By Parker Schorr
Walking across the country seemed like a romantic idea at the time.
Jackson Parr was in peak physical shape and continually pushing the envelope. He started racing bikes at The University of Iowa as an undergrad, then got into triathlons, which then evolved into ultra-marathons. He finished Madison’s Ironman Triathlon in 2015, biked halfway across the U.S., and completed a 50-mile running race in Door County, where he lived and wrote for the Peninsula Pulse, the local paper.
“Honestly I have no cogent explanation as to why I wanted to do it. It just sounded like a really cool thing, and it sounded like a good challenge,” Parr said. “I know that I don’t have any problem with being alone, so that wasn’t going to be an issue.”
Parr embarked on his journey quietly and without fanfare, telling his editor to publish a piece about his walk in the Pulse only after he had left town. Setting a path from San Diego to D.C., he tried to calm his nerves. He knew from his experience in racing that if he was going to make it 2,800 miles on his own two feet, he had to take it slow.
He didn’t take it slow. In the first three days, he travelled 120 miles. As he crossed the California border into Arizona, his ankles became so swollen he couldn’t tie his shoes. He visited a local doctor who implored him to pull out or else risk never being able to run again.
Only a few weeks into a six-month trek, Parr didn’t want to give up so easily. He walked to a Walmart and bought a bike, jerry rigging his pack on the back of it. Setting out into the desert once again, the bike broke down almost immediately.
“It just totally wrecked me,” Parr said. “There was no coming back.”
Meanwhile, another man was walking across the country from the opposite direction. Heading east to west, Mark Baumer, a climate change activist, was hit by an SUV and killed. Parr decided to pull the plug.
“For me, I was just sitting in the desert, I was like, ‘what are you contributing right now? Is this going to make you a better person? Or the world a better place?’” Parr said.
Parr returned to school this fall with the aim of getting a Master’s Degree in Public affairs at UW’s La Follette School of Public Affairs. He hopes to focus on water policy, partly because of reporting he did for four years at the Peninsula Pulse.
Parr joined the small, idyllic county’s paper shortly after graduation. The newsroom was tiny, employing only two reporters, which meant Parr was tasked with covering anything and everything of import.
From covering highly specific local government disputes to beekeeping, Parr discovered that journalism complimented his natural desire for learning.
“For a profile like this, this is going to sound like such a cop-out answer, but [my passion is] academia and reading and scholarship,” Parr said. “I really enjoy understanding how the world works … trying to understand why we’re in the place that we are and in some ways how to get out of it.”
Every April around Earth Day, the Pulse would publish its “sustainability issue.” Since Door County has the most miles of coastline of any county in the U.S., many of the stories were about water quality. Parr covered many of these stories – dairy-intensive farming practices, wells contaminations, beach closures, and the successes of farmers who limited their environmental impact.
Parr believes the struggle for clean water will be the issue of our lifetime. By coming to UW, he hopes to be able to get in on the ground floor and figure out how people can collectively work together to improve water quality.
“Through my work reporting, you just end up realizing what you’re interested in what stories you go above and beyond reporting,” Parr said.