One Sunday in September, Henry Fortunato stepped out of his Overland Park house to take a walk.
A 500-mile walk. Across Kansas. With just a change of clothes, three bottles of water and his walking stick.
“Some of us were just not meant to drive,” said Fortunato, a public transportation enthusiast and avowed walker.
Along the journey, he amassed stories, like the time climbed the Statehouse dome with Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer. Or how he ended up as a guest judge in a chili contest alongside the currently crowned Miss Kansas Czech-Slovak Queen.
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The title of Fortunato’s upcoming lecture is illustrative.
His talk next week at Johnson County Community College, “A Long and Winding Walk Across the Sunflower State,” expounds on the approximately 500-mile journey he walked for six weeks ending in October. Fortunato’s account will be given at 7 p.m. next Wednesday at Hudson Auditorium in the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park.
A reception will follow at the Regnier Center.
Fortunato will talk about the six weeks he spent trekking across the state on foot, with highlights such as time spent admiring the rural landscape and taking in the pastoral splendor walking along roads of either dirt or, when less favorable weather prevailed, mud.
Speaking in his office at the Kansas City Public Library where he works as director of public affairs, Fortunato described the journey as a sort of spiritual test.
“Like any …,” he began, pausing and leaning forward slightly and arching his brows for emphasis, “pilgrimage, a lot of it’s just raw determination. It was a mental challenge to keep going.”
He whittled away at the distance into late October walking 30 miles per day without even the companionship of a music player, no ear buds to displace his attention.
“You have to be really aware out there,” he said.
Between the regular appearance of snakes and certain road shoulders that would make sidewalks seem generous, “I was, like, on yellow alert constantly,” Fortunato said.
There’s a meditative mode that one can move into, he said, albeit one regularly and abruptly abridged by law enforcement performing what Fortunato explained with air quotes were “welfare checks” or an impromptu question-and-answer session with a police officer.
In 2012, when he walked to Topeka, these interactions were grating. This time, he took the queries more diplomatically as a seasoned walker.
Another time, his strolling reverie was interrupted a little west of Lincoln by a stranger stopping suddenly and throwing him a reflective safety vest, a moment Fortunato clearly values just as much as he did being roped into judging a chili contest in Wilson.
The opportunity came to him through a staffer with the Czech consulate who thought his journey might put him in Wilson for the city’s Oktoberfest.
“And she said, ‘Well, are you going to be in Wilson on the 20th of September?’” Fortunato recalled. “Which, as it happens, I was.”
A chili cookoff was held while he was there, which he and the reigning Miss Kansas Czech-Slovak Queen Sara Vytlacil were invited to judge.
Fortunato said he estimates he had about 85 percent of his trip figured out before he started walking, but some things just came up, like climbing into the Statehouse dome with the state’s lieutenant governor.
The two had struck a kinship after Colyer, a surgeon, operated on Fortunato’s then 3-month-old son.
He notified Colyer in advance that he’d be in Topeka. When the to met up, Colyer had an idea. Fortunato recreated the conversation leaning in conspiratorially matching the lieutenant governor’s body language that day.
“He said, ‘I’m one of three people that have the keys to the dome. Wanna go up?’” Fortunato recalled. “And here’s two guys in their 50s lurking around up there like it’s their grandma’s attic.”
Fortunato’s long walk ended just over the imaginary line dividing Central and Mountain time zones in Greeley County. There, his wife collected him by car, and the distance he’d committed six weeks to was traversed in six hours the traditional way.
Fortunato, a historian with a master’s degree in state history, walked along towns that were created primarily to serve as infrastructure for resource-intensive steam locomotives. A town was needed to supply the water for the engine; another would have coal ready for the trains.
As the technology was phased out, so too did the reason for those rural Kansas towns.
Fortunato sees his journey as not only a way to get people off the interstate, but a model for how to give those towns another purpose.
“It could be a major revival and an economic driver to have people walking these roads,” he said. “I’ve done the research, and this vision has high potential.”