Sandwalkers find love between the lowest and highest points

Shawn Milligan proposes to Withanee Andersen on the summit of Mt Whitney
—Photo by Josh Rudelbach

Shawn Milligan proposes to Withanee Andersen on the summit of Mt Whitney —Photo by Josh Rudelbach

 

“A guy could walk that!” commented the surprised Jim Andersen.

“Why on earth would anyone want to do that?” responded the staff at the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center in Death Valley. Leaning on the three-dimensional map model of the area, Andersen had noticed a small footnote pasted next to “Dante’s View.” It said that on a clear day, you could see both the lowest point in the western hemisphere, -282 feet below sea level near Badwater, and the highest point in the 48 contiguous states, the summit of the 14,495-foot Mt. Whitney.

The answer to why someone would want to walk from the highest to the lowest points, at least back in the ’70s, was the fad that had gripped America: to get into the Guinness Book of World Records.

“The Guinness listed every superlative you could think of, like hopping on pogo sticks, pulling trucks with your teeth, cramming phone booths, and other equally doofus stuff,” Andersen said.

At that moment, he realized he had found his niche: a way to create both a “singular and impressive accomplishment.”

He would make the journey and get listed in the book.

Remarkably, he was able to talk three coworkers at the California Paper Mill where they were employed into joining him. Though they all had physically demanding jobs, Jim writes that, “None of the four of us who made this grueling walk were in any way conditioned to do this sort of thing.”

“Sometimes a Great Notion…” isn’t so much the engaging book he wrote about this blister (and moleskin) filled personal and collective odyssey that ended up transforming his life.

“You may not even know you are in trouble, but you are,” Andersen wrote. “Life has a hole in it that can only be filled by God, but in our 20s few of us comprehend that.”

Getting permits to hike, laying out the directions, and gathering supplies took four years. This was all before the internet and cell phones of course. Since no one had ever done this before, there was no reference material to help them. They were literally walking out into a dangerous and uncharted terrain, with scorching hot temperatures, oxygen deprivation, and the threat of dehydration with no safety net.

But they made it, christening themselves “The Sandwalkers.”

There are many who are known for thinking up harebrained, outrageous ideas, but far fewer who actually carry those concepts out. The number dwindles even smaller for those who have talked their offspring into repeating the schemes and shenanigans perpetuated from their own youth. Andersen falls into this tiny statistical category.

His daughter Withanee “Withy” Andersen’s earliest memories are overflowing with her father telling the suspense-filled, and often hysterical stories about the Sandwalkers. Having these tales pervade her consciousness in the most subtle way as she grew up, it accomplished the most remarkable thing: she wanted to make the same expedition her father had when she turned 30.

With her mother Val and her father as the support team, Withy, her brother Josh Rudelbach and her boyfriend Shawn Milligan, they planned the re-creation of the legendary pilgrimage. Her soon to be published book, “Walk of Ages,” was written with her father, giving the perspectives of both the hiking team and the support party who provided meals and monitored the groups safety (at least as much as was possible). Even though the “2nd Edition Sandwalkers" had cell phones, they usually did not work.

Withy met Milligan while they were both working as Forest Service firefighters on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest’s Carson Ranger District.

She got all dolled up on their first date. Right from the start, it was special for both of them, and the next day they ended up working on the same fire together at Heenan Lake in Alpine County.

She was digging a containment line, and her face was covered in sweat and ash. Milligan recognized her, but Withy was really embarrassed about how she looked compared to how he had seen her on their date. He stopped to talk to her, sharing a huge grin before continuing on to the fire. She had butterflies all day.

Withy thought she was “really cute,” and fell in love.

Even after three years together however, He still told her he “just wasn’t ready for marriage.” But he was keeping a big secret.

He received her father’s blessing and made plans to ask her to be his wife at the summit of Mt. Whitney on the first leg of the "2nd Edition” Sandwalkers trip in 2017.

He was worried he would drop the ring. It had been extremely cold when they started the hike but became suddenly warm and calm as they summited. It shouldn’t have been though, since the support group waiting at the base of the mountain were being buffeted by high winds and the clouds were shredding apart around the peak. It did not look good from their vantage point, but there was a lovely little circle around the couple that was calm, still, and even somewhat warm.

Out of nowhere, she actually got cell service, FaceTiming her family with the exciting news. As soon as they hung up, she completely lost any connection. Needless to say, Withy was on top of the world when he asked her to marry him (or at least on the highest point in the contiguous United States). They wed the following year, with their dog, “Rewind,” as the best man.

Both Withy and her father had injured the same knee on their individual hikes, having to use trek poles as crutches or simply limp their way along to make it the entire 131 miles.

After the “Original Sandwalkers,” he traveled “the loneliest road in America to a happy Bermuda Triangle where rugged individualism and community spirit flourish amidst sagebrush and vast open spaces.”

University of Nevada Press published his book about that chapter in his life: Lost in Austin: A Nevada Memoir. Both books written by Andersen are available on Amazon right now. You will have to be patient about Jim and Withy’s Walk of Ages to be published, but hopefully it will be next year.  In the meantime, you can read Andersen's humorous blog at www.rurallyyours.com.


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