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  • Jefferson Weaver

‘Possibly the best place I’ve visited’ Walker finds Columbus most welcoming

Ben Andrew Briggs, a doctoral student, on a stop across America.

A doctoral student on his way across America on foot called Columbus County “possibly the best place I’ve visited.”

Ben Andrew Briggs, a former Marine working on his doctorate, is hiking across the country on a less-than-shoestring budget, documenting his experiences as a homeless person and learning about “real” homeless people along the way. He’s been hiking the highways since September of last year, when he departed from California. His walk officially began in Bangor, Maine, but several shorter sections developed when he worked part-time jobs or had to avoid severe weather.

He recently passed through Columbus County, going from Fair Bluff to Chadbourn to Whiteville. The people here, he said, “are sincere.”

“You learn quickly how to intuit who’s being sincere, and who’s handing you a line,” he said. “Everyone I met in Fair Bluff, Whiteville and Columbus County in general was truly caring. They really reached out to me. This might have been the best place I visited – Valdosta, Georgia was close, but the people here really care.

“They say they want to help someone – and they mean it.”

Briggs, 52, spent a night at Barefoot Church in Whiteville, where members presented him with another tent and sleeping bag.

“They really loved up on me at Barefoot Church,” he said.

His equipment is minimal in the extreme. Briggs said that’s intentional – as well as traveling light, he has to depend on the generosity of others

The trip started almost by accident, Briggs said. “I was living in San Francisco,” he said, “where I helped people with special needs transition into regular society. We’d work on one skill, then another, then another, at his or her pace. It was a method I designed, and it worked.

“Problem was, after four years, my client was able to do everything on her own – and I was out of a job.”

He was working on two post-graduate degrees at the time, so Briggs did as many younger college students do when they need advice – he went to his mentor, the professor in charge of his post-grad work. “I wasn’t sure what to do,” he said, “and while we were talking about it, my instructor just kind of off-handedly said, ‘Why don’t you walk across America?’ The more I thought about it, the more it seemed the thing to do.”

Very little of the trip has been planned out, he said.

“A lot of it has been spur of the moment from the outset. My route is determined by what supplies I can obtain from people, and places they tell me about.”

Last week, for instance, Briggs was on a hundred-mile detour to visit the Devil’s Stomping Grounds, a North Carolina landmark.

“I’d never heard of the place,” he said, “and I love haunted places, so this seemed like a good idea.’

Along the way he has slept in churches, truck stop parking lots and occasionally homes, as well as camping on farms and in family cemeteries. He always seeks permission before setting up camp, and strives to leave the location better than he found it. He calls it “commando camping,” existing with just what he has available, either in his gear or through the generosity of others

“I had no original idea to come through the Cape Fear area,” he said, “but I wanted to go to Virginia. I wanted to visit Quantico, where I was stationed as a young Marine, but I had to plan around the winter in Oklahoma and that area.”

The biggest thing Briggs said he will take away from the trip – whenever it ends—is how honesty can instantly build a relationship.

“The people I’ve met who really were honest and caring, we hit it off,” he said. “They’re all special to me. I can tell when folks mean what they say, and that’s what I saw in your communities down there. The family who let me stay in the cemetery near Clarkton, they were just wonderful people. Really cool.”

While documenting his journey on Facebook, Briggs said he is also pushing some ideas that are more practical than prosaic. He hopes to see more awareness for people who use the highways without the safety of a motor vehicle.

“I don’t want to hurt anybody, or see anyone hurt,” he said. “Not emotionally, spiritually, or physically.”

Although his equipment is minimal (a knapsack and a small wagon), Briggs said he still has to pay attention to oncoming traffic.

“Figure I have an 18-inch wheelbase, and I’m walking down the shoulder of the road that’s 16 inches wide. That means I hang over two inches – I don’t want to get hit by a car, or damage someone’s vehicle.”

Along the road, Briggs has dodged road kill of all varieties, innumerable snakes, and sometimes, reckless logging truck drivers.

“Truckers are really among the coolest people I’ve met,” he said via recorded message around midnight Thursday. He was camped in a park of tractor-trailers, yet another of his temporary addresses on the road.

The 100-degree temperatures put Briggs in the hospital last week. Outside of Sanford, he said, he had just shared lunch with another new friend when “I really felt tired.

“I woke up after three hours,” Briggs said. “It scared me. I didn’t know where I was, or what was going on. I knew right then it was time to call 911. The police and EMS people were absolutely great, and the folks at the hospital were really special.”

He ended up spending the weekend in Central Carolina Medical Center, a time which Briggs said “really was beneficial.

“It gave me some time to rest up, think, pray and reflect,” he said Saturday.

The doctors warned him to take better care of himself, but Briggs said he is continuing with his walk.

“I’ve basically been cooking myself for several months,” he laughed. “I still have a way to go yet, so I’m going to be more careful. This little break invigorated me, but it was a little far to go just to sleep in a bed.”

When his journey ends – he expects to be finished in 2020 – Briggs said he isn’t sure what will happen next. He said he wants to use what he’s learned along the way to benefit other people. Briggs said he feels people have an innate desire to help others.

“You can see it when you talk to them,” he said. “I’ve seen it in a lot of places, but especially when I was going through your area. People want to help other people, especially when someone’s doing something a little bit different.”

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