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Smelling the roses at 4 miles an hour // THE RIDE OF HIS LIFE

Jim Kroi began the journey of his life two years ago, after doctors told him he would live less than a year. Fearing he would die of lung cancer in a Wisconsin hospital, Kroi began a cross-country journey on horseback.

That was more than 2,000 miles ago, and he still has California on his mind.

As Kroi, 53, rolled down U.S. 41 in Hernando County last week in a covered wagon he acquired in Arkansas, local residents got a glimpse back in time. Waiting for early March and favorable weather, Kroi is spending a few days in the county, repairing his wagon and preparing for his journey to the West Coast.

He stayed one night at Ranch Hand Pet & Farm Supply on the south side of Brooksville, and since has moved on to the Whispering Meadows Equestrian Center on County Line Road.

Kroi's life changed in 1995 when he was found to have emphysema and lung cancer. He had spent the previous 20 years training police dogs in Milwaukee, and had no family to support or depend on him.

Kroi decided not to undergo chemotherapy. He slipped into a depression.

A few months later, he happened upon a television travel program about trekking through the mountains with a horse-and-mule pack. The program lifted his spirits and inspired him to sell all of his possessions.

With little preparation and against the advice of his doctor, he set out to Florida on horseback with a mule in tow.

By day, Kroi rode down highways and country roads; at night, he stayed with hospitable strangers in riding stables, on front yards and even at 7-Elevens.

"The excitement is not knowing where you're going," Kroi said. "I've never been turned down when I was looking for a place to stay."

Kroi never has kept a diary, so he's not sure how long he traveled before he reached Black Rock, Ark., where he thought his time had come to die. After he was caught in a driving rain, he came down with pneumonia.

In the local hospital, however, Kroi befriended some local cowboys who had crossed the country in homemade covered wagons. As Kroi recovered, the cowboys lifted his spirits once more. They built him a wagon that would be safer on the road.

The only problem was, they didn't give him any driving lessons.

"I'd never seen a wagon other than in a John Wayne movie," Kroi said. "Let me tell you: When I started back out, it was a real rodeo."

Traveling by covered wagon, Kroi drew many stares and a good deal of media attention as he continued south to Florida. The attention eventually led to a sponsor: Ralston-Purina. The pet food company provides him with coupons to buy grain for the mules and food for his dog, Rambo.

With an endless supply of food, Kroi was determined to stay on the road. During a radio interview in Alabama, he jokingly proposed that once he reached Florida, he would head for California. The joke has become his mission.

Last week, Kroi rode into Brooksville, then to Whispering Meadows, where he was befriended by Ron Marksgraf, also a native of Wisconsin.

Said Marksgraf: "We're the kind of people that don't mind helping anybody. We cooked up a nice stew last night. He's used to eating Spam and butter."

Marksgraf, who has restored several covered wagons, plans to order a new canvas top to replace the one patched with duct tape on Kroi's wagon.

Soon it will be time for Kroi to head west.

Asked about the most rewarding part of his trip, which he originally thought would last no more than six to eight months, Kroi was quick to reply: "Day by day, the people and the experiences. The destination is secondary."

Kroi, who said he is happy to still have his dignity and sense of humor, doesn't want his journey to end. He plans to continue to enjoy it one day at a time.

"When you only go 4 miles an hour," he said, "you got plenty of time to smell the roses."