Most people will never hitchhike. Even fewer will do it twice in a year, but Belmont cross-country runner Josh Helton did.
Helton decided last winter that he wanted to visit a friend in Ft. Collins, Colo., but it had to be a cheap trip. Inspired by Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild” — minus the tragic ending — Helton decided to hitchhike. He left from his hometown of Franklin, Tenn., right after fall semester ended.
Helton survived the 1,200-mile trip hitchhiking west, but he opted for a plane ride home in time for the start of the spring semester.
Soon, Helton and his friends, Aaron Sheats, Robby Berry, Kevin Terry and Jon Mitchell, began planning a second trip.
This time, Helton and his friends were going to Los Angeles with a stopover at the Grand Canyon. And this time they traveled for adventure and also for charity.
The group decided to take advantage of any publicity they gained to raise money for the Kimbilio Project, a nonprofit that builds orphanages in Kenya for children with disabilities, a group often ignored by other orphanages.
The group also created a website, hitchhiketohelp.com, that included personal blogs for each hitchhiker and a GPS tracker so visitors could see where each of them was at any time. The website also encouraged visitors to donate to the Kimbilio Project.
Helton, Sheats, Berry, Terry, and Mitchell all left from Nashville July 27 and traveled separately to Los Angeles. The last member of the group arrived safely on Aug. 12.
Helton said he wasn’t worried at all before leaving for either trip, despite the apprehension of some of his friends and family.
On the road, Helton’s adventure was filled with unexpected encounters.
During both trips, he was essentially homeless with no designated place to sleep and a small amount of food with him, he said.
For days, Helton slept in the woods on the side of the interstates in a hammock that he brought with him. Even with his less than ideal accommodations, he still took time to run eight or nine miles every day for cross-country training.
“I mostly survived off the ‘Dollar Menu’ except for when someone would offer to buy me some food,” Helton said. Once a mother with four children picked him up and took him out to dinner.
Helton said that people like her motivated him to finish the feat. While Helton’s trip to Los Angeles managed to raise $2,500 for the Kimbilio Project, he needed 31 different rides to get there.
“There’d be days when I was stuck on the on ramp for four or five hours when it was 100 degrees outside and people would just be driving by me like I wasn’t there,” he said. “They’d flip me off or give me a thumbs up. It was tough.”
He said it was frustrating to watch people drive by who acted as if he weren’t there. He also learned to empathize with people that have to deal with that kind of invisibility daily. At the same time, Helton was eager to absorb the entire experience.
“I’m naturally an introverted person,” Helton said. “So I liked being on the road and soaking up whatever moment I was in.”