Ten Inspiring People I Met on the Internet and Now Call Friends

Keith Richardson

Some time around 2014 my phone rang and showed an unknown number. The caller identified himself at Keith Richardson and said he’d found a blog site where I mostly wrote about our adventures building a house and living part-time in Ecuador. He wondered if I had time for a few questions. I said, sure.

Six years later, Keith and I are close friends. He is a man I admire. Smart as a whip. Moral. A learner. Compassionate for those less fortunate. A giver. Both a lawyer and a minister by profession. We communicate frequently as friends and consider ourselves traveling companions. We’ve spent a week together in Ecuador, and last year logged about four thousand miles together on a round-trip, road trip to Nova Scotia. I consider Keith a part of my inner circle.

Beth Jusino

Beth’s name began popping up in my social media feed during my 2015 pilgrimage on the Way of St. James. She and her husband had walked just months earlier and she re-lived her experience through me, though it was quite different from hers.

Writers pay attention to how others write, even on social media. I immediately

With Beth in Asheville, NC.

recognized her as a skilled and thoughtful writer, one of the best around. That alone drew me to her as a friend. Little did either of us know we’d both spend the next couple of years writing about the walking experience. Her book is Walking to the End of the World. Our friendship also became a professional relationship. I’ve consulted with Beth on several writing projects, and she is the lead editor for The King of Highbanks Road. Beth blogs at caminotimestwo.com and bethjusino.com. She is one of those people whose opinion is important.

Annie O’Neil

Annie introduced herself to me the same as Beth. Social media comments here and there during pilgrimage. Because the pilgrim population is a tight-knit group, I knew of Annie’s work on a developing documentary called Phil’s Camino. It was an honor having Annie in the conversation.

I’d actually first seen Annie in her own documentary, Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago. The film captured Annie’s physical pain with several miles yet to go. She was

The one, the only, Annie O’Neil.

genuine, authentic and raw in that film, and I knew I’d like her immediately.

We became close enough friends, and Annie identifies with my writing enough, that I asked her to write the foreword for Pilgrim Strong. She was the perfect person in that moment. Our names are forever intertwined in that relationship.

We get to hang out occasionally. We spent a day together at the Hot Springs Film Festival and watched the total eclipse together near Kansas City in 2018. Annie is an incredible artistic talent.

Phil Volker

He is the rock star of the pilgrim community.

Phil Volker is the focus of Annie’s film, Phil’s Camino, the story of a man who overcame all odds to walk the Way. Phil, too, followed along as I walked in 2015.

He is one of the most inspiring men you’ll ever meet. My favorite Phil Volker quote:

“There is a difference in being cured and being healed. At this point in life I’m focusing on the healing which means all the important things in life are reconciled like my relationships with my family and with God.”

It was one of my greatest pleasures walking with Phil on his camino in 2018, and I’ll see him later this year at a gathering now known as Philstock. Yes, he has his own annual gathering. That’s how much people love him.

Susan & Kym Gardner

Another Camino connection. Susan and I were first connected until I met both her and her husband, Kym at the Gathering of Pilgrims in Asheville last year. This North Carolina-based couple is kind and generous, and have found a way to use their resources for the greater good.

For the last two years, they’ve organized groups that are part of a long-term project to carry a young man named Gabriel across the Way. Physical limitations confine Gabriel to a wheelchair. The experiences they’ve shared as part of Gabriel’s camino are amazing.

Brien Crothers

Some people are just extraordinary. Brien Crothers is one.

All-round good man, and endurance athlete Brien Crothers.

Though we connected through pilgrimage, I am most impressed with Brien’s adventures as an endurance athlete. He’s run several ultra marathons across several deserts on several continents. He’s complete the Western States 100 on multiple occasions, and he’s just a super nice guy. He allowed me to tag along last year, observing an aid station around mile 70 of this spectacular event.

Brien and his wife, Kathey, opened their home to me in 2019 during a book tour through California. We have the same eccentric qualities with an interest in many things and Brien is steadily working on his writing craft.

Roni Kay

I never realized how many friends I’ve developed just because of pilgrimage. Roni is another.

Her comments on my social media thread in 2015 struck me much in the same way Beth’s did. Roni was clearly educated, thoughtful, and articulate. I eventually learned she was closing in on her doctoral degree in communication and was studying how the use of technology impacted pilgrimage with people who used it. I was the perfect mouse in the maze to observe on that topic.

She’s since completed that degree, frequently demonstrates an amazing flair for photography across rural Oklahoma and the world, and she travels. Roni’s headed back to Camino in just a few weeks.

Suzan Haskins

The only person on this list I’ve not met personally.

Suzan and her husband’s work in travel writing first caught my attention back around 2010. They were writing a lot for a publication known as International Living, and Ecuador was a frequent topic. Their writing piqued our curiosity enough that Dana and I made a 3-week exploratory trip to Ecuador in 2012. It’s a long story after that, but Latin America has since become a big part of our lives.

I was on a train to Pamplona when Suzan wrote and asked if I’d consider writing a story about pilgrimage for International Living.

I ultimately learned Suzan has considerable roots in Arkansas and an impressive list of writing credentials. She is one of those folks with a solid world view based on real experience.

Thomas  Wynne

If you have a wooden sign in your home about your pilgrimage experience chances are this Minnesota man made it. Tom has a great Etsy business making commemorative camino signs and he’s one of the kindest men you’ll ever know. After reading Pilgrim Strong, Tom sent me several pieces of his work as “thanks” for the book.

When Tom passed though Arkansas last year, he and his wife spent a night with us. We made him an honorary citizen of Wynne, AR, just forty miles south of here.

James Rubart

It was my first literary gathering – The Blue Ridge Christian Writers Conference in Asheville, NC. A particular book in the bookstore drew me toward it and I began flipping through. The voice from behind is one I’ll never forget.

“My mother just LOVES that book,” the voice said. And I wondered who this strange man was, and why he was talking to me.

He was the author! What an honor!

I followed Jim’s career from that moment. A New York Times best selling author, he’s achieved the highest awards in the world of Christian fiction. And he’s an amazing person.

I attended his Rubart Academy last year just so I could get to know Jim better. It was time and money well spent. I’m hopeful I’ll get to say more about working with Jim in the next few weeks.

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Speed Vacationing: Our 2,100-Minute Dash to Fun

A cabin near where we stayed was called “Lonesome Dove,” named after my favorite movie with characters Augustus McRae and Woodrow Call. We came upon this sign featured in one of the movie scenes. I’ve always thought my best friend and I (Brady Cornish, right) had a relationship much like Gus and Call.

With Dana and Brady in the hot tub.

Keeping my promise to myself never again to turn down a good photo, we turned back so Dana could get a pic with the Pizza Inn guy.

A wooden sawhorse still lodged in a tree from the White River’s great flood in 2008. It was called the “hundred-year flood.”

My best friend’s sister, Cindy and her husband, Danny were our hosts for our White River retreat. Thanks Boo!

Your Smiling Face…Dana

Whenever I see your smiling face, I have to smile myself, because I love you, yes I do.

And when you give me that pretty little pout, it turns me inside out. There’s something about you baby … I don’t know.

Isn’t it amazing a man like me can feel this way. Tell me how much longer … It could grow stronger every day. How much longer?

I thought I was in love a couple of times before, with the girl next door, but that was long before I met you. Now I’m sure that I won’t forget you.

And I thank my lucky stars that you are who you are, and not just another lovely lady set out to break my heart.

No one can tell me that I’m doing wrong, whenever I see you smile at me.

No one can tell me that I’m doing wrong today, whenever I see your smiling face my way.

For another great music memory check out my post today here http://wp.me/p2wzTk-D

Days… and My Dad

“So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.” ~ Psalm 90:12

It’s now been 143 days since my dad died.

Dad spent 1,461 days in the National Guard.

He lived to be 25,984 days old. Strange thing to put a finite number of days on a man’s life … Doesn’t seem long does it?

As of today, July 16, 2012, I am 16,928 days old. Looking at those numbers puts a certain perspective on a man’s life.

To the best of my calculations, somewhere around day 11,322 of his life, my dad became a farmer. Dad’s days defined him as many things, but, foremost, he was a farmer.

On day 18,563 of his life, dad called me. The days of harvest were getting into full swing. He said to me: “You’ve got to get over here son. You’ve got to see this cotton harvest. We may never have another crop this good.”

Duck hunting provided many good days in my dad’s life. This was a good day.

Two days later, I joined him on the farm – with a camera – to record what he imagined to be a historic day. Together we shot photos for the entire day.

The day after dad died, I compiled the still photos into the video you see below. The photos shot on this day record what might very well have been the best day of his life.

The next day, we showed the video at his funeral – as a tribute to him. It helped make an otherwise sad day, a happy one.

If you read the Bible, take a look some time at Genesis 2:15. I construe a certain message from that verse. I believe that on the 8th day, God Made a Farmer.

Today, dad lives in a place where the restriction of time and day matters no more. He lives in the eternal light of the never-ending day.

A typical day in my dad’s life with his trademark Dickies and toothpick.

Whatever your relationship with your dad might be today, I hope you’ll take stock, and enjoy the days ahead.

Days matter.

And so does your dad.

Here’s the video. Watching this makes MY day.

My Advice to John Edwards

The image at the right says it all about how many Americans feel about John Edwards today.

Many wanted him to pay for his transgressions, but as the analysts have said, there’s a big difference between being a criminal and having some major shortcomings in life.

Dear reader: Are you perfect? None of us is.

I was a political fan of John Edwards for many years. I believed he represented a new generation, of sorts, and a new way of thinking. I voted for him in his first presidential campaign, and although I wasn’t exactly fired up about John Kerry as a presidential candidate, I did vote for the Kerry-Edwards ticket.

Edwards now falls into the category of those who many Americans love to hate: Bernie Madoff, Casey Anthony, O.J. Simpson (who’s still searching for his wife’s killer), Octomom and many others.

Even though Edwards was essentially acquitted of the criminal acts of which he was accused, he still loses. He has to get up each morning and look at himself in the mirror, his family life is desecrated and his love of politics is forever out of reach.

As he left the courtroom last week, Edwards said he believed God is not finished with him. That’s true enough. He’s a brilliant man (despite making bad decisions), the second half of his life is yet in front of him and he’s a passionate man (though his passions may have been misdirected for a season.)

I’m hopeful for John Edwards. I hope he can re-frame his life into something good. In the meantime, I’d suggest:

  • Plant a garden and watch it grow, and listen to the spirit that speaks inside you.
  • Read the Bible, especially the stories of the great men who fell, yet God used them in miraculous ways, and listen to the spirit that speaks inside of you.
  • Go off, and be alone (there probably aren’t many friends to socialize with right now anyway) and listen to the spirit that speaks inside of you.
  • Start running each morning, and as you watch the sunrise each day, listen to the spirit that speaks inside of you.
  • Throw darts at the map, South American, Africa and Asia come to mind, go to the places your darts find, see how the people live, get a worldview and become a missionary in those places and listen to the spirit that speaks inside of you.
  • Pray for your kids daily, never give up on them loving you again, and listen to the spirit that speaks inside of you.
  • Take a long break from the news. People are going to say bad things about you for a long time, but what they say really doesn’t matter and it doesn’t define who you are and what you can reframe yourself to be, and listen to the spirit inside of you.
  • There will forever be consequences. Some of which you’ll live with a lifetime. Know that God’s not punishing you. It’s just life here on earth. And listen to the spirit that speaks inside of you.
  • Don’t ask for God’s forgiveness on a daily basis. If you’ve asked, and really meant it, He’s already done it. It’s over. And listen to the spirit that speaks inside of you.

As for the New Yorker headline above, crumple it up, set fire to it and watch it burn.

I’m pulling for you, John. We all make mistakes.

Two Men Defending Their Honor and Courage: What Happened to Boxing?

“Boxing is drama on its grandest scale.” ~ Howard Cosell

Half asleep on the couch last night, a random pay-per-view promotional caught my attention.

And it got me thinking. What ever happened to the great sport of boxing?

The sweet science. Where has it gone?

This milestone sports moment actually happened a year before I was born, but the poster hangs on a prominent place in my home office. The intensity of the moment is an inspiration to me.

“When you saw me in the ring, it wasn’t just so I could beat my opponent. My fighting had a purpose. I had to be successful to get people to listen to things I had to say.” Muhammad Ali

The promotional was for an upcoming fight between two men whose names were completely and totally unfamiliar. It was a melancholy moment.

Maybe the greatest duo in sports history…

“Boxing is a sport at its most beautiful, most primitive, most natural. Two men defending their honor and courage in a ring surrounded by observers, whose love for the sport is essentially spiritual. Boxing is the last refuge of the modern-day warrior.” ~ Thomas Donelson

When I was a kid, boxing was a big deal.  A couple of times a year you could count on a big-name fight usually broadcast for public consumption on ABC. The personalities and legends who would enter the ring were huge. It was a larger-than-life event when a big fight was broadcast from some exotic location at any given place on the globe.

Promoter Donn King was a ringside fixture at the championship bouts. He wasn’t hard to see.

My dad and I weren’t particularly huge fans or followers of boxing, but a match when a heavyweight championship of the world was up for grabs was a major event. For 90 minutes or so, the world stopped. It was the perfect setting for father-son bonding.

“Unlike any other sport, the objective in boxing is chillingly simple. One man purposefully endeavors to inflict bodily harm on another man.” ~ Howard Cosell

Watching the promotional, a shocking reality came to mind. I don’t even know who the heavyweight champion of the world is today. How can that be?

What happened to the great sport of boxing? I miss those days.

A quick Google search this morning showed that a Ukrainian, Wladimir Klitschko is the reigning WBA heavyweight champion. Then there are the other heavyweight belts, WBC, IBF and WBO, and I didn’t recognize a single name there either.

The names I recall were truly great. They gave us thrills that will last a lifetime – Liston, Clay-Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Norton, Holmes, Tyson and Holyfield.

Not one of boxing’s greater moments as Tyson bites off a hunk of Holyfield’s ear. It was a defining moment for Iron Mike.

Who can ever forget the moments of the great bouts with Howard Cosell at ringside. No one ever called a fight like Cosell. People loved to hate him, but he was a brilliant man who, perhaps, made boxing even more than it really was.

“When George (Foreman) came back to win the title it got me all excited. Made me want to come back. But then the next morning came and it was time to start running. I just laid back in bed and said, ‘That’s okay, I’m still The Greatest.'” ~ Muhammad Ali

How did the sweet science practically fall off the map?

I miss those days.

And speaking of fighting men, check out yesterday’s post at http://wp.me/p2bjEC-cY

Three of My Favorites from the Ecuadorian Adventure

Was watching a sunset to the west, then turned around to see this beautiful sight over Los Suenos del Mar toward the eastern mountains.

A mile high looking down on the crater of an imploded volcano 1,400 years ago … now some of the most fertile farmland you can imagine. The clouds are actually below where we’re standing.

On the beach in Puerto Cayo, I love the ray of light coming down from the left in this photo.

Our Relational DNA: It Spans the Globe

This sweet lady sold me a pancho at The Middle of the World equator monument in Quito. She reminded me of my grandmother. The pancho is a rather GQ look if you ask me!

Dana and I had a number of reasons for undertaking a 10-day adventure in Ecuador, but chief among them was to immerse ourselves in the culture.

We knew there would be a number of challenges. We have an elementary grasp of the language, knew we would be traveling in unknown territory and had established only a few on-line relationships with a few American expatriates prior to our journey into Guayaquil and our ultimate destination to Puerto Cayo.

This Ecuadorian group of family and friends was on holiday at Los Suenos del Mar, and as they were posing for a group photo I ran to them to get a photo of my own. They were thrilled that I would want a photo for myself, and we spent the rest of the day, posing for more group photos together and sharing stories about our families.

For certain, there were many challenges, and we embraced them. Some have asked about our takeaway from the trip, and for one, I can say to no small degree that my faith in humanity has been restored.

This group of local tourists had been partying all night. As I walked to breakfast, bleary eyed at 7:45 on a Sunday morning, I was yet to have my first cup of coffee when they insisted that I share in a drink of the local spirits. I couldn’t say no! Viva la Ecuador!

People are good. I believe that again. And our last day in Puerto Cayo confirmed that belief.

This is my new friend, Manuel, and his two young sons. We are tough hombres!

Whoever we are, and wherever we live across the expanse of this globe, we have an innate desire to be relational … and it only takes a single kind gesture to make a lifetime of memories.

The woman at center is an Ecuadorian school teacher. She insisted that her daughter practice her English with my wife, Dana.

Vacation Not – Adventure, Yes

Dana and me in one of our more relaxed moments in Montanita, an hour north of our base in Puerto Cayo.

While we’re not particularly die-hard fans of anything on television today, Dana and I have always been drawn to the CBS reality show, The Amazing Race, where paired couples are challenged daily to travel the world in unknown territories and uncharted waters while the clock ticks away.

Unlike most of the other reality series’, Amazing Race carries a certain sophistication, and the huge benefit of taking people out of their comfort zone to experience a world created by the most creative of artists.

A few months ago when I began thinking about the possibilities for Dana’s 39th birthday, I wanted to create something memorable for her. A new blender and a pair of earrings, just didn’t seem pass the test for her upcoming milestone. She would have well appreciated anything she received, but an experience with a lasting memory was the gift which I sought.

Nearly three hours into our drive from the airport, we came across this scene on the extreme southern coast of Ecuador. At this point, we pretty much knew we were lost, though it’s not an uncommon scene anywhere you go.

A few years before we were married, Dana, at various times, served as a missionary in Mexico, Greece and Morocco. Among the things she’s experienced in her life, those times created some of her fondest memories. Her time in Greece and Morocco was solo, without the benefit of a guide or tour group, and so there’s a proven adventuresome spirit God put in her from the beginning.

So as the birthday possibilities streamed through my mind, I determined to create yet another memory – but this time, one that would be shared. I wanted an experience that would challenge us both, push us outside our comfort zone as a couple, so that every day would be a source of memories for years to come.

About a week prior to her birthday I purchased gifts that would have been adequate enough. They would be nicely wrapped with a loving card, presented at a nice surprise birthday party with a gathering of friends and family … but on one particular day the feeling came across that it just wasn’t enough.

Going back through some research I had done in the previous year, my heart led me to Ecuador. And to make a long story short, within the next 24 hours, the flight was booked, and rental car accommodations were made.

What would we be doing while we were there? I really had no clue. We’ll figure it out when we hit the ground, I decided … and so the adventure took form.

Though I’m not the most cosmopolitan of world travelers, I’ve been around some. Gulf Shores, Cocoa Beach, Bahamas, Cancun, Playa del Carmen, I’ve been there, done that and sipped all the poolside pina coladas a man could ever want.

The 10 days we would experience on the Ecuadorian coast, inland highlands and rainforests would not replicate our “vacations” of the past. We would push ourselves in territory that is literally uncharted. We would not be afraid to get lost, and we would immerse ourselves in the culture of this diverse land and its people.

After 9 hours of driving on what should have been a two-and-a-half-hour drive, we finally arrived at this scene, our base for the week, Puerto Cayo. Beautiful as it may be, the tranquility can be deceiving. This is a fishing village where the average monthly income is $300.

And it lived up to every expectation.

Five minutes after packing the rental car (A Chevy Spark with 9-gallon gas tank, stick shift and approximately 3-square feet of space within its four doors) we were as lost as two people could be. Our first miracle was simply finding a road that would lead us out of Guayaquil, a city of 3.1 million where the roads have no lines, no rules and it’s every man for himself. It was a driving fiasco. It took two hours to find our way out of the city and another 7 hours to get to our destination at Puerto Cayo.  Properly driven, it should have been a two-and-a-half hour leisurely road trip…

I left home with full intention to blog daily about our experiences in Ecuador, but it was not to be. In the beginning, 10 days sounded like a lot of time to read, write and record our adventure, but we realized quickly that every moment was precious. Too many experiences were to be had. Every moment was an investment in learning, and so I took feverish notes as time would allow to come home and share those experiences later.

This is 3-year old Carlos, the nino of Manuel and Ivonne, two friends we made at Los Suenos del Mar.

In the short time we’ve been home (less than 24 hours now) a few people have asked about our takeaway from the Ecuadorian adventure. It’s a hard thing to pinpoint, but to some degree, I can say, in a general sense, my faith in humanity has been restored.

We met and enjoyed time with some bold American expatriates who, over the next few years, will make a huge difference in the Ecuadorian economy. They are entrepreneurs of the highest caliber, and our time with them was well spent.

But we also found ways to spend invaluable quality time with local Ecuadorians who welcomed us with open arms, and even though the language barrier could be a challenge at times, the sharing of a drink, firm handshakes and hugs and kisses, warm embraces and smiles of realized friendships touched our hearts in an unforgettable way.

Yes, God’s people are good, and we find it in His finest creation (that which He created in His own image) around the world.

Over the next few days, I’ll be documenting the specific experiences we shared, and some tips should you ever decide to explore what many expatriates there now call the world’s last undiscovered frontier.

I’ll write about the best ways to travel, food, transportation, Ecuadorian culture, the economy and its potential, people and many other topics. We learned a lot. Some of it the hard way – just as we planned!

At one point in our travels I made a joking Facebook post about one night at dinner when Dana asked me this: “What’s the most amazing thing about being married to me?” All our friends wanted to know my response and so I’ll close by paraphrasing my response to those requests for an answer.

“You all tell me the right response is that Dana has a great heart, that she is beautiful, trustworthy, genuinely good and a bright spot in the lives of everyone she meets. Well guess what? I already know all that. But here’s the real deal.

“We’re not on your typical vacation here, and never planned for it to be such. We’re working with roads and roadmaps that have no similarity or relationship whatsoever, so you can pretty much throw the maps out the window. There are 3-foot potholes about every hundred yards. Donkeys, pigs and dogs dart out onto the road from nowhere. We have only an elementary grasp of the local language. There are no mohitos or cabana boys serving our heart’s every desire. Hot water for a shower happens about 33 percent of the time, and toilet paper is to be treasured. Yes, you’d better carry it with you at all times.

“This is not a vacation, it’s an adventure … and so any girl who would come along on an excursion like this and love every minute of it, is my kind of girl.”

That’s what I said.

Next post: “Day One: What in the World Have We Done?”

Dear Daddy…

 

I was thinking of you at this moment.

For just a fleeting second I was thinking how much you would enjoy this view…then I remembered you see something greater every day.

I wish I could look into your eyes again.

I wish we could embrace and I  could feel your chest against mine. I wish my hands could feel the strength in the broadness of your back.

I wish you could give me some good advice while we sat in the backyard watching the martins.

I just wish I could reach out and touch you again.

I’m doing my best to carry out the things you said. I really hope you are proud.

I wished you were here for this moment … and then I realized you were, but I still miss you so.

I know you are enjoying the everlasting Light in which you now bask. You will show me around won’t you?

See you soon. I love you so.

Steve.