“Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man. Tryin’ to make a livin’ and doin’ the best I can. When it’s time for leavin’, I hope you’ll understand…that I was born a ramblin’ man.”
–performed by The Allman Brothers, written by Forrest Richard Betts
I can’t pinpont the exact day we first saw The Walking Man, but we were definitely on our way to school. The way I remember it, I saw a man walking alongside the road, and said, “Oh dear, it looks like that man must have had some car trouble. I sure hope he doesn’t have to walk much further.” My girls craned their little necks to get a better look at the morning’s diversion. We shook our heads sadly, tut-tutted about his misfortune, and kept on our way. No, we did not consider giving him a ride. Mostly because we live in an age where a woman with two small children takes an unjustifiable risk when offering assistance to a stranger. Also, chances are good that we were running behind, thus limiting our opportunity to be Good Samaritans. Whatever the reasons were, everyone’s day progressed as planned and none of us gave the unlucky walker another thought.
But then we saw him the next day. And the day after that. Every day that week on our way to school we saw this young man, with his head full of sandy dreadlocks and a dusting of light blonde hair on his fair-skinned face, trudging through the tall grass along the side of the road. It became obvious that his reason for walking was not a result of car trouble, so we began to consider that maybe he didn’t have a car at all, and that he was walking his way to work. But after a while, that explanation didn’t hold up, either. I noticed that his walking time stretched throughout the day, and it seemed there was no real destination. I crossed paths with him all day, as he walked slowly and methodically beside the same roads my big SUV wore thin as I zoomed through my daily errands. He wore the same baja sweater and baggy jeans every day, no matter what the weather conditions were. His attire and appearance were best described as grungy, but clean; kind of like a kid you would find on a college campus in the mid-90’s. That being said, it was not appropriate for any job I could think of near his walking route, nor was it suitable for the amount of walking he was doing. The only difference I could see in him from day to day is that he would pull his hood up if it rained. Without a good explanation for this seemingly pointless walking, my mind began to wander, and the angry, torch-burning villager in me piped up with the thought, “What is this guy doing? Why is he just out walking all day long? What is he up to, exactly? Is he some sort of predator?” I didn’t like him being so close to my home and my children’s school. I had a fleeting thought of calling some sort of authorities. But who? The police? What would I say? “I’d like to report a man walking?” Ummm, no. Reason quickly prevailed and I realized that this is just a man who walks. I don’t have to know why. And so, The Walking Man became a part of our morning routine. Eat your breakfast. Get in the car. Look at the horses: they’re wearing blankets! There’s The Walking Man. Almost to school now; go ahead and unbuckle. I love you. We all went about our respective days. The kids at school, the parents doing their jobs, The Walking Man walking.
Then one day we didn’t see The Walking Man. We were a little concerned, until he showed up a few days later. After that, his appearances were erratic. Sightings of The Walking Man slowly became less frequent until finally we just didn’t see him at all anymore. Just like I can’t say exactly when I saw him the first time, I also can’t say exactly when I saw him the last time. To be honest, I just forgot about him.
After the craziness of the last few weeks of school in the spring, we settled into our new summer routine of swim team practices and various other activities. My older daughter’s horseback riding lessons were adjusted to early morning and late evening hours to take advantage of the cooler temperatures of the day. Once again we found ourselves riding the roads near our school, and once again I took notice of a man walking along the roadside.
The first time I saw him, I assumed he was out walking for exercise. He was outfitted head to toe in high-quality, technical running gear. But that explanation didn’t exactly fit, because he wasn’t moving at an exercise pace, and he didn’t show the signs of exertion that would suggest he was resting from a run. And while the roads we travelled are considered secondary, they’re busy and not conducive for pedestrian use. Even a novice runner would recognize this was not a safe place to get exercise.
It took me three, maybe four, times of seeing this walking man to realize that he was The Walking Man. I laughed at my surprising discovery. Like finding a $20 bill in last year’s winter coat, I didn’t know I’d lost him until I found him. How long had he been hiding in plain sight? Those sandy dreadlocks had been replaced with a close-cropped haircut, topped off with a black visor and a slick pair of earbuds. His beard was gone, revealing a set of chiseled cheekbones and a somewhat gaunt face. The trademark baja sweater and baggy jeans were gone, too. The Walking Man now sported dark-colored, dry-fit athletic clothing and what I could tell were some really expensive running shoes. His appearance had drastically transformed, but that moderate walking pace and deliberate stare remained exactly the same. He was the same man with the unknown mission; in no hurry to get anywhere, but determined to arrive. His eyes and mind were focused on a destination that I could not see.
There is so much I don’t know about The Walking Man. Where is he going? How many hours does he walk each day? How long has been doing this? How far does he want to walk? How many miles has he clocked so far? Does he yearn to go further than the relatively small radius he travels? Or is he content to walk the same roads day after day? What is he thinking about all those hours? Does he ever get tired? Does he want to stop, or does he wish that his feet were able to carry him even longer?
All these questions will go unanswered for me. But there is one thing I believe I can safely surmise about The Walking Man. He is loved. BIG.
Somewhere he has a home. Someone in that home makes sure he has clothing and shoes, and that they are kept clean and in good condition. Maybe that person makes sure he starts his day with a good breakfast, because she can’t be sure that he’ll eat again until he comes back home. Maybe she knows what time to expect him home, and she’ll have another meal waiting for him then. Or maybe she doesn’t know when he’ll be home, and instead she wanders the house, watching the clock and looking out the windows, hoping that the drivers on the roads aren’t too careless. That no one takes their eyes off the road for just a minute, and slips off the shoulder. Maybe she even drives out and looks for him on the days that he’s gone too long, pulling over to give him a bottle of water and check to see if he put on sunscreen. Maybe when he does come home, she pretends like she hasn’t worried over him all day, because she doesn’t want him to feel like he’s a burden. Maybe the person that loves and cares for The Walking Man has asked him many, many times “Why do you need to walk? Can’t you just take the day off and rest? Aren’t you just a little tired?” And maybe he has given her an answer that explains it all. Or maybe he doesn’t answer her questions, and even though she desperately wants to comprehend, she realizes it’s useless to ask anymore. Because it’s not her job to understand. Maybe she’s decided it’s her job just to love him, to keep him safe, and help him do what he feels he was put here to do.
This is just a man who walks. I don’t have to know why. But to the person who loves and cares for him, I want to say that I know why you do what you do. And for that reason, I watch out for him, too. I take it slow around the curves. I am more understanding of those that don’t act the way I expect them to. I try to show grace in situations where it would be easy to jump to the wrong conclusion. My inner torch-burning villager is a lot slower to emerge. You have allies out here, helping you keep watch.
This is just a man who walks. But to the one who loves him, he is just… everything.