He sat on a bench in the Altoona botanical garden. It’s a wonderful little park, bisected with a bike trail and a small stream. It features whimsical metal insect sculptures. But it’s also a reverent place with a solemn veteran’s memorial fountain.
He was athletic, focused, and engaging. His blue backpack beside him, he was vaguely threatening to the cautious—like my wife. But me? Conceived on Okie soil in Woody Guthrie’s home state, I’m a sucker for a road warrior with a good story.
Dale was his name. Our visit started with him remarking how nice the park was. He asked if I’d ever been to the massive International Peace Garden that straddles the North Dakota border, and wondered if you needed a passport to cross into Canada. That wouldn’t be a problem for him; he’s a Canuck native, and now a “Can-Am.”
Never married, no kids. Folks died either side of 50 in the late 90s and left him little. He made some really big money for awhile as a diver in the gulf, subcontracting for an oil company for $3000 a day. But the BP oil spill wiped him out. He had to sell everything he had to pay off his business debts; “damn near killed me.”
He’s since realized it was the best thing to ever happen to him. The weight is gone, he said. He’s on the road now, with the Lord looking out for him. Kind folks feed him or slip him a little cash to keep him going. He told of a Navajo woman who passed him on the highway as he walked along the shoulder against the traffic. She did a U-turn and handed him an envelope for $40. “God told me a few months ago I was to give this to someone” she told him.
He doesn’t hitchhike. Cops stop him, check his ID to make sure there are no warrants, and wish him well. He had a couple pop cans to cash in that he’d found in the park bins, and was eyeing the nearby HyVee parking lot for later.
Deb and I had ridden our bikes about 8 miles and the park was our turnaround point. She had distanced herself from him early on. I kept glancing her way and told Dale I had to go. But he continued his tale. And me, equal parts too nice and intrigued, kept listening. Deb quietly fumed and slowly peddled away, not impressed that I was taking time away from our biking date.
Dale started his trek about 6 ½ months ago, heading north from Astoria, Oregon into Washington state. He said the most desolate areas were east Oregon and Utah. “Arizona’s not bad, there are a lot of towns. And Nevada’s okay, unless you’re in the north.” He had a Navajo guide who led him to the water spots in the desert.
He told of being offered a ride while on an reservation. “About ten drunk guys pulled up in an old rusty car. Three bald tires and a fourth on the rim. I turned ‘em down. They asked if it was because I didn’t like Indians. I told them I didn’t think the car looked safe and they took off.”
He has a job lined up in Savannah, GA starting in six weeks around October 1st, “if I’m still alive. If not, that’s okay too. I’ve asked the Lord many times to go ahead and take me, but he hasn’t yet.”
Dale just did some day labor for a guy who was repairing a storm sewer under a manhole. The original contractor hadn’t sealed it properly. His employer went down in the hole with a sealant that expanded to 36x its size after you applied it. His boss cut off the extra goop, put it in a bucket, and Dale pulled it up for disposal. They started at 6 and were done by 11, before the August heat got too nasty. Dale got $100 cash and a free room at the Beacon Motel, an edge-of-town place a bit past its prime.
He had on hiking boots, walking shorts, a dark Spiderman t-shirt, and a baseball hat with a P on it…the Purdue logo, maybe. He liked my Bob Marley tee, and said there are more Deadheads in Eugene, Oregon, than in all of California. “It’s true,” he said. He added that he saw a guy with a half-ton bicycle that was rigged up so he could sleep in it, too—a white guy with Rasta dreads.
Dale said he’d peddled cross-country twice; acted like it wasn’t a big deal. He listens to NPR and heard a story that day about millionaires getting richer. He added nonchalantly that he hadn’t eaten for three days. He was grateful for free water and clung to his 64 ounce Gatorade bottle.
Deb called my cell. I insisted to Dale I really had to roll on, and slipped him the $5 bill I had. “God bless you—I had just been thinking about Proverbs 19:16, and how when you give or lend to the poor, you’re giving to God. My Bible (motioning to his backpack) is more than just ballast.”
It neared sundown; gray clouds hung along the orange horizon, hinting at overnight rain. He planned to walk a few miles west to Lowes for the night. He said the yard storage sheds they have out as demo models are never locked, and nobody on the night crew ever comes out to check them. And “since my sleeping bag weighs a hundred pounds when it’s wet” he likes a dry place to sleep, which he claims to do from about 11 until 3 or 4 in the morning before hitting the road once again.
“I’m Dale” he told me again, as we shook hands and wished each other well. I peddled past manicured rosebushes and paddling ducks and met up with Deb a little ways down the trail.
Cranking homeward, I realized how grateful I was to meet Dale. That week, I was stung when I was passed over for a job I’d been earnestly praying for. I’d been thinking that even though the sky was God’s ear, He wasn’t listening. God was becoming more Trial than Love; more Isolation than Engagement.
Dale could have been a sociopath, a modern-day John the Baptist, or a guardian angel—I really don’t have a clue.
But as we peddled toward a muting rosy-purple sunset, God revealed this:
“If you’re not feeling blessed, at least be a blessing.”
Dale was both.