Woman to walk from Arizona to Michigan


The last time we heard from Laura Milkins, she was walking through Mexico City in 2009 in the midst of its swine flu epidemic.

The Pentwater native and performance artist is at it again, as she prepares to embark May 1 on a 1,951-mile trek from her home in Tucson, Ariz., to the door of her mother's condominium in Grand Rapids.

Her mission: To slow down just enough to hear the stories of ordinary Americans as she makes her way from Tucson through small towns in New Mexico and Kansas and Iowa on her way to Michigan.

That's the analog side of her journey.

On the digital side, she will walk with a solar-powered battery pack, laptop, cellphone and webcam so followers can track her progress and hear these stories 24 hours a day.

It is all destined for a website she calls "Walking Home Stories — from the desert to the Great Lakes."

"In our culture today, you don't have to interact with a single person if you don't want to," said Milkins, 39.

"I feel like, when you slow down and you open your heart to somebody, you find out there are things they care about."

Her mother, Jane Litscher, 68, has learned over the years not to fret over her adventurous daughter and her projects.

"If I were to worry about that, I would worry a lot. She is a risk-taking kind of person. It would be counterproductive to worry. I am more proud than worried."

Milkins brushed aside the warnings of many people as she embarked on a walking tour that took her through Mexico City as reports surfaced of dozens of deaths from a dangerous new strain of flu. Milkins somehow knew everything would be fine for that project, which was backed by a Fulbright grant.

As it turned out, it was.

"In Mexico, I didn't have one bad interaction in the course of two months. Everyone was very kind and helpful."

The optimistic Milkins is banking on the same formula for her latest project.

"I am asking people to be kind and generous and to share a story with me," she said.

Beyond the walking tours, Milkins has ventured through equally audacious artistic territory. In one performance piece, she transformed herself into Paris Hilton. In another, called "Dress Me Sexy," she invited people to choose seductive outfits for her to wear and asked others to comment on the results.

She is a graduate of Ludington High School, with a bachelor's degree from Kalamazoo College and a master's in fine arts from the University of Arizona.

In her latest jaunt, she plans to stay in the homes of volunteer hosts along the way. In exchange, she pledges to cook dinner and breakfast — and to hear their stories.

She expects many others to join her along the way as she walks, recording it all with web cam perched on her forehead.

"You will see what I see. If I am looking at the mountains, you are looking at the mountains. If I am looking at a person, you are looking at that person."

The first part of her trip will take her through sparsely settled country, towns too widely scattered to find host houses. She intends to rely on friends and camp out in this stage.

Her faith in the kindness of strangers makes her confident she will find welcoming hosts as she travels, through communities such as Spearville, Kan., and New Sharon, Iowa.

Milkins deems the face-to-face contact she anticipates on this journey ever more crucial in a world fractured into digital bits, blogs and 140-character Tweets.

"I think it is everything," she said.

"Everyone is so busy running their mouths. I love social networking when it creates connections and experiences in real life. I detest it when it is nothing but complaints."

She has raised more than $5,000 to pay for the equipment and digital connections she needs. She hopes to raise several thousand more to pay those who helped create her website and for editing video once she starts.

With one exception, she is determined to walk every step.

She plans to take the ferry across Lake Michigan from Manitowoc, Wis., to Ludington, so she can walk through her home town of Pentwater.

Milkins calculates she will arrive in Grand Rapids in mid-September, walking an average of about 14 miles a day. She plans to enter "Walking Home Stories" as some form of video package in this year's ArtPrize.

Litscher expects to join her daughter in Ludington and accompany her on foot to Pentwater. The final steps should take Milkins through Shelby in Oceana County, Montague, Ravenna, then Walker and finally, Grand Rapids.

Like daughter, mother is optimistic.

"I am thinking she will find support all along the way. People in mid-America are great about this sort of thing."


Information from: The Grand Rapids Press, http://www.mlive.com/grand-rapids