On June 22, a journey began not just in miles but in dedication and inspiration. The purpose of the journey is to offer proof that life and dreams are dependent on the spirit, not the body.
Julio Montoya was a soldier in the Peruvian Army. On the night of July 19, 1999, while working on a road project in the mountainous region of his homeland, he stepped on a land mine. It cost him his right leg at the knee.
"Terrorists, known as the Shining Path, had placed land mines throughout the area to discourage us from building new roads to improve our country," said Montoya, sitting in the lobby of Alexandria City Hall last Wednesday evening. He had just come from a visit with Alexandria Mayor William Euille.
Montoya decided to walk from Boston to Miami to spread the word that a disability is only that if one allows it to be so. "I'm trying to show people that life itself is a challenge. This is a march of inspiration. I hope to leave a little line in American history to inspire future generations," he said.
After his accident in Peru, Montoya was brought to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for treatment and to be fitted with a prosthesis. He was a patient there in 2000 and 2001.
During that time, "I made a lot of friends on the hospital staff and they invited me back this year to the graduation of the 2004 medical class. The embassy gave me a six-month visa so I decided to make this journey with the rest of my time here," he said.
"I don't have any sponsors or any financial support from outside. It's all on my own. But, people have been very helpful and supportive," Montoya said.
IN ADDITION TO SPREADING his message of self-determination and will power, Montoya, 36, is visiting with the mayors of as many cities and towns as possible on his trek down the East Coast. He expects to arrive in Miami between Oct. 10 and 20 for the trip home. His visa expires Oct. 24.
"I got a call the day before he arrived saying that he would like to meet with me and learn more about Alexandria. When I got to City Hall Wednesday afternoon, he was waiting," Euille said
"After I heard his story, I said this is really something. He's not asking for anything and he's doing this all on his own. We talked about the City and its history. He was particularly intrigued by the Hispanic population," Euille said.
"I called the mayor of Richmond and told him about Julio's journey. He welcomed him to stop in when he arrived in Richmond. It's a great story and just proves no matter what, you can make it in this country," he said.
As Montoya sat in the lobby relating his story, City employees who had encountered him during his brief visit stopped by to express their support and admiration for his mission. One of those was Myla J. Riggs, division chief, Benefits/Records Division, Personnel Services Department.
Riggs, herself reliant on a mechanized wheelchair due to leg paralysis attributed to polio, said, "I ran into him in the hall ... I think its really great what he is doing. He has also learned that Alexandria is easier for people with disabilities to get around," she said.
"This City also has more history than many others I've visited," Montoya added.
"I gave him a stress reducer ball and a water bottle that were part of the Alexandria Health Fair," she said. "To add to his collection."
Montoya is collecting souvenirs all along his path as mementos of the journey. Joining the large American flag on his aluminum staff were the flags of such cities as Baltimore, Philadelphia and, of course, Boston. His chest was covered with pins of municipalities including one of Alexandria given to him by Euille.
"This is the best country in the world. There is unlimited opportunities for everyone. Never stop no matter what happens. I'm trying to show that to the world," Montoya said.
AS FOR TERRORISM, Montoya, who has personally experienced its impact, said, "We can make a better future, if we can just band together to stop terrorism." In that vein he visited with representatives of the Organization of American States while in Washington, D.C. "I urged them not to make deals with terrorists," he said.
His personal confrontation with terrorist tactics not only cost him his leg but also other aspects of his personal life. "I was married. But, I lost everything with the accident. Except my inspiration," he said.
"I have two sons, 10 and seven. They live in Peru with their mother. One of the hardest problems is to have families deal with disabilities," Montoya said.
In addition to undertaking his present mission, Montoya is a teacher of English and Tai Kwan Do in his home area, Paita Harbor, Peru. He retired from the military due to his disability.
As of last Wednesday he had covered 1,142 miles since leaving Boston. That night he was staying at the Embassy Suites Hotel on a courtesy basis, he said. All along his path, people have offered assistance and support.
One of his prime supporters is Robin Prakash of College Park, Md. She and Montoya met when they were both patients at Johns Hopkins. "My house has become sort of his unofficial headquarters during this visit," she said. When he reached the Washington region he stayed at her home prior to heading south.
"As he collects souvenirs along the way he sends them here. And I try to make contacts for him ahead of his arrival by calling mayors' offices and alerting local police to keep an eye out for him. After all, he is doing this all alone," Prakash said.
"But, it's not the first time he's done a long walk. Last year he walked 3,000 miles in Peru. It's a little over 2,000 miles to Miami, I think," she said. Official maps list it at 1,504 but that doesn't account for all the side trips and traveling secondary routes.
"While we were at Johns Hopkins he tried to teach me Spanish and I taught him English. He learned much more English than I did Spanish," Prakash said.
Anyone wishing to send letters or support to Montoya should send them to Prakash at 7209 Dartmouth Ave., College Park, MD, 20740. Montoya has also established a web site at www.caminoalfuturo.org.
As he waited out Wednesday evening's thunder and lightning storm at City Hall, Montoya recalled a similar storm during his walk. "The lightning was getting so close I got concerned it might strike my artificial leg. So, I took it off and put it in a hollow tree until the storm passed," he said.
Early Thursday morning Montoya departed Embassy Suites Hotel heading south. His last question Wednesday evening was, "How do I get to the home of Washington tomorrow? I definitely want to walk past that."