DALLAS — For a dozen years now, the volunteers and ambassadors of Carry The Load have taken their Memorial Day message on the road.
And, as those five teams inch closer on their journeys to Dallas, they say their motivation to spread that message remains as strong as ever.
The 2023 Carry The Load National Relay, with five routes in all, covers an estimated 20,000 miles, reaching 48 states in 32 days. The West Coast Route began in Seattle. The East Coast Route began in West Point, New York. The New England Route began in Burlington, Vermont. A Midwest Route started in Minneapolis. And the Mountain States Route started in Minot, North Dakota.
Each with a tour bus as their base of operations, they drive and walk and bike on their individual treks to Dallas and the Memorial Day weekend events at Dallas' Reverchon Park. And as they do, complete strangers, many who know personally why Memorial Day is important, join them for a few miles of that journey.
"She'd never heard of us before and came out and had this overwhelming sense of just family immediately," Colton Morrow said of a Gold Star family who joined them on the Midwest Route. "It's not necessarily what it does for me. It's to come out here for those people and those families and honoring these heroes."
"Listen to the stories that they always talk about them in present tense, never in past tense," said Army veteran Andy Medrano, who is currently on the New England Route and crossing into Texas on Thursday at Texarkana.
"You don't want to stop saying their names," said Rilea Stapf, who joined the Zoom conversation from Colorado Springs on her trip to Dallas on the Mountain States Route. "Because if you do, they're forgotten."
Morrow is a paramedic who lost an ambulance partner to suicide. Carry The Load is dedicated to supporting first responders and their families, as well.
"Talking about these people in the present tense, they still live in our hearts, so they never truly die," Morrow said.
The miles and the hours on the road are long. But the purpose is profound and simple: remind a nation what Memorial Day is about.
"This entire experience from start to finish is exhausting, it's taxing, but it's humbling," said Stapf. "And it really makes you appreciate this country and what we have and the people who sacrificed everything for it."
"I want to come back. I want to keep doing this," said Medrano. "I want to keep remembering, say their names so they don't die twice."
And as they converge on Dallas, this brotherhood and sisterhood admits there is sometimes a friendly relay rivalry.
"We've got an all-star team," said Morrow while moving his phone to show the other passengers he was bragging about on his Carry The Load bus.
"We're going to go ahead and end the taping now," Medrano joked of the four-way Zoom interview.
"Bye Colton, see you in Dallas," Stapf laughed.
This weekend in Dallas where the mission - and all those names - live on.