A Great Example

An interview with Jess and Julie Koski …


When and where did you start your journey across America?


We took our first steps west from Schoodic Bay, Acadia National Park on July 7th, 2023. Neither of us had ever been to Maine before (one of maybe 5 states we hadn’t visited) and we were eager to experience Acadia NP!


I understand that you were walking to call attention to the epidemic of opioid addiction.


We all have personal experiences with addiction: there is no one who hasn’t been touched by a friend or a family member’s struggle. Yet, there is still stigma associated with drug use. After 13 years as an ER nurse caring for people who overdose, it’s an issue close to my heart.   We’ve watched the opioid epidemic grow and change and become the monster that it is today. Opioid overdoses kill 80,000 people a year and are the leading cause of death of 18-to-45-year-olds. 80,000 people who could be alive due to the failure of the medical industry, from big Pharma to the local hospitals, to act and it sickens me. It’s time we accept and teach harm reduction: Naloxone is the simplest way to do this. It reverses the opioid poisoning so the person can breathe on their own and survive. Our approach of talking to people while walking was meant to open up discussion, one on one, so we could talk frankly and openly about experiences, feelings, and ideas relating to addiction and overdose. Many people we spoke with had lost someone and were interested in learning about harm reduction.  It was great to answer their questions and discuss their concerns in an informal, friendly manner. 


Jess, given your surname, you have Finnish heritage?


I’m Finnish, as well as some other Northern European, French, and Native American blood. I’m an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and live on the Grand Portage Reservation. Some might call me a “Finndian” or “Finnishanabe”.

I visited Finland in the early 1990’s to ski in the World Master’s Ski Championships in Kuusamo, an eye-opening experience! I considered myself a competitive athlete, but regularly got my peppu kicked by much older men.

I took a Finnish language class before the trip. Prior to that, I had a vocabulary that was limited to mostly swear words.

I’ve always been proud of my Finnish heritage and took inspiration from the great Finnish running tradition. I read everything I could get my hands on about Paavo Nurmi and the other early champions. I was a young runner when Laase Viren won the double golds in Munich and Montreal. (I have a picture of myself and a few other locals with Viren when he came to run Grandma’s Marathon.)


I’m pleased to say that I’ve enjoyed several rounds of karjalan piirakka back in the days of Hojito in Thunder Bay! But, as far as I know, I’m not Finnish. I’m adopted and not certain of my paternal side though, so you never know.  I grew up in Fargo, ND and my (adoptive) parents weren’t Finnish. My dad was a Fulbright scholar in Germany as a teen, thus we leaned to the schnitzel


Let’s get back to the walk you embarked upon last summer.


Since doing things “the easy way” isn’t in our vocabulary, we decided to walk diagonally across the US from Maine to San Diego California. The route was very fluid and changed as we walked due to road and weather conditions. For example, we only learned about the wonderful Erie Canalway rails-to-trails path when we arrived in Maine. Consequently, we enjoyed an easy to navigate, 350-mile path free of cars. But we also had to detour away from a similar trail in Illinois due to the horrors of entering Chicago congestion.

We changed the route from Nebraska to Missouri/Kansas due to the approach of cold weather. And did so again in Colorado, detouring south into New Mexico and Arizona. These decisions turned out to be the best we made over the entire trip. Missouri has the KATY Trail; another rails-to-trails that follows the Missouri River and the route of Lewis and Clark. And New Mexico turned out to be our favorite state!

Logistically, we worked out a system where Julie would start walking each morning and I’d drive ahead, park the car (hopefully in some shade so the dogs could be comfortable), meet up, and I’d head out for my miles. We’d do this two or three times per day until we reached our daily mileage goal (15-30 miles.)

The dogs didn’t do a lot of walking. Izzy turned 17 on the walk and is mostly deaf and blind. Jessica is our year and a half old golden doodle and has plenty of energy but most often, we didn’t feel comfortable having her out on busy roads with us. I’d estimate she did maybe 150 miles of walking on dirt roads or paths. If we ever do another trek like this, Jessica would certainly be invited! Izzy will most likely be in “the happy hunting ground” by then, though we really didn’t think she’d make it to the Mississippi River: she’s actually more vigorous now than she was at the outset of the trip!

We walked from Maine to Indiana without taking a break. Then Julie went to Chicago for a music festival with some friends. We took another break for a trip home to see family around Christmas, and another for me to go to Phoenix for a 100-mile race. Yes, walking across the country apparently wasn’t enough for me!

In the end, we shifted a bit north of San Diego to Carlsbad to avoid big city traffic. We walked onto Terramar Beach and into the surf up to our shins.

Our sisu was tested when we reached Alamosa, Colorado. We were met with below freezing temps (-5F), very strong headwinds (40+mph), and high altitude (7000’-8000’.) There were a few days we just had to pack it in after seven miles, which put us further behind schedule.

Julie had surgery for lung cancer three years ago and, though she is doing great, she does have her limitations, walking over a 10,000’ pass into a howling headwind being one of them.

We’re excited to reunite with family in Minnesota and should arrive on my son, Eli’s, birthday! (We began the walk on Julie’s birthday—July 7th, and ended it on my daughter, Phoebe’s birthday, April 5th.)


Maybe let our readers in on the highlights of your trek.


The highlight of the trip for me was the last step: right into the Pacific! The sun was shining down on us as we ran around on the beach in a giddy stupor, cheering with beers and letting the dogs bark and run wild. We’d finished without anything horrible happening. When you walk every day for months and months, it becomes part of you. The road, the trail, the highway, the wind; hours turn into days, days turn into months, miles turn into more miles. It’s hard to explain, but the process of one step after another and another quiets your mind and brings a deep feeling of peace even with semis whizzing by. 

 After walking and talking with people across this country, the idea that we’re all here to help each other still rings true. The kindness shown to us was epic. People everywhere stopped to ask if we needed help and that question usually led to a harm reduction conversation. In New Mexico, a woman jumped out of her car and ran over and hugged me. Later that day, we went to her house for dinner and to do laundry. We met a woman in Vermont with a dog like ours and when we arrived in Kansas, her sister took us out for breakfast. In Colorado, a former drug dealer gave us a beer and offered a place to camp for the night (we declined the camping spot but drank the beer).  In New York, a photographer friend-of-a-friend invited us to his studio and made a video for us. Finally, Jess had a great talk with an Amish fellow in Indiana. 

We have stories of kindness and support from every state and so many new friends who followed us on social media. There were also a few encounters with people not as open to us or our message but nothing scary.

We need to mention how grateful we are to our friends and family! For 8 months they’ve held us up, cared for our cats and plants, and encouraged us daily. What a journey! 


Will there be a chance for folks to hear and see about your epic trek either through a video compilation, lectures, or perhaps, a book?


We’ve posted links on our website to some of the interviews we’ve done with newspapers and radio stations. Readers can find those links at: www.walkforthelove.com. Also, WITP radio in Grand Marais, MN did a wonderful job of keeping up with us. Those interviews can be accessed at www.wtip.org.

I do write (I’ve a Masters in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University, and taught English at Hibbing Community College) so the idea of completing a book about our journey is appealing. I’ve gotten some “pre-orders” from a few people along the route, though I think maybe they’ve consumed one too many beers!  We’ll see. Maybe someone out there knows of a potential publisher?


What’s next for you two?


We’re slowly making our way back to Minnesota and “the real world.”  Julie is pondering the next chapter in her professional life: she still has a few more years before she can join the ranks of wandering retirees.

We sometimes daydream about another walk (perhaps across Europe: the Arctic Circle to Morocco) but we also feel the need to reconnect to Northern Minnesota and spend time with our (grown) kids, siblings, and my mother.

We’re passionate about a number of issues beyond Harm Reduction, such as climate change, plant-based diet, and inspiring people to get out and move or take on a challenging physical/spiritual journey.  We met many people who said, “I wish I could do what you’re doing.”  I always replied, “You can! You don’t necessarily have to walk across the country, but you can go for a hike every day, walk or bike across your state, or commit to a daily practice of exercise, meditation, yoga, or whatever makes you feel good.”


Where can folks find out more about your walk across America?


We’ll keep our Facebook and Instagram pages active, and I’ve promised at least one more blog post on our web site.

Thanks so much for your interest in our walk, Mark and Finnish American Reporter!

(This article first appeared in the June 2024 issue of the Finnish American Reporter)

About Mark

I'm a reformed lawyer and author.
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