wishing tree with colorful wishing tags

A desert walk to remember a friend

Phil Burden planned his fundraising walk carefully. He drove the rural route with his wife, Patty. He rented an RV for his sister, Kathy, and her husband, Rich Ryder, to drive in support. And he scheduled the walk through the Mojave Desert when temperatures would be cooler.  

But October is rattlesnake season.  

“It was also tarantula mating season,” Burden said, laughing. “I didn’t want to sit down on any rocks along the way.”

That was no worry the first day of his trek: his feet barely touched the ground. “I was so pumped up by the support I got for this that I walked 13.5 miles in the first morning. I was walking on air,” he said.

Donor Phil Burden
Phil Burden

More than 200 people contributed to his fundraising campaign for cancer research at City of Hope®, and Burden turned in $52,146 after successfully walking 120 miles from California to Las Vegas in memory of his friend Kevin Nulty. Nulty died in 2022 after battling mantle cell lymphoma, and Burden has been diagnosed with the same form of cancer.

“I feel fine right now. We took good precautions for the walk. I keep getting my bloodwork done. But there’s no cure for this disease. Eventually I’ll have to go into some kind of treatment,” Burden said. “My numbers continue to go up. They’re trending in the wrong direction.”

Burden was diagnosed in October 2021 with a different kind of cancer, and his wife, a retired nurse, insisted on a second opinion. Those appointments eventually connected Burden to City of Hope, where he got the MCL diagnosis confirmed in February 2023. Now Tycel Phillips, M.D., a hematologist-oncologist at City of Hope, is in regular contact with Burden’s local oncologist.

“I’ve been reading up and attending seminars. I’ve been getting smarter on this disease,” Burden said. “I met with Dr. Phillips last week, and he said there are two clinical trials that I’m eligible for that I may be able to join after the first of the year. I’m thankful that City of Hope has some of the top experts in MCL in the country.”

The 70-year-old Orange County resident has always been athletic. He ran track in high school and college and has completed many long distance races, including the Los Angeles Marathon in 1991. He has walked 200 miles a month since 2010. Once a year he goes golfing with high school friends from his East Coast youth.

On this year’s golf weekend, he met with Nulty’s widow and got her blessing for his fundraising walk. Burden and Nulty were roommates after college while they worked in different police departments on the East Coast. They ran 10k races together. Nulty eventually became chief of his department.

Burden wanted to honor his friend by walking the same route that thousands of law enforcement officers run in an annual relay race. Burden increased his monthly walking to prepare for the trek that would last 10 days and cross a mountain range at 5,400 feet.

He started October 4 with more obstacles than rattlesnakes and tarantulas. A massive rainstorm wiped out part of the two-lane state road he planned to walk, and three days into his trek temperatures hit the unseasonably high 90s. Burden shifted his start from Baker to Shoshone, California, and did several loops to reach his target 120 miles. To avoid the heat, he started walking at 7 am.

Normally Burden listens to podcasts when he walks alone. On this quest he walked quietly among the red rocks shining in the desert sunrise, beginning with his daily 20-minute prayer and meditation.

“Part of my prayer routine is to say thanks to God for my faith, my family, my friends, my freedoms, my health and my community. And on this walk I realized that I am still grateful for every one of those things every day,” Burden said. “I’m grateful that God has given me the chance to be healthy for two years so that I had the chance to do this. I was able to reflect on the medical treatment I’m getting. I’m getting the best care in the world. I have so much to be thankful for.”