Ever been near a ditch, with 55 mph winds whipping, and had to dodge a flying mailbox?
Bill Bucklew has. In New Mexico, in early 2018. Near the end of his walk across the United States for Parkinson’s disease. The 49-year-old Wilmette resident recounts the harrowing experience for me at Granny’s Restaurant in Addison, not far from where he works as Pampered Chef’s vice president of product development.
“I was alone, unsupported that day,” Bucklew says, adding on most days and nights of the inspiring trek — from Georgia to California, from November 24, 2017 to January 31, 2018 — his support of an RV filled with Bill Bucklew fans accompanied him. “I called a hotel, hoping I’d get help. But the person on the other end couldn’t hear me. Too windy on my end.”
Sixteen dogs either attacked Bucklew or attempted to attack him during the journey. He also came across a bear.
“The bear,” Bucklew says above his order of Eggs Benedict, “didn’t bother me.”
Bucklew was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 43, in February 2012 … after being misdiagnosed from 2005-11.
“I felt tightness in my right leg after a run one day,” he recalls. “I saw doctors, got MRIs. Everybody thought I had sciatica. Tremors usually occur for people with Parkinson’s; I didn’t have them. Well, my handwriting got worse, and it was hard for me to type. A friend of mine eventually told me, ‘Bill, you need to see a neurologist.’ ”
Bucklew saw a neurologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Bucklew’s wife, Heidi, was in the room with him to hear the news.
“My neurologist told me, ‘You have Parkinson’s.’ Boom, just like that. I needed to hear that, but hearing that felt like I had just received a swift punch. Hey, at least I wasn’t told I had six months to live.”
Two weeks after the diagnosis, Bucklew opted to let his friends and loved ones know of his condition at a party. What frightened him more than anything else?
“That the people closest to me would feel sorry for me,” he says. “I wanted to be myself around them.”
A native of the St. Louis area and a graduate of the University of Missouri-Rolla (now Missouri University of Science and Technology), the father of two (Madeleine, 14, and Evan, 12) joined Team Fox of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. Members of Team Fox sponsor and participate in sports-related fundraising and awareness events.
Last July, Bucklew — a serial adventurer since his days at Lafayette High School in Wildwood, Missouri, having tested his mettle in skydiving, bungee jumping, windsurfing, scuba diving, archery lessons and The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, among other heart-racing pursuits — started to plan his walk across the U.S. He consulted with a physical therapist and a strength and conditioning coach.
“I was told to swim a few lakes or ride a bike instead,” Bucklew says. “Then I kept hearing, ‘Don’t walk; you won’t be able to complete it.’ My coach quit on me. But I didn’t quit; I told people, ‘I’m going to give it a go.’ ”
Bucklew took his first step on the 2,500-mile-plus challenge on the day after Thanksgiving last year and endured painful injuries to his back and feet.
“Drugs don’t cure Parkinson’s, yet,” Bucklew says. “But you know what slows its progression? Exercise. That’s what we know. The spirit behind my walk was to bring people together — people who have Parkinson’s and people who know people with Parkinson’s. And to raise funds, to raise awareness. The walk reinvigorated my belief in people. At the end of it I didn’t want the walk to be about me. Around 50 people joined me for the last mile, and 15 of them flew to meet up with me; some drove 100 miles to walk with me.
“I had been warned, ‘You’ll meet bad characters during your walk.’ You know what? I met an overwhelming number of good characters, positive folks who had been tracking me and then telling me they want to run a marathon some day.”
Bucklew competed in an Ironman Triathlon in Wisconsin after his Parkinson’s disease diagnosis in 2012. Ironman entrants swim for 2.4 miles, bike for 112 miles and run for 26.2 miles. He informed his children of his diagnosis shortly before the competition.
“I survived the Ironman,” Bucklew says. “I wanted my children to think, ‘Hey, Daddy has this thing, this disease, but he’s dealing with it, staying active, being proactive.’ ”
Please visit uncorkedadventures.org for more information about Bill Bucklew and Uncorked Adventures’ mission and events. Each board member of the nonprofit hails from Bucklew’s hometown of Wilmette.