Paulette Leaphart walked from Biloxi to Washington
Paulette Leaphart left her hometown of Biloxi, Mississippi, on April 30, intent on walking to Washington, D.C. -- a journey of 1,034 miles -- and arriving by June 27, her 50th birthday, a milestone her doctors weren't always confident she would reach.
She strides with a sense of purpose, acknowledging that her body is forever changed. Leaphart was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in January 2014. She underwent a double mastectomy and wears the scars as emblems of her struggle.
Accompanied by her youngest daughter, 8-year-old Madeline, Leaphart is traveling the entire route topless.
All she can talk about is what will happen when she gets to Washington. Leaphart wants to tell lawmakers about the battle everyday people like her face in trying to afford treatment.
She shares the stories of other people in trouble, folks in agony, at the mercy of their insurance, unable to focus on their survival because they lack the economic means to get the treatment they need.
"Yellow is the new pink. We're taking lemons and making lemonade," Leaphart tells Chrystie Logan, a woman who flags her down on the side of the highway near Fredericksburg, Virginia. Logan has been following Leaphart's journey online.
The lemonade quote is not an accident -- Leaphart made an appearance in Beyoncé's visual album "Lemonade" on April 23. The hourlong film is described as a visual representation of every woman's journey of self-knowledge and healing. Leaphart spent some time with the singer on set.
"She said I inspired her -- that she admired me. It was great to hear that. I asked her to join me for a block of the walk, and she offered to join me for a mile," Leaphart says, a smirk forming on her lips as if she's letting this slip.
Beyoncé has yet to make an appearance, but that doesn't bother Leaphart. She's concentrating on the end goal.
Leaphart endured a journey before this walk, and she wrestled with a number of the emotions represented in Beyoncé's film. Anger and emptiness attempted to take root in her, but she chooses to focus on hope and redemption.
She wants to make sure Congress understands her experience and recognizes that her plight isn't unusual. In the United States in 2015, 60,290 people received a new breast cancer diagnosis and 40,290 people died of the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.
So she walks. God gave her this mission almost a year ago. Those are her words.
"I trained for this. When I got sick, I had to sell my cars. That made me walk to the doctor," Leaphart says, the memory still vivid. "I'd walk the 5 miles there, recover for an hour or two, then walk the 5 miles back."
She has to get to D.C. After she shows Congress her chest, she wants to show them her teeth.
Cancer treatment had an effect on her mouth. Many of her teeth are now chipped or broken, her molars useless.
"I need to get my mouth fixed, but do you know how much they want? Ten thousand dollars," Leaphart says, the number spilling from her lips with acrimony.
She and her daughter are taking a break and eating peaches after a hot morning in the sun. The fruit serves a dual purpose -- it's a favorite of Madeline's, and the ripe peach is one of the few things Leaphart can eat comfortably.
She hopes to receive dental treatment one day, once a change is made. She believes delivering the message is her duty, so she goes back to walking in her black Nike Air Maxes and neon-green socks, kicking up rocks, creating a rough-sounding scrabble that reverberates as she heads down into a valley.
The journey hasn't been without its problems. First there was the dissolution of her relationship with a documentary crew, which resulted in the removal of the recreational vehicle that was meant to provide a respite at night. Leaphart and her young daughter were left by the side of the road, but the mother of eight was undaunted. She needed a new plan and decided to travel light -- a relative picked up their luggage, and they continued their journey with three changes of clothing each.
Leaphart has no support vehicle. Every day she must decide on the move what she and Madeline will eat and where they will sleep.
Once, near the border of North Carolina and Virginia, they were stranded 12 miles from the nearest hotel and had no access to a cab. Mother and daughter made their way to Lake Gaston, where someone knew of her trek and helped the pair find a place to sleep.
"People expected me to quit now that there wasn't any publicity," Leaphart says, her arms swinging. "I made a promise to make it to D.C., and that's what I'm going to do."
She does a lot of talking and walking at the same time. She has to, in order to hit her goal of 30 miles a day. When pressed, she can cover 5 miles in an hour, but by doing so she pushes her body to the point where it can endure no more.
People who know her story stop by the side of the road almost every day. Some bring Popsicles. Some bring Powerade, or anything with electrolytes. Some join the journey. They shower Leaphart with prayers and at times offer her and Madeline a place to stay.
Leaphart documents the kindness from strangers on her Facebook page. Videos of her story have spanned the globe, and now 20,000 people watch daily, tracking her progress. One of the videos she made has more than 10 million views. The online presence has helped her fight the inclination to hide her scars.
"I loved the color pink. I can't stand what they've done to it," she says, the frustration evident in her voice. She has adopted yellow to symbolize the need for hope and a cure, not awareness.
"We need to tell the truth about cancer. They're using the slogan, 'Save the ta-tas,' but the ta-tas aren't what's important. It's the people with the breasts. You can still be alive without your breasts."
Leaphart had a medical condition that made breast enhancements risky, so breast reconstruction was not an option.
"I'm still beautiful," Leaphart declares. "I still turn heads even though I don't have breasts. It doesn't make me less of a woman. I'm a girly girl. I like getting dressed up, putting on makeup and everything else, but I refuse to allow one standard definition of beauty to exist in my household. That sets us all up for disappointment when things change. Regardless of what we look like, we should be celebrated."
"Sit tight for a minute."
A deputy of the Spotsylvania County Sheriff's Office eases out of his vehicle, parked along Jefferson Davis Highway in Virginia. He and another officer have come to talk to Leaphart about her decision to walk bare-chested.
Leaphart taught Madeline how to use Facebook Live so that when they are stopped by the police, the girl can document the encounter. Just in case.
The officer's initial concern stems from social norms based on gender -- the idea that she should be wearing a shirt because she is a woman. The officers respectfully but firmly insist that she wear a shirt.
For Leaphart, hiding would mean giving up her confidence and giving in to shame. She tells this to the police when they stop her. Today it's the Spotsylvania County Sheriff's Office, but it has been a dozen other departments along the way.
"It's amazing that I've got to educate the police on the law," Leaphart says. "I took the time to do the research before I ever got started. I knew this was coming."
After her double mastectomy, her chest has long, horizontal scars and pouches of skin where fat, ligaments and connective tissue used to live. Leaphart no longer has nipples. That's why she is allowed to walk around shirtless.
In most states, indecent exposure is defined as exposing the genitals (breasts and nether regions). She explains this to almost every officer she meets. While respectfully challenging the police's reasoning, she also confronts society's definition of what it means to be a woman.
Later, the Spotsylvania County Sheriff's Office will share a Facebook post chronicling its time with Leaphart and the education the officers received about breast cancer and her story. In the final picture, everyone is all smiles. With their differences resolved, Leaphart loads Madeline into her stroller and sets off again, walking down the side of the highway.
This trip has been educational for the child, and her mother isn't the only one getting stronger with each mile. They stop to read historical markers. On rest breaks, they use Leaphart's phone to look up the types of plants and animals they encounter on the trail. Madeline sits in her stroller for the better part of the day, taking mental notes.
Madeline's favorite scenery is the forest. They walk past the blooming primrose and dandelions, the scent of honeysuckle trailing after them as they seek shelter from the unrelenting sun. Overgrown grass threatens to overwhelm the pair at times, and they hold hands to get through the scary parts. They hardly take notice anymore of the clatter and clank of trucks carrying freight as they zoom past on the highway.
Still, even a day of relaxation has its perils. Late last week, after a day at a theme park, the door of a passing SUV is accidentally left open and it strikes Leaphart on the left side of her body. She says she is grateful -- if they door had hit her chest, she would still be in the hospital.
Vehicles aren't the only problem. Often the weather refuses to cooperate. Leaphart is occasionally thwarted by the rain; one morning the sky opened up and let loose a torrential downpour.
Mist clings to their ankles when they walk through patches of fog after an early-morning rainstorm. The mud on the shoulder of the road seems like quicksand sucking at her shoes. Leaphart has only one thought: forward.
Later on, the sun will deprive the dirt of its moisture and the ground will turn to dust, which swirls around their feet like smoke.
There are moments when the two must take shelter from the sun. Temperatures in the high 90s are common this time of year.
Sitting under a shade tree in Spotsylvania County, Leaphart begins to talk about the past. She had a different life before all of this -- she was a social worker. Cancer tried to take a lot of things from her. It took her home: One day, Leaphart returned from an appointment to find a notice on her door ordering her to vacate. Soon she and her children would be homeless, and because she had an eviction on her record, she has trouble finding safe, affordable housing for her family.
She tries not to dwell on this, grateful that she is alive to bring the issue to light. She takes another swig of her Powerade before resettling her and Madeline's things in the basket of the stroller.
They move beyond Aquia Harbor in Virginia, and then on past Quantico. The increased military presence means they don't have much farther to go.
A green-and-white sign in the distance announces their progress.
She is getting closer. She gets a call from a friend -- Leaphart has been granted a meeting with some lawmakers when she arrives. After the news, Leaphart redoubles her efforts, arms swinging, meeting on her mind, hope radiating from her with every footfall.
Paulette Leaphart is dreaming of her day in Washington.
When she arrives in Alexandria, the buildings go vertical, reaching for the sky in their 1980s industrial glory, the entire complex tinged with exhaust from the vehicles that wheeze and whiz by on the highway and nearby interstate. Pink clouds creep across the sky, replaced by white ones as the day goes on.
Heels cracked, blisters deflated, she passes by the Pentagon before taking the 14th Street Bridge across the Potomac River, the Jefferson Memorial on her left. The Washington Channel is the last body of water standing between her and the moment of reckoning she has been walking for two months to achieve. In her mind, the journey -- the tests, the loss, the doubt, the despair -- has been worth it. Sweat trickles down her forehead as she looks up at the dome covered in construction netting, its whiteness a stark contrast to the color of the sky.
She has found the purpose for her pain, and as she stands on the steps of the Capitol building on her birthday, she utters three words: "Thank you, God."
Every footstep, every second of forward motion led up to this. She did it -- survived. Free of the stroller, her daughter walks beside her, followers, family and friends walk behind her, wearing yellow, bearing witness to her testimony of strength, faith and endurance.
She is 50. She is in Washington. The woman from Biloxi has accomplished the first portion of what she set out to do.
This was just the beginning.
Latria Graham is a writer based in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The majority of her work revolves around the dynamics of race, gender norms, class, nerd culture and sports. You can find more of her work at LatriaGraham.com, or engage with her on Twitter at @LGRaconteur.