CALAVERAS COUNTY — The Walking Man of Murphys, as he's known along a certain stretch of California 4 in Gold Country, sings.
"You've lost that loving feelin' …," the ex-Marine croons, his off-key notes traveling across traffic on the two-lane road.
The freedom to sing poorly is one reason Ric Ryan is out here — day after day, in every season — his walking stick clicking briskly through the miles. He likes to have "time with my tunes, when nobody else has to listen," he said.
But he's also following unexpected paths of grace.
Ryan, 67, is fighting demons from an old war while helping soldiers returning from the latest ones. In two years, his solitary walks have raised $19,000 for UCLA Operation Mend, which offers free reconstructive surgery to disfigured soldiers and Marines. (About $4,000 has come from his own pocket, a quarter at a time.)
When he began walking, the Vietnam veteran didn't know he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder — or at least didn't know that was what it was called.
An otherwise kind man, Ryan over the years displayed flashes of anger. When his mood turned dark, his family realized it was best to not ask questions. "He was loving. But our kids knew what it meant to grow up with a father who had been in Vietnam," said Joanne Ryan, his wife of 43 years.
As the sounds and images of Iraq and Afghanistan played out on television, Ryan heard of soldiers returning to no jobs, their families broken by repeated deployments. He began fixating on the bitter homecoming he and other Vietnam-era soldiers had faced. He grew agitated. He couldn't sleep.
"I wanted these ones coming home to be welcomed. Not treated the way we were," said Ryan, a wiry man with a crew cut and a limp from two bum knees.
One day, Ryan just went out walking — and kept going for 18 miles. When he came home, he lay down on the bed, shaking and crying. Joanne was scared for him. But it wasn't pain or exhaustion, Ryan said. It was release.
He began walking every day.
It wasn't the first time he'd covered ground to still his mind. As a teenager he'd walked halfway across the country after a fight with his mother. At 18, he joined the Marines. He spent his 21st birthday in a foxhole with two Schlitz beers, daydreaming about what it felt like to stroll free and calm and easy.
Murphys is a small town, population 3,000, and neighbors would wave at him as he walked. Some would honk — mostly to be friendly, but also because Ryan walks on a narrow shoulder along the curving highway, where people tend to drive too fast.
Those spontaneous greetings gave him an idea. Ryan had seen a documentary about Operation Mend. He decided to donate a quarter to the charity every time someone waved at him. During each walk, he kept a daily tally. Before he went home, the retired ironworker — who lives on his pension and Social Security — would go to his bank and deposit the $10 or $15 for that day.
Ryan thinks it must have been the bank clerks who first asked what he was doing. Word got around. A man stopped and gave him a roll of quarters. People in town started handing him checks made out to Operation Mend for hundreds of dollars. Jim Hereford, who owns Gold Electric (a business on Ryan's route), donated a bright orange vest to make him more visible. Ryan added a U.S. Marine Corps patch to the neon.
In December, Jeff German was driving from his home in Angels Camp to his auto shop in Murphys. He was in a bad mood. As on many mornings, he saw the orange flash of Ryan walking.
"There you got Ric — who I consider a real good person — out there carrying these demons, trying to change something he's battling into a positive for the veterans coming back now," German said. "You got Operation Mend trying to help these guys and gals who are going through so much. You got it all tied to a simple gesture of kindness like a wave hello.