YORK HAVEN, Pa. (AP) — At little after 9 a.m. Monday, James Smith took a knee on the sidewalk outside the Rutter’s on West Market Street, at the intersection with Route 116, as a couple of friends worked on strapping a small backpack, containing his laptop and notebooks and such, to a larger pack that contained what will be his worldly possessions for the next five and a half months.
“Almost done?” he asked.
His knee was killing him. He had to stand.
His friends finished lashing the packs together, and Smith stood, grunting against the weight on his back -a good 40 pounds or more.
And then he said so long to his friends and began walking, taking the first steps of what might turn out to be a 3,000-mile journey across America in search of decency and compassion.
He’s calling it the Point The Thumb Journey, the idea being that instead of pointing your finger at someone else, point your thumb at yourself. He is calling the journey “walking across America for humanity.”
It began a few months ago. Smith, a single father of two and stepfather to one, picked up his 11-year-old daughter at the bus stop at the end of a long, hard day for the kid. She told him, “You’re right, dad. People do suck.”
It wasn’t the kind of legacy he wished to pass on to his kids. He wants his kids to grow up believing that people are basically decent. But lately, it’s been tough, his cynicism and disappointment in people trickling down to his kids.
He does believe people are basically good, but lately, rude people, angry people and just plain bad people have sucked the life out of him, have soured his faith in humanity.
So he hatched a plan to get it back. He had seen a movie on Netflix - “Into the Wild,” based on the nonfiction best-seller by John Krakauer - about a young man, disillusioned by people, who gives away all of his possessions and travels across the country to Alaska. Along the way, the man meets people who shape his life and restore his faith in the basic decency of people. The movie “connected the dots” for him.
Smith began planning. He was going to walk across the country and depend on the kindness of strangers to survive the trek. He planned to just approach people along the way and ask for help and get to know the people.
So he quit his job - he worked in logistics - and began training, walking miles every day to get his 50-year-old body in shape. He sought donations from local businesses to get him started. Rutter’s, for instance, made a $500 donation to the Penn State Hershey Medical Center’s pediatric care center.
It was special to Smith. His 11-year-old, when she was a month old, had surgery at the center to correct a problem with her digestive tract. He recruited a friend to look after his house, near York Haven, and his dog, Luna.
On Monday morning, a small crowd of about a dozen friends gathered at Rutter’s to see him off. His children weren’t there; they were at their mother’s. He said so long to them Sunday. He didn’t want them to be there when he left because it would have made him cry, and he didn’t want to start his journey with tears in his eyes.
Sunday was rough. “I was a mess yesterday,” he said. “I stopped by the house and gave my kids a kiss goodbye. It was hard.”
He is taking this journey, in part, for his kids, to show them that people are good.
He plans to walk about 20 miles a day. Along the way, when he reaches a destination, he plans to talk to total strangers, telling them his story and the story of his journey and perhaps asking for a place to stay, just to see how they react.
He wants to see whether people will volunteer to help him out, or give him a place to stay, or a hot meal, or just take the time to get to know him. He plans to document the trip - you can find links to his YouTube and Facebook pages at pttjourney.com - with the goal of writing a book about the trip.
He has said, “It isn’t about me. It’s about the people I’ll meet along the way.”
Most of the dozen people who gathered to see him off were wearing bright yellow T-shirts bearing the logo for his trip and other information. He has been selling the shirts to pay for the trip, so far selling about 70.
He took some photos with his friends and said goodbye, gathering in a circle to say a brief prayer before walking across the parking lot to the shoulder of Route 30 and the first leg of his journey.
“All right, so I guess this is it, gang,” he said. “I love you all.”
He began walking alongside the road, tractor-trailers whizzing by. The weather was just about perfect, the air still cool from the night, the humidity low.
“I’m off to a pretty good start,” he said. “I just gotta see how it goes.”
Information from: York Daily Record, http://www.ydr.com