believe in you too, and hope this will be good for you,” she reconciles. The edge in her voice softens. We coo and growl and breathe at each other.

March 18 | I begin to drive Buckwheat’s Chevy pickup 2,800 miles across Canada. Seven hours of driving long, open Yukon Territory wilderness. Black ice, the remains of a snowstorm and 36 hours of thaw-freeze cycles, twice causes the rear of the truck to fishtail, forcing me to power out. In the twenty miles before Liard Hot Springs, I pass 38 buffalo sunning by the road. I arrive at Liard, check in at the lodge, and head for the springs. Only two other couples lurk in the cool end, so I creep toward the uninhabited hot source and soak for almost three hours under the cosmic swirl of aurora. I accidently traumatize a couple of 20-something Whitehorse gals as I emerge from the steam. Teacher from the Hot Lagoon. After a period of screaming, they calmed down enough to carry on conversation for a while about the north and me being from Alaska and them from Whitehorse.

March 19 | After 17 hours of driving and listening to the CBC, I snap up the last available hotel room in Whitecourt, Alberta: $159 at a Super 8. Dozens of big rigs idle all night on a side street. They roar up and roll at 4 a.m. At the confluence of the McLeod and Aska Rivers, Whitecourt is ground zero for the Alberta energy boom. Lots of big, shiny pickup trucks driven by grizzled guys with wads of bills in their pockets.

March 20 | First day of spring and I’m driving through landscapes buried under a fresh snow dump. Fifteen inches in one storm beats the Edmonton record for biggest snowfall in March. As I crawl through Edmonton on the Yellowhead, I find that side streets are nearly paralyzed even 48 hours after the storm. The city contracts out its snow removal but all operators took jobs in the oil fields, leaving no one to move the snow. 

The undulation of Alberta’s prairie stretches taut across Saskatchewan’s belly. Saskatoon is a slushy gray city showing shades of hip. South of town 60 clicks, I turn southwest off the Yellowhead onto Highway 2, a two-lane backroad shortcut to Moose Jaw. I am blown out by a technicolor sunset in the great, domed sky upon tabletop land in all directions. 

March 21 | Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan is close enough to Minnesota that in our nightly phone conversation Buckwheat says to sleep in for a change. I do, leaving Moose Jaw at 10 am after watching Dubya confirm to the world his status as a “decider.”

I drive 100 km south to Weyburn, “The Largest Gathering Place for Grain in Canada,” where a young gas attendant says that they’re just starting to get the good stuff, like Wal-Mart and Boston Pizza. I cut east on the Redcoat Highway through a dozen towns built like fortresses against Prairie Exposure. Make a pilgrimage at Cypress River, Neil Young’s hometown, then drive through La Riviere, Morden, and Winkler where I tuck south to the border and cross into Walhalla, North Dakota. Buckwheat is starting to sound a little desperate on the phone. He walks back and forth on an overpass, waiting, freezing. I drive like hell to Grand Forks, then take a left into East Grand Forks, Minnesota and Crookston. 

Perhaps 20 miles further east on Minnesota 2, I find Buckwheat on an overpass at the intersection of 59 North. He’s shivering, bellowing, and groping for me. “C’mere you skinny little mofo! I’m so glad to see you I could kiss you!” Arms outstretched, my 300-pound friend pounces, puckered. I duck to the truck, then to the Red Apple in Mahnomen where we meet Norm and Lori Gullingsrud and his parents, father soon to turn 90. After cheeseburger baskets and apple pie with ice cream, we bid the folks good night and head out to Gary to the Gullingsrud farm for the night. 

March 22 | Norm is the older brother of Larry Gullingsrud, a former Skagway resident. Long before daybreak we hunch with Norm around the breakfast table: plates of bacon, sausage, ham, a leaning pancake tower, platters of eggs and biscuits, coffee, and orange, prune, grapefruit, and home-canned tomato juices. We scratch the political surface a little, but Norm says he doesn’t much talk about that: “I vote on my moral beliefs and try not to pay attention after that.” He’s lived in this farmhouse for 36 years, was born in a farmhouse a mile down the road. His gaze reflects his sense of the mythic in Buckwheat, a man very much his opposite in temperament and opinions, but on a real journey for a real reason, like the pioneers. On our way out the door, Norm hands me two bread sacks each holding eight ham sandwiches. 

We drive out to the overpass on Hwy. 59 where Buckwheat picks up where he left off, near Red Lake Falls. I drive ahead five miles to Brooks (pop. 121) and park at a bar called The Third Base, and begin walking south to meet Buckwheat. Despite temps in the mid-teens, I am unburdened by cloudless light and an open road.

March 23 | I lean on the west-facing wall of an abandoned Lutheran church between Brooks and Plummer, soaking the radiance of boards weathered gray. Blocks the south breeze too. A foot of two-day-old snow blankets most of the cemetery churchyard. Names carved in granite: Wilson, Haugen, Gustafson, Olson, Olsson, Olsen. Norm said that the rural religious community is contracting. The number of empty Lutheran churches is nearly the same as full. Young people are moving out or worse—marrying Methodists! Growing numbers of the replacements are Catholic, Assembly of God, Hindu, or Nothing. This church is a monument to another time—walls scoured by wind and sun, door and windows blackened in shadow, held intact only by crossbeams of memory and faith. Two sides of the property are lined by country roads, two by poplars against the far-reaching flatland beyond. In the crook of the largest poplar in the treed corner is a huge nest, possibly belonging to the bald eagle that I watched this morning on a slow scan for roadkill. 

This morning we hung out talking in our room at the C’mon Inn, then found the office of the Thief River Falls Times for a long interview with ace reporter Scott D’Camp. Buckwheat unfurls a compelling story, but beyond the reporter’s ears he confides that the walk has been a “disaster” because of promotional, health, and travel support problems. He insists that no one is paying attention to him because too many others are taking long walks, showing up in the media, and accepting hefty book contracts. And on the Today Show clamoring from the motel TV this morning there’s Fat Man Walking chatting up his quest to drop 200 of his 410 pounds on a nationwide walk. At last report he’d dropped 80 pounds with 400 miles to go. 

Leaning on three skinny pillows piled against a plastic headboard, Buckwheat throws up his hands to attract the attention of his followers. “Dude flies back home to LA for holidays, what kind of an epic journey is that?”

After walking more than 2500 miles, Buckwheat weighed himself in a motel lobby and discovered that he’d gained two pounds since starting in Miami in October. Like he says, he can’t walk by an Arby’s or Taco Bell without stopping for a snack. Likewise, with Diet Mountain Dew Code Red, available only in states with high obesity rates, like Georgia. With some regularity, people stop to ask if he’s Fat Man Walking; when Buckwheat says no, they speed off. 

Today is Buckwheat’s first day on a bike. He lost six weeks with his foot problems in South and North Carolina, so wants to make up time by peddling a part of the prairies. He’s also experiencing deep pain in his left foot, causing him to walk like a lop-legged bull-rider, so hopes that cycling will ease the condition. Keeps asking me if I think it’s right for him to cycle across central Canada. 

“You’re the one who made this human powered commitment, Wheat. You get to make the rules.”

I see Buckwheat coming from two miles away, at first a teetering insect, then closer, closer: bison on wheels. Late in the afternoon, I fetch a 12-pack of bottled water and when I get back to Buckwheat, he stiffly dismounts his bike and declares that “up to now my biggest frustrations have been Florida cops, but starting today, it’s numb nuts.” He chugs a bottle and decides to walk the next four miles. I drive the distance and walk back to meet him with more waters. We are two warm specks in a great white expanse, pleased to recognize our common humanity.

March 24 | The prime irony here is Buckwheat’s bald-faced determination to carry out his mission despite an array of “health challenges,” including diabetes, obesity, nerve damage, arthritis, and plantar fasciitis. Each day Buckwheat downs a cocktail of 13 prescription medications which cost about $1,800 a month. Next to his raw stubbornness, Buckwheat acknowledges that the drugs are his lifeline to mobility and good attitude. Doesn’t know how long he can last—two years ago his doctors gave him six months to a year—but he’s out to live it to the max all the way to the end.

Yesterday’s ride chafed Buckwheat enough that today he’s struggling to stay on the bike. I gave him the wind-foam for my microphone which he used to encase his sensitive organs—Spongewheat Bulgepants. After a few miles he pulls it out of his pants, offers it back. It floats around, he says. Hesitant to chuck it, I toss the foam cup in a shopping bag with the energy bars and move on.

I’m in Newfolden, “Best Kept Secret in Minnesota.” One more isolated cluster of stubbornness and genetic slide. In the glaring spring light we walk past farms, thickets, and prairie still under an unbroken snow blanket, watching the next town on the horizon grow larger with a grain elevator on one side of the railroad tracks, sturdy white prairie estates in a grove of ash and elm rising on the other side. Unlike suburbs and exurbs and strips and subdivisions, these communities stand tight for a few blocks, then end when they end. Early this morning, I drove ahead twenty miles to check us in at the North Star Inn in Karlstadt, scope out the scene, then walked back to meet Buckwheat for a roadside lunch. Despite signs and a statue proclaiming Karlstadt as Minnesota’s “Moose Capital,” locals say that they now see a moose about once a year, that a tick spurred by global warming spreads a wasting disease among moose that has so reduced the population that it’s been more than a decade since anyone could hunt one.

March 25| It’s what Buckwheat calls the “lutefisk lilt” that intones like birdsong against the rattle of November cornstalks. There’s compassion in that voice. Many times along the road, drivers pull over to offer Buckwheat good cheer, perhaps with a few bucks toward the cause. One 30-something guy in a new, yellow Jeep pulled over to say that he saw Buckwheat on TV news and is willing to donate thousands of dollars’ worth of his time to install an international medical networking center in the Dahl Memorial Clinic. Gives Buckwheat $120 with orders to spend it on a good meal for the both of us.

In the morning after our first night in Karlstadt, I drive Buckwheat 28 miles south of town. He walks and bikes, getting more comfortable with peddling, but still completely numb where it counts. Late in the day, I drive back into Karlstadt where I park the truck in the motel parking lot and begin walking south on 59 to meet my friend. I get to talking with Mitch Toplingrud, out clearing the ice off his sidewalk. Turns out a couple years ago he was visiting friends in Edmonton and just kept driving north until he reached Haines Junction. He stayed for a couple days of hiking, then turned around and drove straight back to Karlstadt. Never quite got to Alaska, but felt a strong connection with the land, he says. In his own understated Minnesotan way, he is inspired by Buckwheat’s walk. A couple hours later he catches up with us on the street, hands Buckwheat $40 and urges us to grab a good meal at the Black Bear Inn, best in town. “Bless you!” he calls as he waves from his baby blue Continental.

Everyone’s talking about how the weather’s changing. Hardly even got to 0 degrees this winter, let alone the harsh subzero temps that used to sit for months on this part of the country. Ear virus killing moose, opening more territory to absorb the nation’s white-tailed deer population explosion. They’re everywhere. Never used to see ’em.

We head into the Black Bear Inn for dinner. Open space with lots of moose and deer heads on the walls. We order shrimp baskets and when our teenage waitress brings them, Buckwheat asks about red sauce. They’re all out. What do you mean, “all out?” Buckwheat pushes the basket away, folds his arms atop his tummy. “Take it away—no—I’ll eat the fries.” Our waitress stumbles over herself to attend other tables and I eat my fried meal while Buckwheat sulks. He leaves her a $5.00 tip.

After a late breakfast at the Black Bear (omelet for me, two naked cheeseburgers for him), Buckwheat lumbers north. We play catch-up for a few hours and around 3:00 I’m a mile ahead and reading the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, waiting for Buckwheat to catch up. Except he doesn’t. I watch the road in the rearview mirror until Buckwheat’s dark shape appears on the horizon, but then stays small for several minutes. A larger dark shape joins his, eventually becomes a car approaching, then slowing as it nears me. Buckwheat steps out of the 1970s Toyota pickup and an ancient man at the wheel extends his hand to shake mine. His wife smiles and nods. Buckwheat has been trying to reach me by cell but mine is off. He leans heavily against the truck, face gray and sweaty. His voice is a hoarse whisper. Blood sugar dropped too low. Shakes like palsy until the fuel hits his mouth. He disrobes a Butterfinger, pops a Mountain Dew, and sits in the cab talking about this and other similar episodes along the way. Another ancient couple slows down to ask if everything’s alright. A cop crawls by. Five more cars brake and make eye contact before we wave them on. “This would never happen in Florida,” Buckwheat mumbles. “There are pockets of kindness there, but most people don’t give a shit.”

March 27 | The highlight of our breakfast at the Scandia Café in Karlstadt is seventy-six-year-old Virgil Hams, who harmonizes with Buckwheat on a heartfelt “Amore.” “Whe-e-en the moon hits the sky like a pizza pie, it’s amore.” As we make our exit, Virgil and his wife of 57 years, Gerde, accompany us to the street to show us something out in his car. Turns out, Virgil was in Korea from 1952-54 where he attended a historic Marilyn Monroe concert and has the pictures to prove it. Virgil presents Buckwheat with three black-and-white photos from front row, adding that he usually charges a buck apiece. “Every time I go to Grand Forks I have a few hundred made and sell ’em all,” he declares. Virgil and Gerde wave as we climb into the pickup. “Stay a while next time you’re in Karlstadt.”

I arrive at the Canada border a half hour ahead to warn the customs agent that is Buckwheat coming. When I ask about taking pictures and recording audio from the event, the agent is resistant. He rattles off a list of laws: can’t shoot photos of persons, border right-of-way, or the facility. His voice may not be recorded, nor will he give his name. I must park in a space 200 feet from the building and may not approach Buckwheat as he crosses. Everything’s changed since 9/11, the agent says. Fine, fine. I just want to keep moving north. 

Buckwheat crosses into Canada at 11:51 am, but I am not allowed out of the truck.

While Buckwheat talks with the agent in his office, I stay in the truck reading the Star-Trib. A half-hour passes and no Buckwheat. No traffic, either. Finally, the office door swings open and my friend emerges with the agent, both laughing and talking simultaneously. Buckwheat is the first long-haul pedestrian he has encountered, so the agent calls the national office for instructions. He is touched by the big man’s cause and love for Canada. Right off the bat, Buckwheat defers any honor to one of Canada’s big heroes, Terry Fox, whose wheelchair odyssey began in Halifax and ended tragically in Alberta when his cancer overcame him. The agent says he’s seen Terry’s mum speak at a meeting once and was moved by her courage. He turns to me, tears shining in his eyes. 

“Let’s have a picture with me and Buckwheat.” 

Agent inspecting Buckwheat’s ID. Agent asking Buckwheat questions. Agent with a grin standing next to the Buckwheat Donahue. I am allowed photos of Buckwheat striding past the “Entering Canada” sign.

The first rain falls on Buckwheat since Muncie. When it exceeds a light sprinkle, we call it a day and take an 80-mile side trip to Cypress River, childhood home of Neil Young, where on the way down I stashed a celebratory joint in a snowdrift. After honoring our rock ‘n roll hero, we cruise back across the prairie to Steinbach, a bustling town featuring at least two “Mennonite-style” restaurants. We’re staying at a huge Days Inn and tend toward watching news programs until mid-morning before heading out in search of a Subway. Most often it’s about George Bush and his cronies on the offensive for war where and when they want it. Some polls show as little as 29% in favor of the war, so George is suddenly making appearances. We watch transfixed and disgusted from our twin queens, downing a morning dose of Kentucky Fried Chicken, prunes, and Mountain Dew. During commercials, we recall stories from our youth; most of which overlap and surf across the News Heads. In and out of a media trance, we talk about women, Skagway, rock ’n roll, a rat from hell, a frozen dog, military school, times when we really pissed off our parents, politics, college, and the relative flatness of places. And the journey. Lots of stories from the journey.

March 28 | Buckwheat covered more ground today than any day since he started—close to 36 miles. Keeps telling me that he feels guilty riding a bicycle, but the speed helps him get back on schedule. With a wind at his back, Buckwheat sails across the immense flatness. Yesterday’s oppressive fog and rain dissipates by the time we’re on the road, bringing long views and bright light. I leap-frog in ten-mile segments, walk back about two miles until we meet, then turn back to the truck. 

After a Subway stop, Buckwheat eats a foot-long all-meat sub while he muses on his mortality. “My body’s breakin’ down, man,” he says between bites. “It’s true. I feel it every day. Every damn mile delays the inevitable, but I can feel things running down, dyin’.” I gently refute his premise, but his wry chuckle stops me mid-sentence. “It’s a fuckin’ foregone conclusion, man.” 

One doctor says that his epic trip may add five years to his life. Buckwheat prays that he makes it home to Skagway, and that it makes a difference.

Three-hundred-and-twenty-seven days after his journey began, Buckwheat walked back into Skagway.  After we parted in Winnipeg he walked across Canada to Johnson’s Crossing in southern Yukon Territory where he put his canoe in the Teslin River which carried him to the Yukon River and eventually to the Bering Sea. From Nome he flew back to Whitehorse and walked the last 109 miles on the Klondike Highway back to Skagway.

3 thoughts on “Dan Henry | Buckwheat Walking: A 2006 Trip Journal”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Amazing and poignant. Thank you for this, Dan, and I’ll never forget meeting Buckwheat—first in person at North Words, and now through your prose.

  2. Thanks for posting Dan. I’ve always been intrigued by this and appreciate this piece of Buckwheat lore and history.
    -Katie Bausler

  3. This is great writing about a man who was indeed outsized in every way. Buckwheat had such gusto and genuine joi du vivre. He ate up experiences like a lumberjack sitting down to dinner. You were lucky to spend so much time with him and I miss him every day.

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