Nearly four months ago, five friends and a 3-month-old goat set off from Mesa, Ariz., on the strangest journey of their lives.
With a desire to end the Chicago Cubs’ fabled “Curse of the Billy Goat” and, more importantly, raise money for cancer research, the group journeyed by foot from the team’s spring training home all the way to Wrigley Field in Chicago.
With the Cubs back where it all started this weekend to take on the Diamondbacks, the friends took time to look back fondly on what went from an idea concocted around a campfire to a full-blown adventure that landed them in the front row of the famed ballpark at Clark and Addison on the last week of May.
Of the five — P.J. Fisher, Matt Gregory, Kyle Townsend, Phillip Aldrich and Blake Ferrell — only Fisher, 25, lives in Arizona. The Prescott resident was also the only non-Cubs fan among the group (he roots for the D-backs). But when they relaxed last summer around a fire after a one-pitch softball tournament in Talkeetna, Alaska, where they all met doing seasonal work at a nearby resort, Fisher knew the idea to walk across America could be something special. Still, he declined an invitation at first.
“I originally said no because I’m not a Cubs fan,” Fisher said. “But it’s bigger than sports with the cancer research aspect. That’s why I went. You get a big fan base, probably one of the biggest in all of sports, with Cubs fans and you tie it in with a disease that all of us had personally been affected by.”
Gregory, 32, lost his mother to cancer 12 years ago and provided the original spark for the idea.
He had previously done a 200-mile hike, oddly enough with a goat, to raise money for cancer research. Fisher offered up the idea that they leave from HoHoKam Park in Mesa during spring training. Everyone was on board in one fashion or another, so the planning process began.
First came plotting a route. With it still being winter, the group decided to head south to Tucson rather than north to Flagstaff. They would next cut east to Las Cruces, N.M., and then northeast through the Texas panhandle, Oklahoma and Missouri before plodding straight up through Illinois to Chicago.
The group bought the necessary gear as their start date grew closer and trained in whatever ways they could.
“I don’t think there’s really any way you can train for something like this aside from walking 25 miles every day with a backpack on,” said Ferrell, 30, a Michigan native who now lives in Alaska.
Then, of course, they needed a goat. But first, a little background: The story goes that the “Curse of the Billy Goat” originated in 1945 when William Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, tried to take his pet goat, “Murphy,” into Wrigley Field for Game 4 of the World Series between the Cubs and Yankees. Stadium workers and Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley denied Murphy entry, and an angered Sianis subsequently put a hex on the team, which lost to the Yankees and hasn’t returned to the World Series since. Multiple attempts have been made at “breaking” the curse, and the “Crack the Curse” group was the latest.
So the group had to find a goat. Shortly before departing on Feb. 25, the birthday of late Cubs player and broadcast Ron Santo, they managed to find the young goat in Cave Creek via Craigslist.org and pooled their money for the $60 asking price. He was appropriately named “Wrigley.”
“The biggest personality in the group was that goat,” Fisher said. “He was the toughest to get along with. He was a stubborn animal to begin with, but he was also a young stubborn animal.”
When the journey began, the group, originally six guys, walked from HoHoKam to the where the Cubs were practicing down the road at Fitch Park. There they got the first of many funny looks from observers curious about their adventure.
“We had this goat with us and these backpacks on and we’re in Mesa, so people were kind of like ‘What are these guys doing?'” Fisher said. “We just kind of looked silly.”
Morale was high on the first day of walking, when the reality of three months on foot hadn’t yet set in. But after about a week, the physical demands of trudging 25 miles each day with backpacks — blisters, fatigue, cramps — started to take their toll. Ferrell said he suffered shin splints that made him doubt his ability to finish, but the group powered through.
“We were almost too tired to get too high or too low,” Ferrell said. “We were all just trying to finish the day and get our miles in.”
Wrigley only walked about five miles per day and spent the rest of the time being pushed in a covered carrier on wheels.
“He’s just a little pygmy goat, so he didn’t have a lot of walking in him, but we wanted to make sure he was getting his legs stretched out,” Fisher said.
Along the way, the group encountered countless inquisitors, both skeptical and supportive.
Everyone it seemed, wanted to know what a group of grown men was doing wandering the country with a goat in tow, and the story touched home with most.
“If it wasn’t a Cubs fan, it was somebody who had been affected by cancer,” Fisher said. “In one way or another, people could relate to what we were doing.”
Though weather cooperated for most of the walk, it wasn’t always easy going. A dust storm in New Mexico forced the group to hitch a ride with U.S. Border Patrol officials, who offered refuge briefly in a holding cell. Then came tornado season in Oklahoma, which on one occasion led the friends to hole up in a small bar — goat and all — and another at a truck stop.
Surprisingly enough, finding places to stay (other than their tents) with a goat didn’t prove much of a challenge. One New Mexico couple even opened their home to the group and let Wrigley run around the house with their dogs.
“We ran into great people,” Fisher said. “And everything bad that happened, it seemed like something good came from it. Everything kind of just rolled our way.”
Added Ferrell: “One of the main challenges was five grown guys trying to get along for three months together. Everybody wants to lead the way and everybody has an opinion. Getting everyone to compromise was one of the toughest parts.”
The rough halfway point of the walk — Tulsa, Okla. — offered a turning point. FOX News and CNN picked up their story and support began to grow. Their fundraising efforts improved, and the prospect of reaching Wrigley Field seemed more real.
“Once we hit Illinois it was kind of the victory lap,” Ferrell said. “We knew it was almost over, we knew we were going to finish. Spirits were really high from that point on.”
Illinois also brought greater donations, which benefit the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, about an hour from Gregory’s hometown of Bellingham, Wash. By the time the group arrived at Wrigley Field 95 days after leaving Mesa, they had raised more than $20,000.
Next came the most comical twist of all. Cubs officials, who had communicated with the group throughout the trip, wouldn’t let Wrigley into the park. Same old story.
But Ferrell says the group never actually asked that the goat be allowed in. The fundraising effort was their main focus, and the Cubs embraced that. The friends arrived on Memorial Day, but the Cubs asked that they wait until the following day to do anything so as not to overshadow Memorial Day festivities.
While the group had to settle for bringing in an enlarged photo of Wrigley, they did get to go on the field before the day’s game to meet Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, who made a donation of $1,764, a dollar for each mile of the rough mapped distance between HoHoKam Park and Wrigley Field (the group actually walked more than 2,000 miles).
Ricketts had also made the first significant donation, matching the group’s total of $2,800 on Opening Day. He also gave the group his front row seats for a game.
The walk might not help the hapless Cubs, who are currently 21 games under .500, reach a World Series, but to this point more than $30,000 has been brought in for the Hutchinson Center.
Wrigley now lives with two other goats at Townsend’s mother’s home in Marcellus, Mich., Ferrell and Townsend’s hometown. Numerous visitors have come from Chicago to meet Wrigley there.
When the Cubs take on the D-backs at Chase Field this weekend, only Fisher will be in the stands. The others are scattered elsewhere, three back in Alaska and one in New York. Though he’s a loyal D-backs fan, Fisher admits the adventure created in him an affinity for the Cubs and figures he can’t be unhappy however the weekend series turns out.