The Round Table

Fred Smith

Fred Smith


February 27, 2024


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In May, our daughter Haley and I are walking the Portugal section of the El Camino and preparing for that reminded me of the last time I set out on a long walk. In 1963, as juniors in high school, four of us decided to take on President Kennedy’s challenge to walk 50 miles in one day. His brother, Bobby, had just finished his own walk, trudging through snow and slush from Washington, DC, to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia – wearing Oxford loafers. We were inspired and anxious to do the same.

Up at dawn in our loafers, we headed out with no forethought except the vague determination to return heroes and be invited to the White House. Five miles into the hike it began to rain and, of course, we had no rain gear. Ten miles into the hike it grew bitterly cold and, of course, we had no jackets. We stopped in an abandoned barn and considered our options. Do we stick it out and go to the White House or call home and wait for another day? We found a phone and an hour later our families arrived to drive us home.

Trips are not the same as leaping from an airplane or bungee jumping from Victoria Falls. Those are experiences –  momentary floods of adrenalin and then it is over. Long trips are adventures that change you somehow. Maybe that is why I love stories like Josh and Jordan Needham. The brothers set out from Austin, Texas, to ride their motorcycles around the world. As we all know, extreme travel is something of the rage now, and most of the accounts I read are about pushing to the limit in order to “find myself” or to “go deep into my own interior and discover the uncharted territories.” While there is nothing wrong with self-discovery, I was intrigued by how the brothers described their trip:

“Our first and primary hope for this journey together was to grow closer and stronger as brothers. We bickered and squabbled as young boys do, we desired distinction and autonomy as high schoolers, we were separated by distance and self-interest as young adults. There were many scars. How many and how deep? We did not fully know or appreciate then. But we wanted to find out.”

So, off they went through Mexico, Latin America and South America. Then they crossed the Atlantic on a steamer to Africa for the next several months. Along the way, I followed while introducing them to a number of friends because they wanted to meet people in a variety of ministries. The brothers had all the experiences you can imagine with breakdowns, discouragement, anxiety and loneliness – but also with the exhilaration of being sheltered by God and people along the way. Unlike others making treks for book material or day-by-day blogs, the Needham brothers went for weeks without much communication. Periodically, I received a note bringing me up to date:

To put it bluntly. This trip has been a challenge. Both of us have become increasingly aware of how selfish and cruel we can be. But time mellows and shapes us. Time spent together – difficult time spent together – humbles one and allows one to understand and empathize with the other. Enduring sun, wind and rain side by side softens the later sullen outburst as you sit dripping in a roadside cafe, staring blankly across at the other’s wall. We have had many low points in our trek, but reconciliation has emerged calmly and defiantly.

We have grown closer even as we have maintained our differences. Josh has been inspired by the places and the people we have met. Jordan misses home. But more binds us than divides us. We have read the same books, we have ordered the same food, we have shared the same bed. We share the same faith, we ride the same bike, we pray the same encouragements, we love the same family, we journey along the same road.

As we left South America, we left as more than brothers. We left as friends.”

In part of the note Josh wrote, “One of the most fundamental realities Jordan and I will take from this trip is the depths of depravity. The moments I have been ‘true to myself’ are when I find a deeply selfish, comfort-seeking, approval/recognition hounding person. We have been stretched by the trip by seeing the ugliness and pressing in more on our Father. Unless we lean into the curve, the bike’s going to continue straight into the ditch.”

It’s not a story of two idealistic young men on a journey of narcissistic discovery or returning home with tales of how the grief of the world has enriched their lives. It is not a “gap year” experience or a short-term plunge into a momentarily dangerous or reckless risk. Nor is it a silly and ill-considered 50-mile hike in Oxford loafers. It’s finding the larger way of their lives together.

Bilbo Baggins said it well:

“The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,

Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.”

Art by Mark Beard

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