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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Decency Personified

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I was mostly quiet yesterday. I simply couldn’t speak.

I’d pulled into the parking lot and was just about to run into the grocery store for a few errands when the text message dinged. I couldn’t process the words that Tommy Shewmaker died a few hours earlier. I didn’t even know Tommy was sick. I’m so ashamed. So broken.

It was as if I’d been punched in the heart. I sat there staring at the phone for 15 minutes as paralyzed as I can ever remember. At some point I walked into the grocery store, but couldn’t even remember why I was there.

He’d apparently been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer around Thanksgiving as I was nearing the end of the Camino de Santiago. And he died about 50 days later. It was that fast. I’m devastated, but this isn’t about me.

In a world I fail to comprehend less and less each day, Tommy was one of those men I admired purely because his head was screwed on so straight. His decency surpassed all standards. He was radically good.

Everyone loved Tommy.

We met in 2010 during my short employment at a tech company where I was completely out of my league – a right-brained creative word guy in the midst of a bunch of left-brained geniuses. Tommy was one of them, but he was different. He was so very normal. I mean it as the highest compliment.

He loved his family. Spoke about them all the time. They were his single highest priority. He told great stories and had a voice I always thought belonged on radio. He loved the ribs I’d occasionally cook for a company lunch. Loved sports. Worked out almost every day.  Tommy was a lot of things. But mostly, he was just so kind and decent and normal. I loved that he was so normal. Blessed that he was so kind.

My father passed away about seven months after my hire. Tommy and I were good acquaintances – not close, do-things-together kind of buddies – but friends. Yet, not necessarily at that time the kind of friends who went out of their way for one another. So when from nowhere he walked up to embrace me at my father’s funeral I couldn’t have been more genuinely taken aback. It was Saturday, and Tommy lived 25 miles away. He’d gone exceedingly out of his way to comfort me. He just showed up. It’s one of the kindest gestures I can ever remember, yet so much more than simple gesture. It was an action from Tommy’s heart. He mourned for me. It’s incomprehensible that I mourn him today.

God, he was such a decent man.

When I left the company we stayed in touch. Tommy loved travel.

About this time last year, he wrote me with several questions about Ecuador and the experiences I’ve had living there off and on the last three years. He said he was thinking about retirement, albeit a few years away. He spoke of the responsibilities he had to family, especially his grandchildren, and yet his sense of adventure longed for parts unknown. He wanted to explore Latin America as a possible outpost for retirement, and making the most of his retirement dollars. It thrilled me to speak with him about it, and share my ideas. I mostly just enjoyed that it was Tommy.

We should make a point to get together and talk about it over a cold beer, I wrote. Come to my house … I’ll break out the grill for those ribs you love, I said. He agreed we would make the appointment to catch up and discuss our mutual interest in so many things.

That sit-down never happened. I never saw Tommy again. He crossed my mind a few days ago. I should give him a call, or write him a note, I thought, before moving on to the next “important” thing. Tommy was dying and I didn’t even know it. Now he’s gone.

As I lay in bed last night I couldn’t help but think how selfish it was to be so sad that Tommy’s gone. I know where he is. I should celebrate what he’s now experiencing this very minute. I wish I could hear him speak of it in that crystal-clear baritone voice with that laugh so genuine to the pit of his gut. You could hear Tommy laugh across the building. His joy was effusive.

He was a passionate servant to his family. Purely decent. Humble. Real.

Can there be a greater compliment to a man? I think not.

Rise high in Glory, Tommy Boy. I miss you.

Thank you for being my friend.

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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?”

It’s an Honor: An Open Letter to WordPress Bloggers and Those Who Read My Blog

“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.” ~ Ben Franklin

On any given day, there are at least half a million blog posts on wordpress.com

It’s a dose of reality reminding me that my work is just another grain of sand on a long stretch of beach.

When it comes to writing, I’m a purist. I don’t do “musings,” or “ramblings.” Poetry’s not my bag, and I won’t be sharing recipes with you any time soon. There’s a place in the blogging world for all those things, I suppose. It’s just not particular cup of tea.

There’s an irony to my blogging posts. By day, I’m a private, guarded person with a close circle of only a few friends to whom the guard comes down. But at the keyboard, something magnificent happens because it allows transparency to flow.

I will share with you, the blogging world, my shortcomings, my failures, and more importantly the lessons learned. And I say a prayer before hitting the “publish” button that it will make a difference in someone’s life on any given day. It’s a powerful thing and an honor to be able to share.

Every writer’s greatest honor is to be read.

It’s a rush to sit in a rural corner of northeast Arkansas, USA, and see that someone in Gibraltar or the Netherlands, New Zealand or Indonesia has taken time out of his or her day to read your work.

It brightens my day when someone takes time to read and “like” the blog post of the day.

And whether they agree or disagree, it’s a thrill when a reader comments and gives feedback to the words you typed earlier in the morning.

I’m thankful to have a creative outlet to share an experience, thought or opinion.

And so know this: When you read my blog, you do me the highest honor, you make my day and you reinforce the purpose within me.

For that, I am thankful.

(Blogger‘s note: For the next two weeks, I’ll be blogging from Puerto Cayo, Ecuador with my wife where we’ll be sharing experiences from our own “Amazing Race.” See you on the equator.)