In late April of 2014 I set off on foot from Morton, Illinois, the Central Illinois village where I grew up. It is said that pilgrimages begin in the spring and so it was with mine. I began my journey walking across the vast expanse of America in search of an idea, in search of God and ultimately in search of myself.
Months before, an existential crisis unexpectantly grabbed me around the shoulders and propelled me into what St John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.”
I had gone through 2 failed marriages and at 54 years of age I found myself going around in circles swirling towards the bottom of a long 30 year career in the insurance adjusting industry. It seemed to be the right time to embark on a long journey to rewrite the script that had originally been written by others. It was time now to create a new reality.
This crisis and the resultant epiphany drove me back to my spiritual roots so I decided to devote whatever time I had left to God. In furtherance of this new devotion I decided to walk town to town as an itinerant missionary proclaiming the Kingdom of God. I would speak to local churches and work with their pastors. I would seek out relationships with strangers, show hospitality and by the example of my new life show the love of God to my neighbor and even to my enemy.
My 1,100 mile trek across the boundless vistas of the Great Plains over to the Rockies turned out to besimultaneously monotonous, dangerous, arduous and especially rewarding. The quietness, the lack of people clamoring for my time, the lack of rules and regulations that society puts on us all satisfied my inner drive for contemplation and introspection.
There appeared to me to be a surfeit of civilization of people living ontop of people, arbitrary rules and arcane laws. I longed for a simpler time. A time when a man with his own two hands built a house for his family, grew his own food and didn’t look to a government in Washington for help. My thoughts about a simpler life also drew me back to childhood stories of kings and queens, knights and people of the Bible which I read at the library back home.
As a boy the West loomed large as a mythical place with tales of Indians, cowboys and pioneers. Grandpa Schoenbein was my link to those days as he was born right at the close of the Western frontier in 1889 and would regale me with stories which he had heard from his father.
So, it seemed only natural for me to go west to find a late in life adventure. But, for someone who throwshimself into an unstable, unpredictable life on the road adventure comes hunting for him many times hiding behind unfamiliar faces and quirky guises.
My journey has been momentous and exhilarating and I can relate to you many tales of overly aggressive cops, self righteous clergy, frightening weather, vicious animals and pesky insects among other things.
I also encountered dangerous maniac drivers and even a crazed redneck who picked me up in his broken down car in Nebraska. And, then there were the pharisaical clerics I encountered when working with the churches. Many of the pastors with their wagging heads and pietistic platitudes scorned my mission and my radical lifestyle.
Law enforcement presented yet another problem. Once I spent a night in the County jail in Julesberg, Colorado as a guest of the High Sheriff. Before that, I was harassed by a county mounty a mile outside Lewistown, Illinois. The lady deputy saw me and pulled over and told me to approach the car. She asked for I.D. which she had no legal right to do so as there was no indication I had committed a crime. No probable cause. Yet, I chose the expedient course of action and complied with her demand. But, then she told me to get in her patrol car.
I asked if I was under arrest. She replied I was not. I then told her I was leaving to head into Lewistown. She said I was not free to go. I then asked if I was being held in custody. She again replied no. By this time I’m a bit confused. So, I refused to get in the car. That’s when she literally screamed at me to get in.
Seeing how crazy this armed woman was I decided it was smarter to give in so I placed myself in the back seat. After running my name for warrants and finding none she had to let me go. I experienced even more police harassment in other towns along the way.
Fighting boredom, local animals and insects turned out to be a great challenge too. I was forever swatting at swarms of mosquitoes in Nebraska and the giant gnats that were on the wing around the Sugar Creek bottoms near Rushville Illinois and all along the upland prairie following the Missouri River.
One completely forgettable night I splurged for a room in a filthy no-tell motel where as I laid sleeping my lower limbs were savaged by multitudes of belligerent bed which resulted in a blood infection that laid me up for a couple of weeks.
Then there was that pack of vicious dogs in the mountains of Colorado which came close to chewing me up for dinner. Dogs would turn out to be the most dangerous animal on the road both the domestic and wild varieties.
I camped out in thickets of woods off the side of the road sleeping under endless starry skies. But it’s not quite as romantic as it sounds what with dodging the law and all because stealth camping is trespassing. I didn’t dare make a fire or cook so as not to draw attention to my camp. My meals usually consisted of oatmeal mixed with cold water.
Sometimes, I slept on soft mattresses under clean, sweet smelling sheets where people I had just met invited me in their homes. But, mostly I pitched my pup tent in church yards, woods, abandoned barns and sheds and even on the edges of old forgotten cemeteries.
One hot day somewhere out in the treeless nothingness of the Platte River Basin in Nebraska I was limping along a deserted highway headed northwest half walking and half leaning on my cottonwood walking stick. A thick blanket of humidity covered everything from horizon to horizon.
The intensely hot sun was glaringly bright that afternoon; its white hot rays shined right into my eyes already burning from being bathed in sweat dripping off my forehead.
It was then that I heard a car coming from up from behind me heading west. I watched as it slowly passed by. Askeleton looking man, stooped shouldered, his eyes hidden by a pair of overlarge outdated dark sun glasses wasbehind the wheel.
He stared way too long at me as he passed by. About 50 yards ahead he turned the car around and now headed back east towards me. Hmm, what’s this guy up to?
He pulled up to me and stopped and rolled down the passenger window and leaned over towards the now open window “Hey, guy…could you use a ride?”
“Well…sir…I’m on a hike across the country so, no… I have to walk. But, thanks anyway.” I replied. “Where you headed?” he asked a bit annoyed at my response. ,”Well…I’m headed for the next town up ahead.” ” Let me at least drop you off there then cause I’m going that way myself.” So, I says okay.
But my gut told me no. I could tell this guy was getting a bit agitated, apparently due to my reluctance in letting him do his good deed for the day. So, against my better judgement I relented. Plus, I was bone tired, hungry and dehydrated. So, thinking I could use a break I opened the back door of his beat up sedan and stowed the “Beast” (my backpack) and my Israeli paratrooper bag in the back seat. But, first I had to clear the seat of what looked like 10 or 15 empty McDonald’s bags. The back floor was carpeted with garbage including empty beer bottles. Now, my initial reluctance hardened.
While attempting to slide down in the front passenger seat, “Buck” as he volunteered his name, told me to wait until he cleared the seat of paper wrappers, a notebook, old work gloves and an empty box. He threw it all in the back seat right on top of my backpack.
The moment I sat down the stale, musty smell of cigarette butts stabbed me in the nose. Cigarette butts were crammed in the ash tray and scattered all over the console in between the driver’s and passenger seats. And, of course, Buck, had a cigarette hanging off the right corner of his smallish looking mouth. I could envision this guy with a cigarette stuffed in his mouth fast asleep in bed or evenwhile he was showering…if he ever did shower.
He had a kind of lisp which made conversation interesting for me. And, from the moment I got in the car he ranted on and on about the government and FEMA camps and whatnot which in a puzzling way put me at ease as I was used to hearing that kinda talk.
We had gotten about 10 miles down the highway when he tells me he’s been remodeling his cabin in the woods. I said oh…okay…cool and then continued looking out the window. He then says, “Hey, let me take you over to my cabin to show you what I’m doing.” I turned my head, looked at him and replied that I’d rather not as I need to get to the next town to find a campsite for the night and I gotta set up my tent while its still daylight. He says no problem I can get you there before nightfall. I continued to protest but by that time he had already gotten off the highway and began driving down a dusty gravel road.
I reiterated that I really need to get to town to find a campsite and that takes time. It was then he reaches down under his seat and pulls out an old looking long barreled .22 caliber revolver. With that he asked if I liked his gun.
I drew a long breath and contrived an enthusiastic voicesaying it looked like it had some history to it. ” Oh yeah, it’s a collector’s piece. But, I actually use it so I always keep bullets in it.” Oh, geez. Just what I wanted to hear.
I honestly didn’t know what to say. I turned my head back to the window and said nothing. That’s when fear, like an ocean wave washed over me and I silently muttered a short prayer.
He placed the gun on the gear shift in between us. I figured I should make a grab for it. But, I thought what if he wasn’t threatening me with his gun. I make a grab for it then he thinks he’s in danger and shoots me. So, I just remained calm and acted like this happens to me every day.
After 20 minutes or so we pulled up to a rattletrap log cabin situated in a large clearing bordered by a dark stand of woods near a stream. Actually, it was that fake wood siding that’s made to look like real logs. I saw no other houses or cabins nearby.
Buck got out of the car first grabbing hold of the gun. I got out rather tentatively not quite sure what was transpiring here.
I decided on a strategy of controlling the conversation; so I told Buck his place looked great but I really needed to get going. The sun was going down. He says, “Why don’t you stay the night here and I can take you to town in the morning?” ” No. I’ve got to be going! Either you take me now or I’m walking outta here and back to the highway! ” I said angrily as my patience was wearing thin.
“Come on man! What’s your rush?” Buck says. “Bye.” I replied as I opened the car door to retrieve my gear. I then swung the “Beast” over my shoulder and started walking towards the gravel road.
It seemed an eternity as I made my way down the long dirt lane to the gravel road bracing for the inevitable shot in the back when I heard Buck starting the car. I stopped and watched him pull alongside me. He says for me to get into the car that he would take me to town. I hesitated at first wondering what kinda games he was playing. But, I got in anyway and said nothing. I looked down on the console and sure enough Buck had placed the .22 back back on the console.
It was a tense and quiet drive into town. I quickly thanked him and lighted out of the car as quickly as I could. Buck said nothing as he sped away.
What in the hell was that all about I kept muttering to myself as I casted about looking for a nearby park or woods to pitch my tent. I eventually found a large park on the edge of town and set up camp far away from the neighborhoods and houses and wondered all night long about my bewildering experience with this Nebraska tweeker.
I debated calling the police. My law school education taught me that he committed the offenses of menacing and possibly kidnapping by placing a loaded weapon that close to me and then telling me we weren’t going to town but to his cabin. But, honestly, I simply didn’t want to waste time dealing with cops and swearing out a complaint. I had to get to Denver. And, he did end up taking me where I wanted to go. But, holy shit! Was that a frightening event!
The most resolute resistance to my peregrinations comes from an unexpected source: church clerics. One incident in particular comes to mind.
In Nebraska I walked into a town in the middle of the afternoon tired, hot, sweaty and downcast. I needed to sleep. But, I discovered that when your homeless you can’t just go down to the park and sleep on a bench.
The good church going folk in town will call the police. This happened to me in Astoria, Illinois and Big Spring, Nebraska. A cop nudged me in the ribs with his black booted foot at about 230am while I was sleeping in the town park in Astoria. Some lady across the street called the police and complained of a vagrant “living” in the park. I was there one night.
He told me it was against the law to sleep in the park and I was scaring people so I needed to get my stuff and move on.
Anyway, I shuffled on down the highway into this little one horse town looking for a church to obtain permission to put up my tent in their churchyard. The first church I came to was an magnificent looking edifice with a medieval looking tower with an old bell in it. Turns out to be a fundamental evangelical congregation.
I walked into the office and met a nice lady who I assumed was the church secretary. I told her my story. She seemed to listen with great interest. After I was finished, she pulled up her purse from the floor behind her desk and found her wallet from which she produced a nice crisp $50 bill which she bestowed into my very willing hand.
I did not and do not ask people for money. But, she felt compelled to do so she said. I then asked if she knew anyone from church who could put me up for one or two nights. The church did not have a yard for me to camp.
She sent out an email to her parishioners explaining my situation. In the meantime, while she waited for an answer she told me I could take a nap in the baby room upstairs. I thanked her for her generosity and christian charity. I then took a much needed nap. I was asleep for about a half hour or so when I felt somebody tugging on my arm. ” Wake up…sir…wake up. The man said urgently.
I rose halfway up and swung my legs over the edge of the couch and the man pulled up a chair and introduced himself as the pastor. He then explained to me that someone replied to the secretary’s email. She was a 83 year old widow who would be happy to provide me with room and board at her home provided I help her around the house.
Well, I jumped at the chance. Here was an opportunity to help someone who really needed it and I could have a place to stay for a few days.
So, the pastor says he will take me over to “Alice” and Introduce me. “But, we gotta get going, I really don’t have the time for this” He said quickly.
We pull up to a two story white Victorian, beautiful and inviting but a bit disheveled giving it the appearance of an old run down country hotel. We walked up the wooden stairs to a large wood porch painted in battleship gray, most of which was peeling off as the porch hadn’t been painted for quite some time.
The pastor rings the doorbell. The door opens and a thin, spindly white haired elderly lady greets the pastor and shakes his hand. And, after the pleasantries he introduced me to Alice.
Alice appeared a bit annoyed as she lightly shook my hand not looking me in the eye. Something appeared amiss.
“I thought you were going to give me his phone number so I could speak to him before I decide whether I will let him stay here.” Alice said impatiently. I had assumed all of this was worked out already but, apparently she wanted to interview me first before she would decide whether I could stay with her. But, the pastor was in a hurry and didn’t see the value of an interview.
The pastor just stood there not replying but instead glanced down at his watch in awkward silence. Then, Alice looks at me and says, “Alright. You look okay. Come on in.” ” Hey, Alice I gotta run and get back to the church. Thanks.” the pastor said hurriedly. He didn’t even wait for Alice’s response.
I apologized to Alice for what I perceived as the pastor’s rudeness and lack of respect for proper convention. She replied that it was okay, that’s just Pastor Bob always in a hurry. “Well, he must have a large congregation.”I said. Alice smirked and said, ” Yeah, all of 70 members!” We both laughed. And, with that I enjoyed a two week stay with Alice.
But, after a few days Pastor Bob called Alice and asked if everything was okay. Was BR working out? I heard her say, “Oh you bet! Better than what I thought.”
“Alice…are you sure?” He asks. “Pastor, you of all people know I speak my mind, so yes I’m sure. ” Well, if it doesn’t work out call me and I’ll get him outta there! ” Yeah, okay. Bye now.” Alice replies as she hangs up the phone. She then looks at me while I’m preparing lunch for us. “I just don’t know about him.”as she shakes her head.
This calling and asking about me went on for days. Finally, I asked Alice for the phone when the pastor called. “I’d like to meet with you and talk about this.” I announced. “I’d like to talk to you too. How about I come over there at 2pm?”says the pastor. “Sounds good.” I replied.
Sure enough at 2pm Pastor Bob rings the door bell. I opened the door and we walk into the living room. Alice decided to stay in the family room giving us some privacy.
Pastor Bob starts right in. “I think your milking a good thing.” He says. A bit stunned, I told him that Alice doesn’t seem to thinks so. And, isn’t her opinion the determinative one? “Well, I think Alice is just being nice and isn’t admitting it.” Pastor Bob replied.
“And, furthermore I just don’t like what you’re doing. You’re not under any church authority. You’re just going rogue here.” He said smugly.
“Well, why don’t you hold off on your opinion until you hear me talk to the Adult Sunday School Class on Sunday.” “You’re talking to the Sunday School Class?” ” Yep. The teacher wants me to tell my story.”
“You can count on me being there. And, if I hear anything weird I’ll stop you!” “Weird? What are you talking about?” I asked incredulously.
“Let me tell you something! You have no idea who I am. I am the head of the Nebraska State Convention of my denomination. I have oversight over 2,000 churches and I have seen your type blow into town before. You people declare yourselves ” disciples ” or “apostles.”
“Well, I’ve seen YOUR type plenty of times too. You have no idea what Christianity is all about. You have no idea who Jesus really is.” I angrily replied.
The conversation just deteriorated from there. I told him I was done with him. He shot up from his chair and turned around towards me before he went out the door. “I’ll see you Sunday.” “Yeah, I guess you will.” “Bye, bye.”
On Sunday I got up at the beginning of class after being introduced by the teacher. Pastor Bob was there standing in the back of the room leaning against the cinder block wall with his arms folded.
After I was finished the class erupted with applause. I had taken the whole hour. They all came up to me to shake my hand and told me how courageous I was to be walking across the country camping in the woods and making relationships with strangers.
I saw Pastor Bob slip out the back door. We never spoke again. One of the class members who came up to shake my hand offered to take me out to supper. He was a big time farmer with several farms. Later he offered his home to me as well.
I walked slowly back to Alice’s home where I had stayed for the last two weeks. I walked inside and announced that I would be leaving in the next several days. Alice protested. “Has Pastor Bob been on your case again?” “Nope. But it’s time. I am causing concern and becoming controversial. That’s not my purpose here.”
Alice looked down and said that she would miss me badly. She had opened up to me about her late husband and their business they ran together, a variety 5&10 store downtown. She spilled out long forgotten memories of her childhood to me. We had become truly good friends. She needed a friend, someone she could talk to…and I apparently I needed a mother to connect with.
I shall always miss our long conversations about things and people of long ago. When I assembled my belongings and gear I went out in the front porch and piled it there waiting for the farmer and his wife to pick me up. I would stay with him for a week. This farmer then hooked me up with his cattle rancher friend over in the next county. Alice teared up as she hugged me. I was too emotional to talk. I hugged her again and walked down the stairs into the farmer’s pickup and onto yet another chapter.
I would stay with the rancher for two months helping on the ranch and with their farmers market.
I ran into several Pastor Bobs on my journey west. Invariably, these scribes feel threatened by me or rather by my message of sacrifice, change and transformation.
And, I can compete with them on the finer points of theology. But, the kicker is is that my Jesus doesn’t look quite like theirs. Their Jesus is overtly nationalistic, angry and respectable.
When I explained to them that Christ was a radical and a subversive within the context of first century Jewish culture their eyes glaze over. They seem more concerned with promoting their careers rather than their parishioners.
It’s just a shame that these ministers who attended Seminary and know Greek and Hebrew still have no idea what Christ was and is all about. They subsume orthopraxis and concentrate too much on orthodoxy. This is why Christians today look and act no different than the culture of today. We Christians have shed our radicalism and attempt to legislate the Kingdom of God instead of bringing down the Kingdom by our love for our neighbor and for God. We are more concerned with being entertained and going to church in all of our finery. Look at John the Baptizer. He came dressed in coarse camel hair eating locusts. Jesus said if you’re looking for finely dressed people you need to go to the palaces you will not find them crying in the wilderness.
If Nebraska rednecks and sanctimonious clergy weren’t trying enough a pack of wild like dogs tried their best to turn me into a buffet dinner.
I was up on a ridge in York Gulch Colorado about 9200 feet above sea level building a winter shelter so I could camp up in the forest a couple of days a week. After getting two walls up I was hard at work dragging more trees I had just cut down. It was then that a pack of dogs including a Rottweiler, a Rottweiler mix, pit bull and a dalmation came out of the trees and brush snarling and barking. They began advancing towards my position forcing me to grab my two ski poles which I used to keep them at bay.
After a bit, two of the dogs left and circled around coming up behind me. That’s when I called 911. Forty five minutes later a Sheriffs Deputy came up the slope and into the clearing. I told him to use his gun but he said that was unnecessary. He told me we should charge the dogs. “Charge em! Are you nuts they’re vicious, just shoot em!” “Oh they’ll turn and run I’ve seen it time and time again.” he said loudly.
“On the count of three charge! the deputy tells me. ” One, two…three! And, we charged. And, they turned tail and ran in four different directions just like the deputy said.
I left the scene with my camping gear and hiked a mile west and set up camp there. I went back to town and stayed there for a few days. Then I got a call from Joe who owned the land I was camping on and he told me that my tipi had either been blown over or toppled by animals. So I headed back to York Gulch and examined my campsite and concluded that the dogs had discovered my camp and tore it up. At that point I decided to abandon my plans to build my winter shelter.
.These stories I just related are only a fraction of what happened to me walking from Illinois to Colorado. I’m actually surprised I made it without injury. This coming spring I will leave Idaho Springs, Colorado and will trudge up to Seattle for the second and last leg of my journey westward. The plan then is to board a train east to Galesburg, Illinois where family will pick me up and drive me back home to Morton. Then after a few weeks I plan on hiking east to the Atlantic. Then, it’s on to the Appalachians where I will travel town to town preaching, proclaiming and making new friends.
After that who knows? I have the rest of my life to figure that out.