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Could Walking Help Her Cope with Grief?

She was devastated by her brother’s death. She didn’t exercise, but she decided to walk 1,000 miles in a year.

Denise Valuk walked 1,000 in a year to honor her late brother

I’m going to walk a thousand miles by the end of the year,” I announced to my mom as I poured myself a glass of water. I had just come back from my Friday-morning hike, all sweaty and hot. Mom was watching my younger sons, Caleb and Cooper. She usually watched the boys on Fridays.

“Really? How many miles have you gone so far?” she asked, eyebrows raised. She sounded a bit dubious. I couldn’t blame her. I checked the hiking app on my phone. It was mid-May, and I had been walking regularly since the beginning of the year.

“Three hundred fifteen,” I said, trying to keep my voice confident. “Only another 685 miles to go!”

Frankly, the fact that I’d gotten this far was a miracle. I was 44 years old and totally out of shape. I hadn’t exercised in years. But walking was something I knew I had to do. If for no other reason, I had to do it for my baby brother, Wayne.

Wayne had been killed in a car accident the previous September. He was only 37. We’d been very close. His death had plunged me into a deep depression. I didn’t eat right. Slept poorly. Barely made it outside most days. My husband, Billy, was patient and supportive, but eventually I accepted that I had to do something to help myself. But what? What could I do?

In January, Billy and I had driven to a state park to celebrate our twenty-third wedding anniversary. I had suggested we hike up a small mountain to mark the occasion. I couldn’t even tell how that thought got in my head. Yet it seemed right. Billy agreed. We walked together in silence. I thought about how much Wayne would have loved being on the trail with us. He and I had been raised camping, hunting and fishing. Being close to nature made me feel close to him, even if I was huffing and puffing with each step.

By the time Billy and I reached the top, my legs were burning and my feet ached. I was drenched in sweat. And yet I felt a sense of exhilaration I hadn’t felt in a long time—as if I had accomplished something. Like Wayne had been right there with me. I had to keep at it.

I began with two-mile walks around the neighborhood. Each step was a struggle. Not just physically but emotionally too. I was missing my brother. When I felt the weight of grief, I gave it to God. Lord, show me what steps to take to mend my broken heart. There’s a famous saying that goes, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Every step felt like a way to comfort and healing. I’d go out four or five times a week and push myself, keeping track of every mile on my app. Could I possibly make it to a whole thousand?

Texas weather is unpredictable, especially in the spring. It can be 85 degrees one day, 45 degrees the next. One week, it rained continuously for six days straight. I didn’t want to break my routine, but I didn’t want to go out in the rain either.

On the seventh day, I woke up at my usual walking time—5:30 a.m.—and peeked outside. Dry at last! I was so excited to walk, I didn’t check the forecast. I ventured three miles from home, trying to make up for lost time. Clouds rolled in, the sky opened up and a torrent of rain fell. I was drenched!

I had my cell phone with me, but I didn’t dare take it out to call Billy to come pick me up. The phone would be ruined. So I trudged on through the streets, soaked to the skin, my hair matted down. All at once, I stopped in the middle of the road. The rain felt good—as if God was cleansing me. I thought of Wayne. I looked up to the sky, the water running down my face. He would want me to go on. Nothing was going to stop me. Not even the grief of losing my brother.

I arrived home, looking like a drowned rat.

“Are you nuts?” Billy said, handing me a towel. “It’s pouring.”

“I’m never going to get anywhere if I wait for good weather.” By mid-May, I was ready to tell everybody about my goal. Even my mother. “A thousand miles?” she said that morning in the kitchen. “You can do it!”

I ventured beyond the neighborhood to local hiking trails, gradually increasing my mileage. I hiked some of Wayne’s favorite wooded areas, near where he’d lived.

The months rolled by—my walks became longer, the hills steeper. I felt better, body and soul. By mid-July, I was up to 585 miles on the app and could hike 8 to 10 miles at a time. The journey of a thousand miles was just a matter of adding up lots of steps.

Then, five miles into an eight-mile hike, I sprained my ankle. The pain was immediate. My ankle throbbed. I sat in the dry grass and weighed my options. Limited cell service, not a soul in sight. I entertained the idea of a dramatic rescue by park rangers and dismissed it immediately. Too embarrassing.

Finally, I struggled to my feet and hobbled pathetically down the hill to my car. The pain was excruciating. My ankle had swollen to the size of a grapefruit. I was thirsty, out of water. My face and arms were sunburned. The drive home was agonizing. A thousand miles? Not this day.

I limped around the house for a week, praying for the pain to subside. I sat in the recliner, Billy bringing me bags of frozen peas to put on my ankle.

“You sure you don’t want to postpone this quest?” Billy asked. “What’s so special about doing it by the end of the year?”

“Don’t you think it would be all right if you walked 750 miles—or maybe 800?” Mom said. “What’s so special about a thousand?” She gave me a little pat on the hand. “You know, I miss your brother too. Every day.”

I don’t think Billy and Mom meant to discourage me. They were just worried about my ankle. To be honest, I was too. I forced myself to remember that day I’d been caught in the downpour. How I’d pushed through despite the storm. How I’d asked God to guide me, step by step.

I dropped by a sports store and got fitted for a pair of high-top hiking boots, for improved support, wrapped my ankle and got back out on the trails. My ankle throbbed by the time I finished each hike, but it was nothing a bag of peas couldn’t help. If I could walk, I could finish.

As I closed in on one thousand miles, my confidence grew. I had lost 25 pounds, and my legs were stronger than ever. If Caleb and Cooper came with me, they could barely keep up. I was so energized, I got new gear: a specialized hydration backpack, a hat and wool hiking socks. Evenings were spent researching new trails and equipment.

The last week of December, I was just a few miles short of my goal. I wanted to spend those last miles with the same person I’d started with: Billy. We were coming round to our twenty-fourth anniversary. He had stood by me through all of it—not to mention bringing me all those frozen bags of peas.

We started out early at our favorite park, the same one where I’d sprained my ankle.

“How many miles do you need to go?” he asked.


For good measure, we hiked 14.4 miles that morning. We headed back to the car. As tired as I was, I felt strong, healthy, healed. I’d kept my commitment to myself and the memory of Wayne. I’d felt his presence with me every one of those miles.

A journey begins with a single step. That’s true. Yet sometimes each step is a journey toward healing—and a loving God who awaits us at the end of all of our journeys.

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