Before she even opens her mouth, Catherine Li’s story begins to reveal itself.
The tale, in short, describes the seven-month, 3,000-mile journey of a young woman walking alone across the country for no particular reason other than to welcome the unknown.
Her story is written all over her feet. The cuts, scrapes and mosquito bites say more than any cluster of words ever could.
It can be seen within the tattered 52-page direction guide printed off Google Maps, hand-bound with string.
But mostly, it can be seen in her eyes, which still seem to be trying to process everything she’s witnessed during her trek.
And her relentless smile indicates that most of the memories are good ones.
Li, 24, began her epic excursion in Daly City, just outside San Francisco. She’s survived on her humble savings account and the kindness of strangers as she makes her way toward New York City.
She was taken in Tuesday night by James “Mac” MacDade of Langhorne, after one of his neighbors suggested Li knock on his door to ask permission to set up her tent in his yard.
Mac said he was taken aback by her polite nature and amazing tale and offered her a couch in his house. Li left the area Thursday morning, eager to embark on the last leg of the walk.
“Mac has been extremely kind in letting me stay here,” Li said Wednesday. She came to America from China 10 years ago and speaks with a slight accent.
Aside from the sheer magnitude of the trip, what makes her story so hard to believe is that she has, for the most part, chosen to stay under the radar.
There is no blog or Facebook page chronicling her moves. She isn’t tweeting. She has no official sponsor.
So, while she gets asked a million questions by most people she encounters — many of whom are concerned for her safety — the one she hears most is simply, “Why?”
“People always ask me that,” she said with a laugh. “At first, I was so urgent (to respond) so I just started to tell them all the feelings I was having but I realized that was tough to do. So I just boil it down to the short version: I just felt like walking. I just decided to click over to living in the actual moment instead of inventing all these fantastic fantasies for the future.”
Though she tries her best to avoid attention, the sight of a young woman walking along a desolate road with a shopping cart — filled with a tent, a sleeping bag and other essentials — is not one often seen.
She said she’s been stopped countless times by police officers who are curious about her intentions and worried about her well-being. One still insists she check in on her cell phone to let him know she’s safe.
“A homeless person with a cell phone; that’s a new one, right?” Li said jokingly from Mac’s front porch.
And yes, Li said she hears it all. Some call her a bum, others label her as crazy and some just flat-out don’t believe her story.
“It’s all right,” she added. “People are different and sometimes, it’s hard to comprehend when you first encounter something out of the norm.”
According to Li, most people are surprisingly giving.
“People have given me a lot of support,” she said. “They give me McDonald’s gift cards and insist I take them. One time I went into a store and found $20 just sitting in my cart outside. I have no idea who left it.”
Li said she began with just a wheeled suitcase, but soon found that pushing a shopping cart was the way to go. The one she uses now came from a Sears department store in Flagstaff, Ariz.
“Just for the record, I did not steal it,” she said. “I actually went to the mall security guard and asked him for it. I left him my phone number and said if Sears had any problems, I would be willing to pay.”
Li said she plans to return the cart on her way home which, she added, will be done by more conventional modes of travel.
But on the way to NYC, she’s strictly walking.
“To be honest, I did take a few rides,” she admitted. “One time, a policeman escorted me out of a certain area at night, but the next day I asked him to take me back to the same spot. I don’t want to cheat.”
Li estimates she walks 15 miles a day; at sunset, she begins to look for shelter or a place to pitch her tent.
“I always make sure to ask permission before I set up my tent on someone’s property. It’s only right,” she added.
Along the way, she said, the little things have given her the most pleasure.
“The clouds in Ohio, were just so perfectly shaped,” she said, “like the most innocent drawings from a child.”
She said she realizes the dangers of such an undertaking and that she’s been fortunate so far.
“When you’re on a trip like this, you get so much closer to the truth about yourself,” Li added.
And while she understands that walking across the country might not be for everyone, she said that even the tiniest of adventures can lead to that same inner truth.
“A quest is different for everyone,” she said, “but the courage is the same.”