The trip began when Jim Smith, a single father of two and stepfather to one, picked up his 11-year-old daughter off the school bus in February after a difficult day, and she told him, “You're right, Dad. People do suck.”
“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” – Lewis Carrol
MIAMI/AFTON- A York, Pennsylvania man, Jim M. Smith, 51, embarked several weeks ago on what he calls an “illogical journey,” in a quest to rediscover and prove compassion and goodness still exists to his young children.
Smith quit his job in logistics and set out on foot walking toward the west coast with only $6 in his pocket and a mission to restore his own faith in humanity and to leave an important legacy of hope to his children.
Smith has made his way through the area the last two weeks mostly walking and catching brief rides through Joplin, Galena, Baxter Springs, Commerce, Miami, and Afton always steadily moving onward.
The trip began when Smith, a single father of two and stepfather to one, picked up his 11-year-old daughter off the school bus in February after a difficult day, and she told him, “You’re right, Dad. People do suck.”
At that moment Smith realized his cynicism, negative outlook and loss of faith in humanity was not a legacy he wanted his children to inherit from their father.
“That just tore at me. I thought, what a failure if that was the legacy I left my kids with,” Smith said. “I always raised my kids to ‘point the thumb not the finger.’ People want to blame everybody for everything, and there might be blame, but ask what you did, what part do you own in it? If you do that first, it just deescalates any hostility.”
Along the way, as he travels, Smith has been rediscovering his own confidence in the human spirit and unexpectedly uncovering his own life's purpose through shared personal stories from the people he has encountered.
Now just over a quarter of the way into his 3,000-mile planned journey, which has become an emotional expedition of discovery, Smith shared that he has been inspired, moved to tears, and been shown kindness beyond his imagination.
Many other travelers have made their way along old Route 66 through Oklahoma on a path to raise awareness, a personal quest, or for excitement and adventure, but Smith’s journey is different.
“I went through a lot of tragedy in my life. My brother died of cancer when I was 9, my Dad was murdered when I was 12. I knew at 17 I wanted to be a dad and we had four miscarriages and I didn’t know if I was ever going be. I met my kids’ mom and we co-parent terrifically,” Smith said.
Smith’s career path did allow him to spend as much time as he could with his children and Smith says he felt fortunate, but then came the realization that his marriage was over, and after dealing with a subsequent bad relationship, he says “sucked the life out of me,” Smith lost his belief and confidence in other humans.
The large corporate atmosphere Smith worked under where top execs made large bonuses off the hard work of employees making much less without appreciation made things much worse.
“I didn’t realize it changed who I was,” Smith said. “I became cynical and jaded and my kids picked up on that. My daughter’s words, in essence, caused me to point the thumb at myself, and I had become someone I didn’t like. How do you change this? I didn’t know right away.”
Smith said a few months later he was watching the movie, ‘Into the Wild,’ a nonfiction movie about the travels of a man in the Alaskan wilderness, and he knew he wanted to make a journey and write a book about his own experiences.
“I wanted to show them, my kids, but I came to realize at a point in time I was proving something to myself as well, that people out there are good,” Smith said. “Along the way the journey has kind of morphed. It’s still a story about the guy walking, which is a nice story, but what I’ve realized is I’ve gotten so much support from people who were feeling as I was.”
Smith feels his “Point the Thumb” message has resonated with others. He hopes once his journey is completed he can share his experiences and encouraging and inspiring message with students and others all across America.
On July 9, Smith set out from his home and started walking westward an average of 20 to 23 miles a day, with little more than the backpack he carries. He did have a credit card to use for a backup plan, but so far has found it unnecessary thanks to the generosity of strangers he has met and befriended along the way.
“I ran through the $6 on the first day and I’ve never had to go into anything since then,” Smith said. “People have stepped up. It seems like every time I get to a restaurant someone will slip money in my pocket to carry me through.”
Smith said as a sports fan he was impressed by the sights and history he saw walking through here at the Coleman Theatre and sports connections here such as the Mickey Mantle’s statue and hometown of Commerce, Heisman Trophy winner Steve Owens’ hometown of Miami, and the Billy Sims’ restaurant.
“I was like a little kid in awe,” he said.
Smith was even more in admiration of the residents he encountered. In fact, he was overwhelmed with the kindness of locals here; Omar Perez stopped to give him a sandwich, Mike and Carla Lillie fed both his physical and spiritual needs and gave him a place to stay, a group of Afton residents fed him and shared small-town hospitality with him at a restaurant. Many other townspeople gave and showed him much kindness, according to Smith.
“I have a philosophy that says we’re all great people to our circle of ten, our immediate family and circle of friends, but we become so indifferent to our fellow persons. We drive them by on a highway, we stand in line and don’t say hello,” Smith said. “But on this journey, I haven’t asked for a penny, I haven’t asked for a ride, and I asked for a place to stay just once.”
Smith noted the irony he has come across such as on a pouring down rainy day, as he was walking through a town marked with a sign proclaiming “The Friendliest Town,” Smith says not one car of the 300 to 400 he counted stopped to offer a ride or ask if he needed help.
Smith says there is power in learning to take ownership in our own indifference or lack of compassion in most situations, and there is value in listening respectfully to other’s opinions. He gave an example of an encounter with a woman he had in Baxter Springs, who stopped to bluntly confront him about his purpose for the cross-country journey.
“Her dad grew up dirt poor and she kind of thought I was making a mockery out of neediness, and she was resentful. I never thought about it that way, and what was beautiful was, we had a civil conversation and discussion,” Smith said. “Both of us understood each other more, and it all happened because of civility.”
Although Smith greatly misses his children while he has been away, he stays in touch with them through online Facetiming. The journey has been full of hills and valleys, great highs and low, but Smith says his children keep him on the path when he is discouraged.
“My kids have been supportive and I’m transparent so they are encouraging me. My daughter said, ‘Dad, you’ve come so far you can’t turn back,’” he said.
As he travels Smith chronicles, journals and posts photos, videos and more to his Facebook page and website.
“I write every morning so I can capture it. The book is going to be amazing,” Smith said. “I’m hoping to be in Santa Monica by Thanksgiving, and I’m ahead of schedule and I still hope for that.”
With wisdom and passion only earned by deeply moving experiences and encounters, Smith said he is happy he made the decision to take his cross-country journey.
“I can look at my kids right now and tell them beyond a shadow of a doubt that there’s a lot of good people out there,” Smith said, “Absolutely my faith has been restored, and I share it with my kids.”
On his website Smith also has donation links for St. Jude’s and Disabled American Veterans to benefit these important non-profits to causes he holds dear.
On Tuesday of this week, Smith had made his way to Tulsa and was leaving for Sapulpa. Smith’s journey can be followed on Facebook @pttjourney, on his website www.pttjourney.com, and on YouTube at ‘Point the Thumb Journey’.
Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.