Discover more from Bury Me in New Jersey
I’ve mentioned before that shortly after I graduated college, one of my first “real” jobs was working for the local podunk paper. Among other things, I was assigned to local and community news, which meant I got all the “hot” stories: school assemblies, the latest Knights of Columbus elections, Red Hat Day luncheons at the local Italian eatery
One of my very first assignments was to cover a man who had decided to walk from the coast in NJ to LA and back, all to raise awareness for his cause (ironically, what that cause is now escapes me–childhood cancer? homelessness? child abuse prevention?). He was just a day short of completing this long journey and was finding refuge in my hometown. The local Ramada Inn was gracious enough to put him up for the night, free of charge and the next day he planned to continue his journey 30 miles east.
My assignment was to meet this unknown man at the Ramada Inn for an interview and a photograph(no one thought this might be a bad idea until I returned to the office, not hacked and not crammed in the man’s large backpack).
Our interview time was mid-afternoon. I parked close to the lobby, where I saw the mystery man already waiting for me.
This man did not seem out of place loitering around lobby of the only hotel in our town. To call it a lobby is generous–it was an enclosed entrance, paneled with smudged glass that allowed outsiders access to the front desk. There was worn wicker furniture with faded pink cushions. Pastel oil paintings were hung in cheap plastic gold frames. The floor tiles were old and worn with cracks beginning to form in the grout.
The man sat in the wicker chair closest to the door and stood up to greet me when I walked in. We exchanged brief pleasantries, shaking heads and talked, almost obligatorily, about the weather. The man was thin, leathered, his gray-brown hair straggly, shoulder length. It was end of the summer, but the sun still showed its strength. The man dressed accordingly–cut off jean shorts and a blue sleeveless t-shirt. A dusty ball cap kept the sweat and sun from his eyes.
“At this point, I’m used to it all,” he said, referring to his 6 months on the road.
From there, we easily transitioned into our interview. He had talked to local papers along the way during interviews set up by wife (she called small town papers while she called their hotels–figuring the press could give her husband the same morale boost as a free warm bed).
It was initially easy for me to judge this man–his worn clothes, his off brand cigarettes tucked away in the pocket of his sleeveless shirt. I wondered what his real angle was–why he really wanted to walk across the country and back. Maybe he figured the stunt would be the only way to get his 15 minutes before the earth swallowed back up again.
The man explained his goal was not fame–it was all in a hope to do something right. In a life where he had done a lot of wrong and took many missteps, he figured that maybe he could absolve all that if he took some in the right direction. He was not particularly righteous, nor religious, but he thought God was good and that he owed something to his fellow man, even if he wasn’t all that special himself. So he walked. Thousands of miles. Alone. There were a lot of things he saw and learned along the way. There were a lot of people he talked to. He loved the night sky in Kansas and slept among the stars. People who saw his story featured on the local news found him on his journey and offered him a meal, a place to stay for the night. No one robbed him or took advantage, although his was smart enough not to feel too safe. There were some places that scared him–LA, he said, was the worst. His wife was always in his corner, always calling ahead for him to make sure his path was clear. He sure did appreciate that, and was looking forward to seeing her and his kids once he got to Atlantic City. His journey even brought a reconciliation on with him and one of his kids, who had long ago given up hope on their “dirtbag of a dad.”
The man did not travel with much–just the clothes on his back, a large hikers backpack with support belts around his chest and waist, and a stick draped over his shoulders with teddy bears and carnival-grade stuffed animals that people could buy for donation to further support the cause. A handmade sign with his webpage and a plea for his cause was secured on his pack.
The man had no sponsors for his journey. The only money that he would raise would be from the curious few who visited his home made website or from the few well worn toys he had on hand, or a small donation from one of the good Samaritans who let him share a meal. But that didn’t seem to matter.
“You can’t always measure success based on the money you make. Sometimes it’s just about that human connection–about showing people that other people care about something. Maybe I didn’t get donations from everyone, but I got them to think about my cause and I got them to take a minute to think about other people. You can’t put a price tag on that.”
After about an hour, I politely lied about another interview that I needed to head and for and he thanked me for my time, writing down an address where I could send him a copy of the story on the back of his card.
I left half inspired and half dumbstruck, unsure if this guy was a saint or insane. He was too genuine to write off, but too seemingly crazy to openly admire. Knowing the people I worked with, I wrote him off as crazy when they asked and kept the rest of my thoughts to myself.
I think it can be easy to lose belief in things, easy to find the harsh truths, the bitter realizations, the sad reality. I think it can be difficult to find religion or spirituality or true goodness, especially when everything you’ve been taught about these things doesn’t match what you’re finding them in. Archangels didn’t wear jean cutoffs. The Apostles didn’t smoke off-brand cigarettes.
But Jesus certainly walked.