I’m driving on the 287 near the Texas-New Mexico border and I see him. He’s trudging along the side of the two-lane highway, head down, pack swaying. He doesn’t put his thumb out. I have to think about it for a few seconds and by that time I’ve passed him by a quarter mile before I pull over.
It takes him a good 5 minutes to reach me. He looks 50, with a wild, unkempt yellow beard and an oily brown jacket on. I roll my window down: Where you headed?
Seattle, he says.
Alright. I can take you to Albequerque.
He nods his head. I pop my trunk so he can put his military-looking pack inside.
His name is Wesley. He left from Athens, Georgia 20 days ago. He’s headed to Seattle, then Alaska, where a buddy of his has offered him a job.
He’s worked all sorts of jobs: maintenance, mechanic, shoe repair, leatherwork.
Why does he do it? Because he enjoys traveling. He’s been hitchhiking for 25 years, in the summer and in the winter. In his early twenties, he lost his job and his car got repossessed. So he decided to leave his hometown and just travel the country for a month. Back then, people were more trusting. Truckers were allowed to pick people up. He finds a place to work. Stays a few weeks. When the work dries up, he picks up and leaves for another town.
He says: “People ask me, how can I just pick up and leave? Without knowing where I’m going, or where I’m going to eat, or where I’ll sleep that night? And it’s easy for me. I don’t have family to turn to. I don’t have a choice. I just pick up and go. Just keep walking.”
He’s spent over 4,000 homeless nights! He tells me how he looks for shelter: You find a place that will have the wind blocked, and away from the lights from the road, and animals. Underneath a bridge, or on rocky overhang, or a grove of trees.
By this time it’s getting late and dark. I feel so bad dropping him off in the side of the road when I’m going to stay at a hotel. So I ask him: “Do you want to stay in the hotel with me?”
He looks at me hesitantly. “Um, sure if you don’t mind” he replies.
We stay at a Super 8. He steps out to smoke. When he comes back in, I’m doing work on my Macbook Air. He turns on a nature show. I wonder, if the thought’s crossed his mind, to rob me.
I wake up at 8am, and he’s already up. He moved the coffee machine to the bathroom so as not to disturb me. He’s been awake since 3! He has insomnia.
Wesley is mapping out his route for the day. I take out my Bible to do my devotions, and my place holder happens to be on Psalm 84. It begins: How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord…and it ends: Blessed is the one who trusts in you. I tell Wesley: this Psalm is about you! It’s about me, too. We don’t have a dwelling place. So we yearn for God’s home. And we trust in him.
Wesley nods. Yeah. I believe that. I believe God takes care of me. I don’t have anyone else to turn to.
It’s funny because besides the fact that I have an education and a car, Wesley and I are pretty similar.
We don’t stay in one place too long. When we get the urge, we pick up and leave. We don’t know where we’re headed. We’re wanderers.
But he’s headed toward the first stable job of his life, in Alaska. If he likes it, he’s going to stay there the rest of his life. He’s not planning on going back to Georgia this time.
Me, too. I’ve always stayed at a place a year or two. And moved on. But I think at some point, I need to put down roots. Settle down. Be more stable.
I drop him off on the side of the road. He hops out happily. I watch him walk away with his pack slung across his back. Happy. Free. On the road again.
We’re wanderers. But this could be our last journey.