In April of 2008, one Georgia woman pushed an 825-pound wooden wagon 250 miles from Savannah to Atlanta, Georgia.
Rachel E. Milano, who later became known as "The Wagon Lady," did this as both a personal transformational journey and to raise awareness for those suffering in silence from sexual abuse and maltreatment, of which she was a victim.
To commemorate the 48-day journey in its fifth year anniversary, Ms. Milano recently started a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a video diary in which she will upload 48 separate videos recounting each day. From being sideswiped by a truck to being inspired by the people she met along the way, she reveals what she encountered.
This is her story.
She had a rough childhood, to say the least. It was an impoverished environment and there was a lot of substance abuse as well as physical and sexual abuse. Of her two siblings, one in fact, her best friend and sister, passed away at the tender age of six from their "circumstances" and Rachel felt an incredible guilt that she carried with her into adulthood.
On Facebook, Rachel wrote of her childhood:
I found myself living from home to home, squatting in roach infested drug houses, sleeping in bath tubs for lack of a bed or sleeping in telephone booths for lack of a home, succumbing to the sexual advances of men and women at whose hand I became infected and gambling for my food in school. Worst of all at age six I began doing it without my best friend, my sister, who did not survive our circumstances.
She ended up being passed around the foster care system and finally found a safe home at age eleven when adopted by a nice family. But her youth had scarred her so that she continued on the wrong path.
It wasn't until years later, when, as a married mother of five children in a "broken marriage," she was diagnosed with cancer. At that point she decided she needed to change things, that she needed a fresh start. The cancer, which she was fortunate enough to survive, was a result of her childhood sexual abuse. And she realized that if she passed she would have never really known who she was as a person and didn't want to leave such a legacy for herself and her children.
She went on a period of self-examination that lasted several years. "When you make the transition to actually deal with the pain, it's never a pretty transition," said Rachel. "I began to reconcile -- my sister's passing wasn't my fault, my circumstances weren't my fault."
As she was going through the healing process, she felt a deep anger for others like her who had to endure abuse and live in silence. She wondered how she might bring awareness to their plight. "How can I give the love that I have for this girl [my sister] a voice?" she asked.
Having left the life of prostitution, she was left in destitution. She was living in a tiny house now as a single mother with five children, having only a wagon she purchased a while back for a future business venture to sell snacks from.
That's when she decided one morning that she was going to push the wagon from Savannah to Atlanta. She was determined to do this as both a personal transformational journey and to raise awareness for those suffering in silence from sexual abuse and maltreatment, of which she was a victim. "I didn't know why I was saying I could do this, I just believed I could do this. In hindsight, it was insane."
Giving herself the goal of 30 days to train, she worked with a champion body builder to prepare her body for the trek. Her friends and family tried to convince her not to take the journey, but she was adamant.
Yet nothing could prepare her for what lie ahead.
Indeed, she faced several challenges along the way. In addition to the long distance and the heavy weight of the wagon, she had to contend with her current medical issues--which included hyperglycemia and lifelong STDs that could act up at any point as a result of stress. There was also 80 to 100 degree heat, wild animals, fire ants and ticks (every night she'd have to check herself for ticks), criminals, steep hills, and more.
She recalled one experience pushing the wagon up a steep hill toward a man's house, looking for a place to rest her wagon. When she finally got to the top of the hill, a big dog with a "blood-sucking tick" on its head stared her in the face. In the yard, surrounding the dog, were a bunch of dead armadillo. Frightened inside but trying to maintain her composition, she stared right back and talked with the dog softly as she walked to the front of the house.
But when she got to the door no one answered. So she went around to the garage only to encounter another menacing dog. "I was just talking to your friend here and I'm looking for your master," she said softly to the dog. When she finally got to the garage door and knocked a little boy opened up.
When the boy's grandfather arrived at the door, his jaw dropped. He asked how she got there. "Well, sir," she replied, "I was pushing my wagon from Savannah to..."
"No, no, no, how did you get to my door?" he interrupted. "You see those armadillo in the yard? Those are their toys. They eat things that come into the yard."
And through everything she encountered along the way, she doesn't regret it one bit.
It was, after all, life-changing. As she likes to say, she met people "from the Ghetto to the Meadow." People would pull their cars over on the road to meet her -- she spoke with adopted people, social workers, professors, domestic abuse survivors, a rape victim, a cancer survivor -- all wanting to talk and tell her their life story.
"Some people would call it divine providence, some people would call it the law of the universe, some people will call it an angel looking after you, whatever terminology one would want to use, it was a journey," she said. If it was a hill that she had to go through, people would help push the wagon and it would lighten the load in half. If she were hungry, someone would bring her food. If she were lonely, she always had someone to talk to. And while going into it, she planned to rest in a tent each night, she never had to do that. Every night someone she met would offer to have her stay over.
One nice family she stayed with had two adopted children, a seven-year-old girl and a three-year-old boy. And as Rachel was going through her nightly routine of winding down her body, the family's little girl burst into the room she was staying in, carrying two "Princess" slippers. She slid them on Rachel's feet, commanding that she wear them, noting that they buzz and massage the feet when you push a button. Rachel then went down to say goodnight to the family, tiptoeing for fear of crushing the slippers. The little girl's smile was as wide as ever.
"That was a night where I just cried," she says. "I couldn't help it. I was having an experience that was robbed from me and it was this little girl that was giving it to me."
But not everyone she came across was friendly. At times, she would have to ward off strangers in search of stealing money from a pouch she carried. As a bi-racial person, she also had to contend with racism as she travelled through certain parts of the South. People who would scream racial obscenities at her and try to run her off the road. She kept a blade and mace hidden, but easily accessible. Fortunately, she never had to use either.
The climax for her came after a truck sideswiped her. The truck veered off into the side of the road and crashed into her wagon, knocking both her and the wagon several feet. She recalls there being no skid marks on the road, as they literally flew in the air. While suffering extreme aches and pains, she used all her strength to lift the wagon upright.
After the wagon was repaired and she had some time to rest her body, she pushed another eight miles, to near the halfway mark, when she "hit a brick wall." She recalled people warning her that this might happen, but at the time she didn't know what they meant.
For Rachel, the incident was much like life itself. People want things to go as smooth as they planned and hoped, but that doesn't always happen.
"[I] can get angry and be afraid of all the trucks or be determined to get back on and keep pushing," she said.
And she kept on pushing.
In the last three miles of her journey, six women came to help push the wagon, basically dragging her to the finish. Ironically, it made her body hurt even more as she wasn't able to control her own movements and was going at a much faster pace. But she didn't complain. And in the last mile, she was met by her five children so that they could reach the finish line together as a family.
"I see the wagon as someone's purpose -- whatever your purpose is in life you have to push that wagon," said Rachel.