The holiday season is nearly upon us and soon a new year, and I find myself not only counting my many blessings, but also reflecting on the past year—or two, since it feels like the past two years have run together!
As I start thinking back over what I’m calling The COVID Years, I find my thoughts stuck on an encounter I had before the pandemic, so I recently spent an hour paging through journals to find the notes I kept about the encounter, because I believe there’s something of value there.
It was a warm fall day in 2019 when I got a call from a friend who told me she had met a gentleman from Denmark who was walking through Waynesboro on a cross-country trek and had a story to tell.
I’m always up for a good story, so I tracked the guy down near Rouzerville and we sat at a picnic table outside a local convenience store to chat.
He told me his name was “Bracklen”—no first or last name, “Just Bracklen,” he said.
Bracklen wasn’t dressed like any thru-hiker I’ve ever met, nor was he dressed like many of the panhandlers who stand along local interstate exits.
He was a man of thin build and average stature, wearing clean blue jeans and a plaid long-sleeved shirt with a T-shirt underneath on a day when the temperature had climbed to the upper 70s.
He also wore a white ball cap—which I thought an odd choice for someone spending long days outdoors—and carried on his back a very large backpack.
Bracklen said he traveled to the United States from Denmark, where he lives in a remote village of just 200 people with no electricity, phones or vehicles.
“We don’t value money,” he explained in an accent I couldn’t quite place. “We value God. We value human life.”
He said he was 89 years old, but I would have guessed him to be about 20 years younger.
As he began to tell his story, I was skeptical, but curious.
Bracklen said he came to the U.S. to walk the path of God and teach Americans to follow God. “God keeps his promise when you walk his path,” he told me.
He said when he arrived in March of 2018, he landed near New York City and began walking from the Atlantic across the country to the Pacific Ocean. “I walked 3,189 miles,” he said. “Last September, I broke the World’s Record for walking ocean to ocean by 12 days.”
Bracklen said it took him 111 days of walking.
Now, I’ve talked to many thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail (which is just over 2,000 miles long) and I know it takes the average person about six months to complete, so I wondered about Bracklen’s pace, especially given that he is a man of advancing age.
But I didn’t question him. When a man claims to be on God’s mission, anything is possible.
Bracklen spoke easily about his life in Denmark and how people in his village live to be well over 100.
“In my village, you live till 110. My dad lived to be 118 and my mom was 116 when she passed,” he told me.
As I took a second to digest the thought of living to be 110, I recalled the oldest woman I ever knew personally was 103. She claimed a daily diet of prunes was what kept her going. I asked Bracklen what his people’s secret to longevity is.
“We eat cabbage, potatoes, beets and chicken and fish,” he explained. “None of this processed food you eat here.”
That seemed like a reasonable explanation to me as I looked at him closely, noticing his fair skin and freckles, reddened by the sun; his blonde hair, turning gray, brushing the collar of his shirt under his cap; his clear blue eyes.
I couldn’t imagine him actually being 89 years old, but I’ve never been to Denmark and maybe a simpler life and healthy diet does indeed yield a stronger stock.
I asked him about his trip — where he was headed, where he stayed.
“Most nights, I sleep on the ground,” he said. “I eat what I can find.”
He told me he didn’t have money for hotels and he doesn’t like shelters because they are full of addicts and criminals.
At this point, he could have asked me for money. I sort of expected that. But he didn’t.
Bracklen said he had another couple weeks here before he needed to be in New York to catch a plane back to Denmark and that he looked forward to his journey home.
It’s not an easy life here, he said, but God tells him to keep walking.
He said while walking through West Virginia, he was robbed. His backpack, along with what little money he brought for his trip and his clothes were stolen, but a nice police officer helped him with a new pack and two outfits.
He said police officers are pretty much the only people who treated him with kindness.
“Most people just walk by or drive past and don’t even offer to talk or give me a ride,” he told me.
It’s disheartening, he said. He wondered how society would protect itself from selfishness and isolation.
Bracklen said he believes God sent him to save Americans. “It’s all become ‘me, me, me,'” he explained.
He said he is horrified by how everyone here has a cell phone in their hands at all times and how we’ve become oblivious to friends, family and what’s happening around us.
“People don’t even talk to each other anymore,” he said. “God doesn’t like that. Put your cell phone down and help someone. Stop being afraid to do for God. Stop being so indifferent.”
I asked him how it was going on his travels and whether his message was getting out as intended.
“The more wisdom you spout in this country, the more people walk away from you,” he said, looking down at the coated metal weave of the picnic table.
Bracklen said although he is a man of great faith and has a personal relationship with God, he isn’t a fan of world religion. He said too many people go to church, hear a standard Bible story and lesson and leave church only to forget about God and His principles the rest of the week.
He said pastors need to tell people what to do when they walk out the doors of the church.
“What should people do,” I asked.
“Start doing what God says. Start being nice to each other,” he replied.
I listened with rapt attention to his stories for I don’t know how long, but when I got home that evening, I had a suntan line where my jewelry had been.
Were his stories true? Was he really a man from Denmark on a faith walk or a man living on the fringe of a society who turns a blind eye to him?
I didn’t know then if Bracklen is who he says is and, looking back, I’m not sure I know now, either. And maybe it doesn’t matter.
But since meeting him, we’ve all been through a lot.
It struck me how in 2019, this man was concerned about how society would protect itself from selfishness and isolation.
He had no way of knowing less that a year later, we would have a toilet paper shortage and be isolated in our homes. Or did he?
He had no way of knowing some people would sooner use their phones to film a crime, rather than to call and report one. Or did he?
He had no way of knowing how true his words, “The more wisdom you spout in this country, the more people walk away from you,” would be the battle cry of a divided nation (no matter which “side” of an issue you are on). Or did he?
As I read back over my journal and reflect on Bracklen’s words and how the past two years have played out, I get a chill up my spine.
“Start doing what God says. Start being nice to each other.”
I don’t know if Bracklen is who he claimed to be, but his message is simple and sincere: “Start being nice to each other. Try to make a difference,” he said. “Try to make an impression that lasts more than five minutes.”
This strange man made an impression on me. Was he a prophet? An angel sent to save us? Or just a vagabond? I have no clue. But I can tell you during these strange times, especially at this time of year, it seems fitting to take his advice to heart.
Andrea Rose is managing editor of Local.News. Her column, “Around Town,” focuses on the unique aspects of our community.