By the time he got to New Orleans, Paul Leslie was bone-tired and his legs felt like rubber bands, but he did what he set out to do.
The 28-year-old Flowery Branch man said he would be “Walking To New Orleans” as the Fats Domino classic goes, and that’s just what he did, for more than 300 miles over two weeks. He needed two pairs of shoes.
Leslie said the months of training he put himself through by walking for hours at a time in Hall County didn’t prepare him quite as well as he hoped after he started his trek Jan. 31 in Panama City Beach.
“There were times when it was very scenic,” he said. “And then there were times when it was just very, very grueling. The physical strain on the body was really tough. I didn’t realize how much a difference it was not to be able to walk on the road in certain spots.”
Leslie, a West Hall High School and Gainesville State College graduate, announced his planned walk back in November, with the idea of raising money for actor Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, a charity for post-Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. He landed a modest sponsorship from Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville tequila and was able to raise $3,500 for the foundation, about a third of his intended goal of $10,000.
“We’re still getting donations coming in,” he said.
During the long walk, Leslie stayed in motels and had a support team of volunteer publicist Brisa Oldfather and her fiance, Thomas Clayton Spoerner. The Atlanta-area couple offered to help Leslie with the walk shortly after meeting him. Each night they would drive to the day’s destination and sometimes walked alongside him.
“I didn’t really know them that well, having just met them, so this was sort of a leap of faith on their part,” Leslie said. “But it would not have been possible without them, that’s for sure.”
For the entire walk, Leslie wore his late grandfather’s leather Rockport shoes, which he described as “the best walking shoes known to man.” He alternated two pairs while walking about 20 miles a day.
Along the way he got encouragement from strangers after they learned why he was walking. And Fats Domino himself had some kind words for Leslie’s walk when informed of it by New Orleans news media.
“It was a tribute to him, and it was really thrilling when I heard he gave some pretty nice compliments to it,” Leslie said.
Leslie said he only had to walk through truly wretched weather once, when it was sleeting in Bay St. Louis, Miss. The most dangerous thing he saw was a wayward youth trying to smash a car window on the edge of New Orleans — in the middle of the day.
When he hoofed it into the Crescent City on the afternoon of Feb. 15, Leslie was given a hero’s welcome at the Margaritaville Cafe in the French Quarter, where he got to sit down and rest his bones.
“It was exciting,” he said. “It took a moment to realize all the miles that were behind me.”
What did he take away from the experience?
“I would say you should follow the voice in your head that tells you to go on that adventure and to not listen to the naysayers.”
Leslie said Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” came to mind.
“That was what occurred to me on the last day, you really have to go your own way,” he said. “You’re going to regret the things you didn’t do as opposed to the things you did.”