Six Million Steps in a 70-Pound Bear Suit
A long-distance rambler named Bearsun is walking from L.A. to New York, dressed like a very large Pokémon. This is his story.
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It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in late August, and Outside’s man in the field, Dave Cox, is driving west on New Mexico State Road 58, loaded for bear.
Actually, he’s packing a breakfast burrito, a Snickers bar, and Gatorade that he plans to give to Bearsun, an anime-inspired character created by Jessy Larios, a 33-year-old man from Los Angeles. Bearsun’s goal is to hike from L.A. to New York inside a heavy, full-body bear suit, raising thousands of dollars for five different charities as he pads toward the finish line: Times Square. During his walks through Arizona and New Mexico, he became a media sensation, and he was especially popular in the vast Navajo Nation, which includes territory in both states. An August 16 column in the Navajo Times captured the phenomenon well: “Bearsun’s effect: Why are Diné obsessed with man in bear suit?”
Cox knew almost nothing about this until yesterday, when I called and said something authoritative like “Help! Please find this bear for me!” (I was stuck at home and couldn’t go.) He gamely hit the road the next morning, driving north for 125 miles from his home near Santa Fe to look for a six-foot-tall Endurance Muppet. Any comparison you want to make between his mission and Stanley looking for Livingstone is probably accurate.
As Cox rolls along in an area east of the Rockies known as the Hi Lo Country, he’s not certain the hunt will be successful. All he has to go on is a vague social media update Bearsun posted in Cimarron, New Mexico, which said he was heading east toward the town of Springer. Now he’s scouting a 28-mile stretch of rolling grasslands, grazing antelope, and endless undulations, where he sees plenty of white-and-tan pronghorns, but no sign of a man doing cross-country Kabuki in a white-and-tan bear suit.
The quest ends as Cox heads down a draw toward a pretty little waterway called Ponil Creek. He spots a solitary figure in the distance, and … yes! Bear, ho! As Cox will learn shortly, Bearsun isn’t always alone, and today he’s accompanied by an escort: Theresa Galvan—executive staff assistant to the president of Navajo Nation—who came out to help make sure Bearsun gets through New Mexico safely. Later, when Cox is walking along with Bearsun, taking photos and asking questions, Theresa will gently cut in to offer the bear a plum. Down the road a bit, the whole entourage will be invited to sit under an impromptu hospitality tent erected by a group of indigenous people who drove in from various spots in New Mexico and Colorado just to say hello.
After Cox parks and exits his truck, he walks up and introduces himself, and any nervousness he felt about meeting our nation’s most charismatic plush toy quickly evaporates. As you can gather from posts that Bearsun has put on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (where he has 131,000 followers and counting), he’s a friendly person who loves to laugh, say “Let’s goooo!,” free-associate (in one video he says he’s going to walk from Florida to Alaska someday), and engage with hordes of people who want to connect, shoot a photo, or give him food, water, or a gift.
Cox hands Bearsun the burrito, a glorious combo of beans, cheese, and New Mexico red chile he bought at a carryout called Pancho’s Gourmet To Go. Bearsun is able to maneuver it through a gap between the bottom of his large headpiece—a round, bulbous thing mounted on top of a motorcycle helmet, with two big, mesh-covered eyeholes—and his neck. The burrito goes down in what seems like two seconds. It’s good that it was meatless, because it turns out that Bearsun is a vegetarian.
Soon Cox asks the obvious question: Why?
“Pretty much everything was based on an impulsive decision,” Bearsun says in an upbeat, slightly hoarse voice, adding that the experiences he’s had have been incredible and life-changing. The Navajos treated him like a returning astronaut. Two nights ago, he was an honored guest at another special place: Taos Pueblo. The Tiwa people there welcomed him warmly, let him shoot video inside their church (not just anybody gets to do that), and told him about historic episodes from their past—including the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, which originated there under the command of a legendary figure named Po’pay.
As Bearsun explained to Cox, the cross-country walk sort of just happened. He developed the suit for fun in 2016, as part of his love for cartoons and art projects. (Bearsun drew the design and sent it off to a company in L.A. that makes costumes on order.) He’s also a runner, and one year he decided to enter the Los Angeles Marathon and do it in the bear suit. He didn’t quite finish, but the experience gave him the urge to try a second time (he made it) and to envision an entirely different kind of marathon: charitable walking.
Starting in April of this year, Bearsun put paws on the blacktop and legged it from L.A. to San Francisco, raising $17,000 for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Then he walked from L.A. to San Diego to Las Vegas. Then he figured, Why stop? If he can raise thousands of dollars in a few hundred miles, how much could he gather during a full-blown transcontinental trek?
He began the third walk on July 5, setting out from the Little Tokyo neighborhood of L.A. and heading east. At the pace he’s on—he averages about 25 miles a day—he hopes to make it to New York by late October or early November.
The suit and the gear that Bearsun uses—among other things, he carries a GoPro, a hydration pack and food, a lightweight tent, a lantern, personal hygiene stuff, and two space blankets—weigh 78 pounds all told, and he’s marched many miles with this load, in temperatures of more than 100 degrees. He does it day after day after day, a truly incredible endurance feat. Bearsun’s serpentine route through New Mexico measured approximately 470 miles. He covered that in 19 days.
How does Larios manage to do this? Well, in a sense, Larios isn’t doing it: Bearsun is. As the amiable bear explained to Cox, he wouldn’t be able to handle the physical challenge without seriously, deeply getting into the character, which is all about spreading joy, goodwill, and healing. When the suit is on, he’s somehow stronger than he would be as a plain old human being. Describing conditions near Barstow, California, where Bearsun says it was 120 degrees, he said, “I pretty much let my body adapt to the weather. And the only thing I focus on, the only thing running through my mind, is controlling my breathing. I go into this meditative mindset where I’m just trying to stay relaxed and make sure the oxygen is being provided to my muscles.”
Bearsun can also handle pain. When he stopped in Flagstaff, he visited the Museum of Northern Arizona, saw a pair of moccasins on display, and said, “Dude, those look tight!” The next day, locals showed up to give him a pair on the road. He started using them, which became difficult because holes developed in the bottoms. “It hurt!” he recalls. “But I mustered up the courage to wear them until I got to Window Rock.”
Those are the Bearsun basics, and Cox and I are guessing that you may have more questions. Below, we attempt to answer a few.
Is Bearsun a character from Japanese anime?
No. Though Bearsun looks a bit like Rilakkuma—the lazy teddy bear featured in the animated series Rilakkuma and Kaoru—he’s an original creation. When Larios drew the design, he was inspired in part by his now-gone Alaskan malamute, Rowpa, who was nicknamed Bear because of his shaggy fur. Larios imbued Bearsun with an appearance that suggests his spirit-driven mission. “He imagines the character to be beyond stereotypes and one that uses action over words,” the Arizona Republic noted when Bearsun cruised through the Grand Canyon State. “[H]ence Bearsun’s absence of a mouth.”
How much money has he raised?
A lot: $55,212 and counting. Go here for info about the five charities he selected.
Are we sure the money Bearsun is raising for charities is actually getting to those charities?
Yes. Using the GoFundMe link set up on iambearsun.com, we made a test-run donation to Villa Esperanza Services, an L.A.-based charity that works with intellectually and developmentally disabled people. Here’s the receipt.
Do you know anything more about Jessy Larios?
Not a ton, partly because Larios prefers to keep the focus on Bearsun. We can tell you that the man inside the suit is five foot seven and weighs around 150 pounds—though his weight may be down because of all the sweating he’s been doing. In interviews and on social media, Bearsun has expressed enthusiasm for Kobe Bryant, computer games, haunted hotels, outdoor sports, the positive life lessons imparted by Hey Arnold, and art. In an interview with the Farmington Daily Times, a New Mexico newspaper, Larios said that what he’s doing is, in a way, a large-scale performance piece. “I decided to create his persona in the real world,” he said of Bearsun. “This is my paper. … It’s a giant piece of canvas.”
How did Bearsun train?
Mostly by getting out and doing it—walking from L.A. to San Francisco, it turns out, is pretty good prep for walking from L.A. to New York. Bearsun also spent a month prior to departure repeatedly walking up hills in L.A.’s Griffith Park—inside the suit.
In the photos Cox took, Bearsun appears to be wearing rust-red boots. What brand are they?
Those groovy trail shoes are called the Fifth M.1. They were created by Dewayne Dale Jr., an indigenous designer from Shiprock, New Mexico, for RockDeep, a Black-owned firm based in Alexandria, Virginia. RockDeep arranged for a pair to be delivered to Bearsun on the road near Angel Fire, New Mexico.
Why are Native Americans so into Bearsun?
We can’t speak for them, but there definitely appears to be fascination and affection. In Window Rock, Arizona, capital of Navajo Nation, officials held what looked like an outdoor key-to-the-city gala for Bearsun in early August, emceed by Theresa Galvan. This enthusiasm showed up again and again in Arizona and New Mexico. “Everywhere he’s been, people have flocked to the man in the adorable bear suit,” the Santa Fe New Mexican reported after Bearsun did a long walk from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo to Taos.
Reasons for such reactions are varied. For some, Bearsun is simply fun, a welcome relief from the drudgery of pandemic life. Others draw real inspiration from his quest. “While we face our challenges in our Nation by simply walking with Bearsun, even for a few minutes,” wrote Navajo Times columnist Krista Allen, “… this reflects something much more: how Bearsun has come to represent a lever for change and a guiding voice on issues we face in Diné Bikéyah.”
She’s onto something. When Bearsun walked through Española, New Mexico—a town where many people suffer from drug and alcohol addiction—fans reportedly approached and said that just seeing him gave them strength to fight for their own recovery.
Bearsun always seems cheerful in the videos he posts. Does he ever get down and depressed?
After watching many hours of Instagram videos, we’d say maybe, but so far we haven’t detected it. Bearsun gets worn out sometimes, as seen in this yawnfest shot at a hotel in Clayton, New Mexico. But he always bounces back. We were particularly impressed by footage of Bearsun at the start of his journey. Making his way along a depressing, broken-sidewalk street in downtown L.A., he mentions that the bear suit he’s wearing is a new model and feels too stiff and heavy. (No problem! He only has to walk 3,000 miles in it.) Later he passes a dog turning angry circles behind a chain link fence. The animal clearly wants nothing more than to get through the fence and eat Bearsun. “That dog really wants a hug!” he says, unfazed. “Look at him, he’s all happy!” Then: “I don’t think he wanted to give me a hug. I think he wanted to attack me, but whatever!”
Bearsun really seemed to love New Mexico. Does this mean it is America’s greatest state?
Well, since you asked: yes. As you can see from the video Bearsun made when he crossed into Oklahoma, the love is real, which only makes sense. The place isn’t called the Land of Enchantment for nothing.
Is there anything I can do to help?
Donating money is a good start, and if you own a motel or restaurant along Bearsun’s route, please give him a free room or a meal. Or do what Native people did time after time as Bearsun marched through the Southwest: if he comes near your town, get out on the road and walk with him. What better way to keep this fuzzy pilgrim passin’ everything in sight?
Photography and additional reporting by Dave Cox