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York County man walking across US is finding the good in people - mostly

Written by Mike Argento/The York Daily Record | Aug 10, 2018 12:07 PM
James Smith walk across America.JPG

James Smith, 50, climbs his first hill on the trip on Route 30 in Thomasville Monday, heading west across York County, for a trip to span the United States. He is taking this journey, in part, for his kids, to show them that people are good. (Paul Kuehnel/The York Daily Record)

It was somewhere in Ohio when James Smith encountered the young couple at a bar. 

Smith, as he has been doing while walking across the country in search of the good in people, talked to them, telling them about his journey, his quest to restore his faith in humanity, and they seemed receptive. In fact, they wanted to help. They wanted to put him up for the night, feed him and talk some more. 

They asked him to hang out at the bar, saying they had to run some errands and would be back in an hour. They told him they were heading out to score some weed and coke.

Smith said, OK, have a nice evening and parted ways with them. 

"That was about the only real bad experience I've had," Smith said, checking in from Hobart, Ind., not far from Chicago, about 650 miles into his journey across America. "And it wasn't completely bad. I mean, they were nice and were willing to put me up for the night. But..." 

It was a big but. 

For the most part, Smith, who left his home near York Haven a month ago to walk across the country, has found the good in people. There was the woman who put him up in Indiana. The couple that helped him out in Ohio. The people he's met along the way who have encouraged him and shared their stories and spotted him a meal or a place to spend the night. 

Smith is 50 years old, the single father of three children, and not long ago his daughter came home from school and told him, "You're right, Dad. People suck." 

It broke his heart that he would be instilling that kind of attitude in his children. And it broke his heart that he had become that kind of person, one who was beaten down, jaded, indifferent, angry and cynical. That isn't who he wanted to be.  

So, inspired by the film made of the Jon Krakauer book, "Into the Wild," in which a recent college graduate gives up everything to head to Alaska, he devised his walk across America to find the good in people. He's calling it the Point The Thumb Journey: instead of pointing a finger at someone else, point your thumb at yourself. He quit his job as a logistics manager and started walking.  

His plan was to walk 20 miles a day, stopping along the way to talk to people, just to hear and collect their stories, hoping to publish a book about the journey, and posting updates in YouTube as he goes along. Every evening, when he stops for the day, he goes to a restaurant or bar or anyplace people might gather, telling the story of his journey and asking them whether he could have a place to stay for the night. 

Yes, in this day and age, it seems nuts. But it also seems to be working. 

He has been without a place to stay only three times, two by choice and once when he bailed on the aforementioned shoppers for illicit drugs. Only one night was very rough. He didn't have a place to stay and had bedded down for the night when it started raining. He sought shelter under the deck of an under-construction house, catching a few hours' sleep on the rocky ground. 

People, though, have been good.  

And there have been some good coincidences. 

The first day of his journey, in Gettysburg, he met a man from Ohio and told him about his journey. The man followed Smith's progress online and saw that he was close to his hometown, extending an invitation to visit with his family and stay the night. 

The man's home, though, was 20 miles out of his way.  

So he was in Van Wert, a small town in northwestern Ohio, when he met a woman and asked whether she could help him find a place to stay. The woman told him she was on her way to church, but she gave him directions to her house and said he could make himself at home while she went to church. Smith offered to go to church with her. He then told her about the guy he met in Gettysburg who lived nearby, and the woman drove him to his house and they had a cookout. It turned out she knew the man's neighbor. 

They had a cookout and got to know one another.  

Now, because of his journey, the woman and the man's family have become friends - in-person friends, not digital friends. "They made that connection because of me," Smith said. "It's kind of neat. That's what it's all about. It's not about me. That I'm walking is irrelevant. It's about the people I meet." 

The days offer a lot of time to think. Walking through stretches of the Midwest, he was stunned by how much open space there was, miles and miles of nothing but highway and farmland.  

Physically, he's holding up pretty well, he said. He's been through a couple pairs of shoes. And once he got over the Laurel Highlands - traversing the mountains was tough - and into Ohio, it's been pretty flat. He said he probably has no fat on his legs. His shoulders become sore now and then from putting on so many miles while carrying a 30-pound backpack. But he's getting into good shape. The only thing is, he does stop at every restaurant or convenience store along the way to talk to people and he usually buys something to eat while he's there. "I could end up walking 3,000 miles and gaining eight pounds," he said. 

Once, while walking into a town in Ohio, he waved to a man driving by and the man didn't wave back. That wasn't all that unusual. He waves to passersby and only a few wave back, an indifference that stuns him. It's only a wave. 

As he approached a convenience store, he saw the man getting out of his car and approached him. 

"Excuse me, sir," he said. 

The man looked at him and ignored him. 

Smith said, "Thanks for ignoring me." 

He wrote about it on his Facebook page, saying, "Well, I just met the first ignorant jerk of my trip." 

More often than not, when people hear about his journey, they are supportive. He has gotten some media attention along the way and has heard from people who had read about him in their local newspaper, telling him that his trip is inspiring. 

He doesn't know about that.  

"It's not about me," he said. "I'm just a guy walking." 

 

This story comes to us through a partnership between WITF and The York Daily Record

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