When Alan Bounville went out for walk, he was 34. He'll be 36 when he finishes.
Alan is the man behind the Washington-to-Washington "Into the Light" Walk. By the time he reaches the White House on Feb. 23, he will have walked in excess of 6,000 miles from Seattle. It's been tough on Alan, but it's been tougher on his shoes. "I think I'm on pair 21," he says.
The walk was born on a grassroots organizing conference call. "The idea of getting out in one's community with a sign, basically, came up on those calls," he says. "Then the idea of walking longer distances came up. ... I just kind of went with it." He sure did.
"You get into it a little bit, and you're like, 'Ah, damn it!'" he laughs. "I guess what I didn't think of was 6,000 miles... 'Sure, I'll just do that.'" That very first night, Alan didn't even know where he was sleeping. "That's when I really freaked: 'Oh, my god, what am I doing?'"
The other question is why. Alan's answer makes it sound so simple: "Why not? Why not walk across the country doing what I love: helping educate?" The longer answer is that he's walking to raise awareness of gender identity and expression and sexual orientation, and to honor those lost, often brutally, in the struggle for LGBT equality.
It seems an oddly logical extension of a life that's merged activism, fundraising, event management and a master's focus on theater pursuant to change and theater in nontraditional settings.
The walk is all of those things, a national tour of a mostly one-man show with cameos from alligators, homophobes, cross-country runners, potential bashers and doctors and the spiritual presence of those lost to gender-based violence, the true and deep root of his walk.
He holds vigils where lives have been lost, by their own hand or at the fists of others. Understandably, the vigils create the most indelible moments. "You just can't really explain what it feels like to look at a mother or father in the eye as you light a candle to remember their child," he says. "It's one of the hardest things I've had to do. It is harder than the walk itself."
He adds, "You feel like you kind of know their kid by the time you leave them: They've shared so much with you about their child, their baby." Alan stops, emotion clearly in his voice. "It's hard to even talk about it."
But there is a positive. "What makes it also easy is that those parents and families that would come out to be part of those experiences are amazing, wonderful, beautiful people."
Alan adds, "I hate that I've met such wonderful people because of something so bad that's happened."
One was the sister of Joey Michael Harris. Joey was what his American Indian culture called "two-spirit," and the young man's transgender expression led to harassment at school and ultimately, suicide.
After a vigil at Joey's grave, still fresh with flowers, Alan met Joey's sister. She recognized Alan from the nearby Olympia Pride parade, where he had been the parade's impromptu lead marcher.
When she had seen Alan in that parade, she broke down and cried. "She just looked at me and said to herself, 'Joey, God, I wish you could have held on. People are doing things. Things are changing.'"
Looping Through the Bible Belt
From his starting point in the Pacific Northwest, the path was east and south. "The route was chosen in a couple different ways: going to places where we know of stories where people have been murdered or had commit suicide, and then also through areas that definitely are hotbeds for hatred," Alan explains. It's no surprise that that meant he looped more than once through the land of "don't say 'gay'" and other infamous anti-gay notches on the Bible Belt and the rural South.
But Alan is quick to counter assumptions. "The irony is that a lot of the vigils I do are in big cities," he says. "So the hate is everywhere."
Alan felt the hate in ways both big and small, from nervous mothers shielding their kids from "the gay man" to a coat hanger thrown in Louisiana from the back of a pickup truck with shouts of "faggot" as it zoomed past.
"I joke about that, because it was a plastic hanger!" he laughs. "If they only knew the gay symbolism! 'No more wire hangers!'" It is one of the moments Alan has been able to laugh off, despite its implication in the span of a life that has seen the roadside murder of Matthew Shepard.
A Real-Deal Moment
The incident hardest to brush aside occurred in Florida, as Alan was heading for a campground somewhere between Perry and Tampa. "I had contemplated setting up a tent by the side of the road," he says, "but a few days earlier, I had been stopped in my tracks by an alligator sunning itself by the side of the road, so I thought, 'You know what? I'll just keep going.'"
It was a different kind of danger he encountered when he did. "This truck pulls off the road, coming the opposite direction," he explains. "He goes to the end of this intersection area and then turns towards me and stops. He says, 'What you doin', homo?' I just froze. I had my little headlamp on and turned and looked at the truck quite a distance away. 'What you doin', homo?' he shouted again. At that moment, I thought, 'Is this the moment?' It scared the crap out of me. Fortunately, he drove away."
After pause, he says, "Yeah, the one in Florida, that was a real-deal moment." You can hear it in his voice.
Wi-fi and Condoms
As the "Into the Light" Facebook followers grew, so did offers of lodging and donations through his Fractured Atlas link to help him pay for hotels and his cellphone bill. He donates 10 percent of what he collects to the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Would his walk have been possible before social media? "I wouldn't have liked it so much," chuckles Alan. "And help is only a wi-fi away."
What's in all those bins, strapped together with bungee cords? "Clothes, toiletries, condoms and things that everyone should carry." Alan is upfront about everything during the walk, including the desire for physical connection. "It doesn't really happen that often, and that's not my focus most of the time," he explains. "I'm just trying to survive."
But, after all, he is in his mid-30s, with the typical libido of a healthy male, activist or not. "That's definitely something you give up," he says. But "improbable" does not mean "impossible," so although he's been living a fairly monastic existence, he confesses that he's not been living a monk's life. "Are monks really monks, anyhow?" he laughs.
TMI and STDs
It's all part of Alan's candor. Let's just say there is very little that Alan shies away from sharing.
He raised the ire of a few followers when he asked for a local recommendation for a health clinic, thinking he had contracted an STD. "It caused a real conversation amongst people, this whole idea of shame of sexuality or of STIs or STDs," he says.
He called his dad a few weeks after that. Alan does a gruff but endearing impression: "'Al, you know, you don't have to share everything with the world. There are some things that are meant to be private.'" Alan chuckles. "I knew exactly what he meant!"
While that disclosure started a healthy dialogue, it was much ado about nothing. "I didn't have anything," he reveals. "I'm a hypochondriac. Last year I had tendonitis in my finger, and I thought I had muscular dystrophy!" But the injuries and ailments along the way were not all in his head. Stitches, stress fractures and blisters are all in a year-and-a-half's work when you walk through six seasons and 15 states.
No doubt a bit of that hypochondria has to do with endless hours alone with his thoughts. "You go through this huge swath of time where you are thinking through this same series of crap every day, and there's no movement in your head," he says. "The problems that you had in that section of the journey, or, 'It's getting colder! What am I going to do in the winter season?' Or, 'What the hell am I going to do when I'm done walking?'"
For a man who's defined himself through the journey, what the hell is he going to do?
"I'd like to continue building on this foundation, getting people into that space where they would go into the worst places in this country for LGBT people and agitate there, and do it until you get your demands met," he says. "That's how movements are successful. We're so afraid of that sometimes, but that's how you gotta do it."
He continues: "I'm actually more afraid now than I was at the beginning, as far as what happens next." But the walk has taught him to stay in the here and now. "What's crazy is that it's taken almost two years to get to that point," he says. "By the time I'm done walking, I'll be fully ready to start this walk!"
Transition, Adjustment, the White House and Home
By his own admission, Alan is an impatient man, which seems odd when his road to equality seems more the path of patience. But Alan's impatience is clear when he talks about LGBT equality.
"I want it all, and I want it all right now, not just partially, not just marriage, not just military, but fully equal," he says. "We don't deserve just the piecemeal stuff."
When Alan's GPS finally says "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," it won't be the first time he's been to that address. He was there to help protest "don't ask, don't tell." But his reasons for returning are more specific now.
"I've been invited in as an equal into hundreds of homes across the country, but yet as a gay man, as part of the LGBT community, I'm not invited as an equal into the 'People's House,'" he says. "For gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation purposes, we're not equal, and we're not invited into 'our house' as equals. And we need to be."
Even with the physical success of the walk and a looming Washington return where he'll be joined by friends, past hosts, fans and press, Alan remains grounded. "You have grandiose ideas of what it's going to be like in the end," he says, almost as a question.
On an overlook in the Rocky Mountains, Alan had a chance encounter with a man who had run across the country. Eager to pick the brain of this man who had run almost the same route that Alan was now walking, he asked the man, "What was it like when you finally finished?"
"I woke up the next day, and life just kind of went on," the man replied.
Alan says, "Nothing magical is going to happen out of this, except the hope that lives have been impacted, and the hope that it does help move the movement along, and move people along who've been touched throughout the journey. That has to be enough for me. And it has been." Alan takes a breath and, the way he does, moves forward.
"It's reinforced what I already knew: We all have incredible power, in our voice, in our actions," he adds. "We just don't know it a lot of times. A lot of people just don't know it."
He continues: "You don't have to put yourself in a position like this to exercise that power. The core of what I'm trying to do is to encourage people to walk into their own light, their own true potential. That's something we can all walk away with."
Note: An earlier version of this blog stated misidentified Bounville's age. This has been corrected.
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