Don Vermilyea has walked 12,382 miles in two years and 10 months, and beleives it will take 10 years to complete his journey of reaching at 1,035 churches of the Brethren.
By Tova Fruchtman: CNJ staff writer
The soft swish-swish of nylon-jogging pants could be heard only as a lull came in the fast traffic and rumbling trains. Don Vermilyea, 54, had on a faded green coat, gloves and a worn pair of running shoes as he walked down U.S. Highway 60 toward Clovis on Tuesday afternoon.
Vermilyea carried a 75-pound pack on his back. The pack was covered with a reflective orange vest for easy detection in the dark. Inside was everything a person would need, he said, “If you were taking a 10-year walk.” Contents included a sleeping bag, a tent, a stove, clothes and food.
Since Feb. 2, 2002, Vermilyea has been walking across America, visiting churches of the Brethren — a Christian denomination — along the way.
His goal is to visit every church of the Brethren in the country, and he is sponsored by the national organization of churches of the Brethren.
Vermilyea, who said he has walked 12,382 miles in two years and 10 months, has visited between 140 and 150 of the 1,035 churches. He said he estimates he will be walking for another seven years.
Dan McFadden, of Washington, D.C., director of Brethren Volunteer Services, which sponsors Vermilyea’s “Walk Across America,” first met Vermilyea when he volunteered to work at a Brethren camp in Southern California.
McFadden said while Vermilyea was there, he was driving to churches to talk about the camp, and was concerned about the pollution he was creating and fossil fuels he was using.
“He said ‘I oughta be walking,’ ” said McFadden, and that is where the idea to “Walk Across America,” came from. “ He already was somebody who was very concerned about the environment, peace and justice … and walking out his faith had become an important part of his life.”
When Vermilyea came to McFadden with the idea, Mc McFadden said he tried to help.
“My general attitude is to give people the benefit of the doubt and let people try,” he said. “Don was pretty motivated to try to make this work and we felt like we could support him in that.”
Vermilyea didn’t candy-coat the risks he would be taking, McFadden said.
“Don said, ‘Look, I want to let you know that I’m aware that I could get attacked by a bear, hit by a car …’ ” said McFadden, explaining that Vermilyea signed a waiver before he began his journey.
Vermilyea wasn’t wrong about the hardships of the walk.
“It’s really difficult when the churches are hundreds and hundreds of miles apart,” said Vermilyea, whose last stop before Clovis was in Pampa, Texas. “For weeks I have no clue where I’m going to sleep.”
Monday night, he slept in an abandoned home in Black, Texas: He said 615 nights he has slept in peoples’ homes, 420 he has slept in the woods, in abandoned buildings and under bridges. Only two of the 1,035 nights has someone not associated with the church of the Brethren invited him home, he said — a mentally handicapped grocery store worker and a released convict who works construction.
“This is not about fun truly,” Vermilyea said. “ I hurt 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
What is it about?
“Planting seeds,” he said.
“In a secular way, we need to be reaching out to one another, “ he said. “In a Christian way, we need to be paying attention to the words of Jesus Christ. I am walking around to try and wake people up and plant seeds that way.”
Vermilyea has accumulated a book’s worth of stories on his walks.
He remembers one young woman in Missouri who drove past him three days in a row. On the fourth day, the woman stopped, offered him a ride and food and water.
Vermilyea took the food and water and refused the ride, as he always does.
The woman told Vermilyea she was being “told to stop” the first day she drove by him.
“I told her, ‘You need to pay attention to that,’” he said. “We all need to pay attention to that.”
The 150-pound bearded man said the attention he receives is often negative — he’s been suspected of being a terrorist, causing a car accident and molesting children. He said it is fear that makes the average American not want to help.
Vermilyea said he has an income of $80 per month (from the Brethren church). He said $5 a week goes in collection plates and any additional money he is given goes to the Global Food Crisis or Emergency Disaster Response Brethren funds.
His mission is to attract attention to the Bible.
“To be a bum, to be a drifter … that gives me a soapbox to stand on where people will listen,” Vermilyea said.
McFadden, who walked with Vermilyea for four days about five months ago, said sometimes Vermilyea’s stories are hard to take.
“I think his vision and the values that he holds … and to some degree to walk with Jesus is a pretty challenging thing. So, I think his words have been a challenge for all of us to hear and to live up to,” McFadden said.
McFadden said the response he receives from churches Vermilyea has visited is always positive, and Vermilyea has influenced his life has well.
“I would say for me having had a chance to walk with him, he’s somebody that I think about quite frequently. He’s in my prayers,” McFadden said.
Vermilyea has learned that the life of a bum is not easy. “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody at any time,” he said.
But giving up everything to walk has taught him something more important, he said.
“That God is alive and well, truly. When we truly need him, when we truly are grateful, prayers are answered,” Vermilyea said.
He said each day he wakes up he has something to be thankful for — that he was able to stay the full night where he camped, that he could drink a few drops of water, that he could move his legs to warm up.
But mostly he’s thankful when people stop and reach out to him, something that’s happened less often than he hoped.
“Out here I’m like a little cockroach, running around hoping no one squishes me,” Vermilyea said.
He arrived in Clovis on Wednesday. Rev. Jim Kelly of Clovis’ Church of the Brethren met him 10 miles outside Clovis to share his load. Kelly said he walked with Vermilyea, carrying his pack for five miles.
Vermilyea is staying with Kelly until next week, when he leaves for Nocona, Texas; Vermilyea hopes to reach the church there by Dec. 26.
He plans to plant some seeds on the way.
“It all boils down to one thing,” Vermilyea told the Clovis Ministerial Alliance on Thursday morning: “Jesus Christ.”
Here are some ways people can get involved with or find out more about Vermilyea’s “Walk Across America”:
• Don Vermilyea will teach Sunday school and preach at the Clovis Church of the Brethren, 101 Acoma, on Sunday. Sunday School begins at 9:30 a.m. and services are at 10:45 a.m. The church invites the community to attend. Information: 763-3667
• For updates on the “Walk Across America” or to contact Vermilyea people can call his voice mail box at the Church of the Brethren General Board: (800) 323-8039 ext. 312.
• People can also send Vermilyea a letter at: Don Vermilyea; c/o Church of the Brethren General Board; 1451 Dundee Avenue; Eglin, IL 60120
• The Brethren Web site links to a Web site all about Vermilyea’s walk including diaries, photos and experiences of those who have met him: www.brethren.org. (On the bottom of the screen are keywords, click on “Walk Across America.”)
• Vermilyea writes articles for the newsletter for the homeless shelter he volunteered at before he began his walk called “Loaves and Fishes.” People can access these articles on the shelter’s Web site: www.meetingground.org.
• Vermilyea’s wish list (He is a vegitarian): a dental teeth cleaning, citrus or other fruit, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream coupons or a pint of Chocolate or Chocolate Fudge Brownie and unsulphured, unsorbated dried fruit. Those who would like to help can contact him in Clovis or call the voice mail box listed above.