Retired NC trooper battling Parkinson's completes cross-country walk
Tommy Dellinger embarked on a 2,300-mile trek, which began in California in early September
By Eric Wildstein
Gaston Gazette, Gastonia, N.C.
GASTONIA, N.C. — A retired North Carolina Highway Patrol trooper living with Parkinson’s disease has completed his cross-country walk to raise awareness for the condition.
Highway Patrol and Gaston County Police cruisers escorted Tommy Dellinger and his crowd of supporters for the final four miles of his journey, walking from Food Lion to the Gaston County Police station on West Franklin Boulevard on Saturday. When he crossed the finish line at the police station around 1 p.m., it was the emotional conclusion to his more than 2,300-mile trek, which began in California in early September. There to greet him were family, friends and colleagues who inspired him along the way.
“Thank you for every one of you for coming and for supporting me along the way,” said a tearful Dellinger, moments after arriving at the police station, and wearing a Tennessee Volunteers cap, his favorite team. “I love all of you and I couldn’t have done it without you.
Dellinger joined the N.C. Highway Patrol in 1997, after previously serving as a U.S. Army soldier and Lincolnton Police officer. He spent 17 years as a trooper in Gaston County.
But in 2008, at the age of 39, menial tasks grew tougher and tougher. He was soon diagnosed with Parkinson’s, an incurable disease which disrupts how the brain control’s a person’s motor system. His condition forced him to retire at 45, relegating him to a life stuck inside his Gastonia home where he grew bored and depressed.
His condition took a turn for the better last February, when he underwent a surgical procedure called deep brain stimulation in an attempt to relieve the Parkinson’s symptoms. The procedure was successful and helped to replicate the benefits of medication without the debilitating side effects.
Inspired by hearing the story of another person who walked across the country to raise awareness for a cause, Dellinger decided to do the same. Though many in his family were apprehensive about the idea, including his wife of almost 10 years, Shelly Dellinger, Tommy went to work planning his routes on a map. He also trained for weeks walking around his neighborhood with a 30-pound bag to simulate conditions on the actual trek.
In early September, he took off from Rancho Cucamonga, California, unsure, yet excited about where the road would take him. His goal was to raise as much money as possible for The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. Though he doesn’t have a final tally, Dellinger says his effort raised more than $10,000 for the foundation.
“I could have it a lot worse and that’s why I wanted to do this to inspire people that are a little bit discouraged because they have Parkinson’s and show them ‘Hey, you can do things, you just have to put your mind to it,’” he said.
He documented the entire journey on his Facebook page.
He encountered obstacles the very first day. While asking if he could spend the night resting at a California fire station, crews there only gave him a bottle of water and directions to a nearby homeless shelter, Dellinger said.
It wouldn’t be the only challenge he faced. Blistering heat, unforgiving terrain and issues with a backpack and push cart he wheeled along hampered his progress, and even forced him to take an Uber through some parts of California and the Arizona desert. A bout with bronchitis didn’t help matters either.
“There were a lot of days and nights that I just about kicked that cart to the curb and just got on an airplane and flew home,” he said.
But weathering the storms also came with moments of pride. An Arizona state trooper pulled to the side of the road to meet Dellinger after hearing his story on the radio and offered a beverage to drink. When heavy wind gusts made camping outdoors in a Texas town an impossibility, local emergency workers welcomed him into the EMS headquarters to spend the night. Others also opened their homes and hearts to give him a rest along the way.
He was joined for his walk at certain points by family members, including his 26-year-old son and brother. His brother, Michael Dellinger, a Gaston County Police officer, walked with Tommy from Scottsdale, Arizona, to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Though the two only live about 20 miles apart, it’s the most time they’ve spent together in years due to the demands of work, family and limitations from Parkinson’s.
“That time we got to spend together was just like I got my brother back for those three weeks,” an emotional Michael Dellinger said. “We still pick at each other, we still argue just like we did when we were young. But it was wonderful.”
But Tommy had to make most of the journey on his own. Despite having to spend Thanksgiving at an Arkansas Cracker Barrel, he was able to video chat with family via smartphone, something he’d do nearly every night, oftentimes while trying to keep warm in a tent somewhere in the woods in mid-America.
“It was very, very, difficult. But I just tried to stay positive and cheer him on,” Shelly Dellinger said. “He would FaceTime and that’s how we would talk every night. He would talk to our granddaughter and it kept him sane, it kept me sane.”
He broke accomplishments into small victories, such as when he’d reach a new time zone or new state. He got his second wind when he hit “SEC territory,” motivating him all the way through to Gastonia, where a raucous crowd of dozens met him at Food Lion for the final leg.
Now the self-described “Country boy from Crouse” is home. He’s proud of his accomplishment, a feeling which he likened to “winning the Daytona 500 or National Championship.” After watching a video a friend produced recounting his cross-country trek, he let everyone who supported him know their contribution.
“I appreciate anyone that’s had anything to do with this hike and getting me back home. I’m glad to be here,” Dellinger said. “If I hike anymore from now on it’s going to be for leisure only.”
©2018 Gaston Gazette, Gastonia, N.C.