When you sit down with Donald Brown, you get an instant sense of warmth from him. The graduate of Amherst College and Harvard Law School is friendly and articulate with a subdued Boston accent. He's an author, race-relations advocate, and teacher. He's even walked from Boston to California three times. What makes this particularly impressive is that just a few decades prior, at age 36, he was "dirt-poor," a self-described "complete loser," and confined to a wheelchair following an accident in the factory where he worked.
"I was in the hospital on morphine for a surgery that had failed. I was listening to a motivational speaker and I was really sky-high on morphine, I had too much," Brown said. "And (the speaker) said ‘Where do you want to be in five years? Write it on the top of a legal pad' And I wrote ‘Harvard Law School' ... when I woke up the next morning I thought I'd been dreaming but it was all written down on the pad. And my doctor came in and said ‘how are you doing him today?' I told him: ‘I'm fine I'm going to Harvard Law School and I'm going to walk across the country.' And he said to the nurse, ‘I don't know what you're giving him but don't give him any more.'"
Five years later he was enrolled in Harvard Law School with Michelle, at the time Robinson, and Barack Obama.
Brown is the author of "The Morphine Dream," with twice Pulitzer Prize-nominated editor Gary S. Chafetz -- a memoir and the first of six non-fiction books of various topics which will be released in the next 12 to 14 months.
"Morphine" is Brown's story of growing up poor, the life-changing epiphany that changed his outlook on life and his first four and a half month, 5,000 mile journey across the United States.
"When I got out of the wheelchair I wanted to walk. And walking is such a joy," Brown said. "I had such a wonderful time going across the country. Walking is completely different than driving or flying. You really see nature and you get to meet a lot of people."
The walk is something that Brown fantasized about doing since he was a little kid. But that desire was based on the very limited world in which he lived. Once he got older he began to see how difficult it might be.
"I had no idea how much of an ordeal (it would be,)" Brown said.
Each day Brown would wake up, eat breakfast, and begin walking. At first, he would walk however much he could in one day, sometimes as low as 30 miles, other times as much as 58. But he had scheduled talks at schools across the country during his walk and had to make it to each of them on time. He decided to walk 40 miles each day, then get into a van that traveled with him and get a ride to the nearest Motel 6, with which he had an agreement for reduced lodging fees.
"Walk, have supper and go to bed," Brown said.
One chapter of the book is dedicated to his trip over Hogback Mountain, through Vermont and Bennington in particular. Even now he tries to frequently make this trip, although usually not on foot anymore, because of his love of the state.
"It's amazing to experience Vermont," Brown said. "It's the most aptly named state It means green mountains and that's all you see. It's so beautiful Vermont has a special place in my heart."
In total, Brown did the cross-country walk three times, taking the same path each time.
"Walking's easy, there's nothing hard about it ... the mental part is what's hard, keeping yourself doing it day after day after day," he said.
"(But) It overwhelms me sometimes how lucky I was to do it," he added.
Brown's philosophies for life are similar to the way he completed his walk.
"People always say, ‘how did you walk all the way across the country,'" he said. "Simple, one step at a time. Just keep taking steps."
He would like the people who read his book to be inspired and go after their personal goals, no matter how crazy they might believe they are.
"Don't discount your goal, that's what I would like people to take away from the book. Never discount your goal," Brown said. "Everybody can do what I did, and people will say to me ‘that's not realistic because a lot of people don't have the ability' that's not true. We've all got a brain it's about using our brain and exercising our brain. And you can do anything, and I'm proof of it."
"You're going to have all kinds of stuff happen just keep going," he added.
Brown has six books coming out all at the final stage of development including a book about his son and a book about race relations and the law, an expanded version of his third-year law school paper. The paper itself was added to the permanent collection at Harvard, and predicts in 1989 Brown's classmate Obama would become president someday.
"The Morphine Dream," is currently available from Bettie Youngs Book Publishers and is being developed into a film.
Brown will be appearing for several readings and discussions across Southern Vermont in the near future. Check Arts Weekend for future updates.
Andrew Roiter can be reached at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter @banner_arts.