At 5:00 last Friday morning, a light from the pavilion at Benson Gristmill pierced a dark and cold morning.
The light stood out as an oasis against a backdrop of darkness, a fitting metaphor for the purpose that drew a small crowd there.
The group of around 20 people gathered to hear words of encouragement from a few dignitaries before they embarked on a 100-mile journey on foot — the Life’s Worth Living Foundation’s Walk to Wendover.
Rep. Doug Sagers, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne, and Utah Attorney General Shawn Reyes all spoke.
After the speeches the walkers headed out on the first day of their two-day journey to Wendover. Each had their own motive for walking, but there were some common themes.
Ted Young, a Life’s Worth Living Board member, wore a T-shirt with a picture of his son and a friend, both of whom died by suicide.
“I don’t want any family to go through what my family did,” Young said.
David Carreau, an 18-year-old Tooele High School graduate, came back from Dixie State University to join the Walk to Wendover.
“I lost a friend to suicide,” Carreau said. “I walked for him. As I was walking, sometimes as I took a step, I imagined him watching me from above walking for him.”
Carreau said he also walked to give hope to other people who might be thinking about suicide.
“Maybe if they see us walking, because we care about them, even though they are strangers, they might think again about suicide because somebody cares about them,” he said.
The Walk to Wendover was the brainchild of Jon Gossett, the founder and president of Life’s Worth Living Foundation, a Tooele County-based non-profit organization that provides suicide awareness, prevention and education.
“I woke up one night with the idea and told my wife, ‘I’m going to walk to Wendover,’” Gossett said. “She said ‘you’re crazy,’ and went back to sleep.”
Gossett told the walkers before they left the gristmill Friday morning, “I just want to make sure everybody knows about our suicide prevention and awareness efforts, from one end of the county to the other.”
When Gossett came up with the idea for the Walk to Wendover four weeks ago, he had no idea of the tragedy that laid ahead for Tooele County.
The county lost five residents to death by suicide in the three weeks that preceded the Walk to Wendover, Gossett said.
In 2015, suicide was the leading cause of death for Utahns 10 to 17 years old. It was the second leading cause of death in Utah during 2015 for people 18 to 44 years old, and the fourth leading cause of death among Utah’s citizens between the ages of 45 and 64.
Tooele County lost 13 residents to death by suicide in 2015, seven fewer than in 2014, according to the Tooele County Health Department. Statistics for 2016 are not available yet.
The number of suicide deaths is only part of the story. Statewide, emergency rooms treat an average of 12 attempted suicides per day, according to the Utah Department of Health.
While Gossett’s cause was called good, Utah Department of Transportation officials didn’t greet his dream of a hike down the shoulder of Interstate 80 west to Wendover with enthusiasm.
Citing safety concerns, UDOT officials said they would not allow the Walk to Wendover to occur on I-80. However, with UDOT’s blessing, Gossett came up with an alternative plan to cover the 100 miles.
The first 60 miles of the Walk to Wendover involved two groups of walkers. Each group left Benson Gristmill last Friday morning at around 6:30 a.m.
One group headed south on state Route 36 to Stockton. The other group headed west on state Route 138 and then turned south on Mormon Trail Road in Grantsville. The group next turned east on Silver Avenue and headed into Stockton.
Each group was led by a van pulling a port-a-potty and followed by a Tooele County Search and Rescue vehicle.
Once in Stockton, 10 soldiers from Dugway Proving Ground met the walkers. The soldiers ran 22 more miles back to Tooele, in recognition of the 22 veterans who die by suicide daily in the United States.
The soldiers’ efforts ended the first day of the walk to Wendover.
With 60 miles of the trek covered on Friday, the walkers early Saturday morning set out by vehicle to the Knolls exit on I-80. From Knolls they walked an I-80 frontage road for approximately 40 miles into Wendover.
Prior to the walk, Gossett said he had calls from many people who wanted to join the Walk to Wendover.
To avoid a large group walking on state highways, which might have comprised safety, Gossett said he had to limit the number of participants.
The Wendover walkers consisted of Life’s Worth Living Foundation Board members and a few friends. They totaled 20 people, including crewmembers who drove support vehicles.
On Friday the walkers took turns in relay fashion, with a few walkers resting while others walked, Gossett said. But things went differently on Saturday.
“Everybody wanted to walk and talk together,” he said. “That left nobody riding in the van to walk while we rested.”
The Wendover walkers accumulated a total of 334 miles during the two days of their trek.
To accommodate the rest of the public that wanted to walk, Gossett organized a walk-a-thon at the Tooele High School track that started at 8 a.m. Saturday.
The walk-a-thon attracted 48 walkers. Each walker walked 10 miles.
The two groups of walkers, the two-day Wendover walkers and the walk-a-thon walkers, logged a total of 814 miles, according to Gossett.
The walk-a-thon raised around $3,000 in pledges which will be shared with the high school Hope Squads and the Life’s Worth Living Foundation.
Gossett hasn’t added up the amount of money raised by the walk. Local restaurants sold purple hearts for $1 and several sponsors bought mile marker signs for $100.
The funds will help the Life’s Worth Living Foundation pay for their education and awareness activities. The foundation also funds scholarships and assists with funeral and counseling expenses.
On Saturday, the Wendover walkers arrived in Wendover at 4:30 p.m., which gave them time to visit their motel rooms and shower before the 7:30 p.m. welcome rally at Wendover Historic Airfield, according to Gossett.
“We had some blisters and sore toe nails, but no injuries,” he said.
Inside hangar three at the airfield, the walkers were greeted by Mike Crawford, mayor of Wendover, Utah, and Daniel Corona, mayor of West Wendover, Nevada.
“I’ve never walked from Wendover to Tooele,” Crawford said.
Gossett, Sen. Thatcher, and Marianna Oborn, a Tooele County School District administrator, shared with Wendover residents the suicide awareness, prevention and education programs available to both communities.
Sen. Thatcher reviewed the SafeUT app for smart phones.
Once loaded on a phone, the app puts the user in touch with a trained counselor at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute by either voice or text chat.
Thatcher also announced that U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch will introduce a bill in Congress to direct the Federal Communications Commission to create a N11 phone number for a nationwide suicide hotline.
Gossett took a moment to look back on the walk.
“Some people said it was a stupid idea,” he said. “It might have been stupid, but we had a lot of fun,”
Commissioner Milne replied to Gossett’s remarks.
“It wasn’t a dumb idea, but I wouldn’t do it myself [walk 100 miles from Tooele to Wendover],” he said. “It’s a brilliant idea to bring suicide out from under the shadows.”
Suicide warning signs and effective prevention steps
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has listed the following as key warning signs a person may exhibit prior to death by suicide.
• Talking about wanting to die
• Looking for a way to kill themself
• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
• Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
• Talking about being a burden to others
• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
• Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
• Sleeping too little or too much
• Withdrawing or feeling isolated
• Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
• Displaying extreme mood swings
The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. The warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.
Here’s what you can do if someone you know exhibits suicide warning signs:
• Do not leave them alone
• Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
• Call the Life’s Worth Living Foundation’s Tooele County hotline at 435-248-LIVE (5483)
• Or call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
• Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional
• Call Valley Behavioral Health at (435) 843-3520
• For help after business hours, call Tooele County Dispatch (435) 882-5600 and ask for a crisis worker.