IN MORE WAYS than one, Ash Hekmat may serve as a role model to all of us.

As we gripe and growl about the snow and cold, Hekmat, of Winslow, is reveling in it.

An optician, he walks a mile to and from work at Kennebec Eye Care on Main Street in Waterville from his Winslow home five days a week, exhilarated by the fresh air pumping through his lungs and the good feeling that comes from moving his limbs.

“This morning, I walked to work at about negative 15 degrees,” he said. “I like to challenge myself.”

Hekmat’s penchant for facing challenges may have started when he was very young, but he launched his biggest challenge five years ago when his mother died at 67 after a long struggle with diabetes.

Hekmat, now 33, had watched her deteriorate over the years and sadly, in 2001, she lost both legs.

After she died, he took a long look at himself and decided to get healthy. At 6-feet tall, he weighed 280 pounds and was not happy with his physical condition.

He started walking, eating right and taking better care of himself. In the first year, he lost 90 pounds. He tries to walk four to six miles a day now, integrating work and errands into his treks.

Since March 2011, when he started documenting his movements, he has walked 6,888 miles.

To say he is much better now, both physically and spiritually, is an understatement.

“It feels, for all intents and purposes, like I’m wearing an iron man suit in comparison. The ability to climb Mount Washington is something I never dreamed I could do. The world that it has opened up to me is amazing.”

A lot of people are afraid to get out in winter, but Hekmat says if one is prepared and dresses appropriately, it is very doable — and liberating.

What he has gained from walking and hiking — he has climbed several scenic mountains in Maine and elsewhere — is a whole new appreciation for the world around him. He started photographing what he sees on his walks, and last summer his photographs were exhibited at Selah Tea in downtown Waterville.

“There are some absolutely gorgeous vistas out there,” he said.

He also fell in love while hiking a mountain with a friend, who is now his girlfriend, Angela Agganis, 32. She is a photographer, too, and her works were part of the Selah Tea exhibit.

While many were hunkered down in their homes for the Jan. 27 blizzard, Hekmat was out in it, snapping photos of the exquisite, snowy scenes.

“I took a 4.6-mile walk around town,” he recalled. “Downtown Waterville was like a ghost town.”

He also has used his walking adventures to benefit others. Last November, he hiked more than 30 miles to Gardiner while raising $632 for a friend’s 12-year-old son who had been diagnosed with stage four Hodgkins lymphoma.

“It has been a really tumultuous ride for them, and it very much resonated with me,” Hekmat said.

Hekmat and his own mother had been very close from the time he was a child growing up in Berkeley, California.

“My mother and I were homeless about a year. We lost our house in Berkeley and bounced around the country, landing in Lewiston with a friend of the family. We settled in Lewiston. My mother became sick, and we moved up here.”

Hekmat had graduated from Lewiston High School. He enrolled in Colby College, where he earned a degree in English, with a minor in creative writing. But he said the job prospects in that field were slim.

“I wanted initially to get into journalism, but there wasn’t a plethora of opportunities around in the local area. I felt I’d have to travel. Of course, with my mother being ill that was a definite difficulty.”

He saw an ad in the newspaper for an apprenticeship opportunity at Kennebec Eye Care and took it. He was glad he did.

“It’s a great place to work.”

You might say Hekmat turned a personally tough situation into something positive and has never looked back. He recommends to others wanting to make a life change to do it now. He remembers promising himself each year that he would lose weight, but then putting it off and chiding himself afterward.

“I thought to myself, how tragic it would be if I wound up in the same place next year. I was dedicated at that point. For anybody out there who is in a bad situation or experiencing difficulty in their lives, whether from an illness in the family, personal issues or relationship issues, try to take that situation and remember that there are always positives that can result. It is important to guide others who are facing the same or similar issues. I think it’s our duty as people to help each other. It is very inspirational when I see others doing the same thing.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 27 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]


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