By Sandi Hansen
Index-Tribune Staff Writer
03.04.05 – The simple acts of stretching and walking saved Jacques Gauthier from a life in a wheelchair, paralyzed and suffering from debilitating diseases.
In 1981 at the age of 41, the French-Canadian never dreamed that eventually he would be walking thousands of miles across the North American continent, including a trek through Sonoma. Gauthier, now 66, with a sparkle in his eyes and looking very fit, is on a mission he describes as simple and honest.
« I want to get people to take responsibility for their own health; we don’t have to live with pain, » he said in a recent interview.
Sixteen years ago, after nine years of osteoporosis, severe arthritis and side effects from the steroid cortisone, Gauthier was becoming a quadriplegic. He had lost 30 percent of his bone density. A good friend expressed grave concern to his family that Gauthier was dying.
After some thought, Gauthier decided psychologically he was well and he made the decision to stop the pills.
« If God wants me in a wheelchair, it will be by the disease and not the drug – no more drugs, » he announced.
Having tried 50 conventional and alternative treatments that all failed, he abruptly stopped every medication he was taking. The decision could have been deadly considering that withdrawal from steroids always must be gradual.
He then spent six months in bed, listening to meditation tapes. After eliminating drugs from his body, Gauthier heard about a healer who taught the beneficial effects of stretching exercises. He traveled 600 miles to meet the man, whose name he would not disclose for privacy reasons.
« When you stretch you improve so much of your blood circulation, » Gauthier said. « It takes care of all the clogs in your body, gives you oxygen and you’re getting back the power to help strengthen your immune system. »
After only three weeks following a daily stretching-exercise routine of several hours, he recovered 50 percent of his mobility and reduced most of his pain. It took seven months to get well.
Realizing how precious a gift health can be, Gauthier wanted to share his experience and be a model for those confined to wheelchairs.
« I’m not a guru who wants to save the earth and have people depending on me, » he said.
But he does have a strong desire to awaken people to the idea that drugs are not necessarily the answer.
« To be healthy you need exercise, good food and you need to learn to relax. No drugs will do this for you. They all have side effects, » he said. « Drugs will make you believe that they are solving the problem but they’re only solving the symptoms because all drugs have side effects, sometimes that are worse than the illness they’re trying to cure. »
One morning Gauthier said he woke up with just one thought – walk. And so he began.
His first « short walk » as he described it, was in 1997 when he trekked 1,200 miles across the province of Quebec. It took two and a half months.
He received so much positive feedback on what he was doing and why, he decided, « If I could do that, at least people could get out of the house and walk around the block … and learn to be responsible for their own health. »
In 1999, from March through November, Gauthier walked from Vancouver to Halifax, Canada, a journey of 4,000 miles that took seven and a half months.
Then he took a break for a while, and paid off the money friends had loaned him for that second big walk. Next it was time to turn his sights to the United States.
Walking to get his message across is not as easy as one may think.
The former self-employed businessman is on a tight budget. His friend, Veronique Vandiest, a Belgian who speaks four languages, drives the 24-foot motor home and meets Gauthier at pre-arranged rest stops.
Gauthier averages 20 to 25 miles a day, and the two communicate by cell phone. They follow the path laid out by the American Automobile Association.
The entire route is plotted on a « Trip-tik, » a personalized booklet showing all the roads they could use through both Canada and the United States.
« It’s difficult in California because I can’t walk on the interstate and on some roads Veronique can’t drive the motor home, » Gauthier said. « Also, she is unfamiliar with some of the (driving) laws. »
The two are taking a break in Sonoma from his journey of walking the loop – as he calls it – from Montreal, south to Florida, west to San Diego then north through Oregon and Washington, finally arriving back in Montreal, where he lives. He started his walk in June 2004, and plans to finish by mid-May of this year; 11 months and 6,000 miles later.
« California is my 16th state and I have two more to go – but this is a long one, » laughed Gauthier.
But they are enjoying their rest stop in the Valley. The pastor of the Sonoma Seventh-day Adventist Church on Broadway is allowing the motor home to be parked in its lot, and the city has given its « OK » to park overnight when necessary in the Casa Grande parking lot behind the Sonoma Barracks.
Their stay in Sonoma included giving free lectures this week at the First Congregational Church and talking to anyone interested in learning how to be healthy by stretching and exercising.
Sonoma is very friendly, Gauthier said.
« You have a wonderful, beautiful place here. »
In the logbook posted on his Web site (www.stretching-plus.com), on Feb. 17, Gauthier wrote « 36th week, 3,957 miles … my wings spread wide open again and every day I feel very happy to continue to live my dream. »