There’s just something different about him.
He’s standing on the edge of the interstate ramp and even from the intersection, I can tell he’s been up and down the highway many times.
He’s wearing a camo hat and his energetic white hair blends into an impressive beard. Everything about him hints that he has a tale to tell, including the cardboard sign he’s clutching that promises a “Fun-tastic Story!”
I pull over, roll down the window and ask how far he’s going.
“New York,” he laughs. But you don’t need to drive me the whole way.”
I offer 30 miles - because that’s where my exit is - and he accepts with gratitude and grace. Before we even merge into traffic on interstate 81 in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, he’s introduced himself as the Hiking Pilgrim.
By the time we say goodbye at a gas station half-an-hour later, I’ve learned a lot about pilgrims, hiking and finding God.
My new friend was born in the U.S. but spent most of his life in Ireland - a fact made obvious by a fantastic accent that adds color to every word.
After taking an early retirement, he began to backpack Ireland, Europe and Asia. He’s walked the periphery of Ireland and twice completed the famed pilgrimage to the shrine of the Apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain.
In recent years he’s returned to the U.S. to tackle the Appalachian Trail, the Grand Canyon and the entire east coast from Florida to Canada. Along the way he’s encountered more bears than he can remember and even more kindhearted strangers. He’s also written a book, Hiking to Hell and Back.
“So,” I ask as the mile markers flash by, “tell me about your pilgrimage.”
With his wise smile filling my rear view mirror, he describes it with this simple phrase. “I’ve been on a mission to find God.”
The Hiking Pilgrim describes a pilgrimage that took him from agnostic to gnostic. “My journeys have taught me that not only is God real, but that I can actually come to know him. Just as he knows me.”
In touching terms, he tells of quiet moments on the trail when he felt God near. “I can honestly say I went looking and that I found him. And in the process, he found me, too.”
We spoke about politics and his deep concerns about “progressives taking over America.” As someone who has witnessed terror firsthand in Ireland, he worries about our approach to battling today’s threats.
I marvel at how well-read he is and how smoothly he articulates America’s hot-button issues. In return, he relishes the opportunity to smash stereotypes about hitchhikers.
Not all of them are homeless. Not all of them want money. Not all of them travel the highways looking for the next meal.
The Hiking Pilgrim has a home, he didn’t ask for money and he’s not hunting to be fed. He’s looking for much more.
While he accepts that some find God in a church pew, the Hiking Pilgrim believes there are other places to meet God and to know his plan. “He will give us experiences everyday, if we only ask.”
My passenger believes that in his darkest moments, he’s been led to the right person at the right time to make the right kind of difference.
When we say goodbye and go our separate ways on our own, I thank him for the stories and he knocks down one more myth.
Not everyone you see by themselves is really alone.
Some of them, like the Hiking Pilgrim, walk with God.