I'd like to call a pause in my usual ranting about publishers, agents, editors, writing and books to comment on the death of a very good man.
Several years ago I was driving through West Virginia coming home from a visit with my aging mother. It was an overcast day, cold and rainy, and I was speeding up the side of a mountain. There were no other cars in sight. Up ahead, I noticed two people wearing cardboard signs walking at the side of the road. My first thoughts were how rare it was to see anyone walking along the road, my second was to wonder if they had hiked up the entire length of this extremely long and steep incline and my third was what the hell were the signs going to say. As I blew past them at 75 miles per hour I read Walk For Tibet.
At that speed one can go some distance while the brain processes an anomaly like this one. I'm a guy who, once started on a long drive, will go to any lengths to not stop or divert from my path, but this was so unusual I decided to go back and see what it was about. Remember, this was West Virginia, not Berkley, California. It took awhile, but I finally came to an exit, got myself turned around and then turned around again so I could pull off to the side of the road.
Jigme Norbu and Wangchuk Dorjee told me they were walking across a large chunk of the United States to draw attention to the plight of Tibet. We didn't spend much time on politics as I was aware of Tibet's woes with the Chinese. I talked to them about how hard the walk must be, but both were cheerful and completely upbeat. Norbu put a little camera on the trunk of my car and took a picture of the three of us, his arm around my shoulder.
There are small and large moments in life that ring true and clear. Sometimes we notice them, sometimes we don't; this was one of those moments for me. I asked if I could contribute to the cause, he said sure, I retrieved my wallet from the car, found I had one lone twenty dollar bill, which I gave to him. I also found a bag of pepperoni rolls, a West Virginia specialty and my road-food of choice, which I also gave to him. He cheerfully accepted and made appreciative comments about the rolls.
Just as there are certain moments of truth, there are certain people we run across who embody those truths. Jigme was one of them. If I were a younger man, I would have happily asked for a little help from these two, pushed my car over the edge of the cliff and joined them on their trek. I didn't, of course. As I drove away I looked at them in my rear view mirror; they were headed down the hill, Wangchuk gaily swinging the bag of pepperoni rolls. That night I went on Jigme's website where he was chronicling his walk and found the picture of the three of us and a short note of thanks for “the West Virginia bread.”
By then I realized that they couldn't have eaten the rolls as surely they were vegetarians, but part of me hoped they could have at least nibbled away the exterior and left the pepperoni along the trail for the wild animals. I fired off a donation check to help them with their cause and put the experience down on my life list of unexpected moments of grace, sure that Jigme would walk on an on until his country and his people were free.
Yesterday I read that Jigme had been struck and killed by a car while walking down the highway in the dark in Florida. It shouldn't have surprised me -- walking in the dark on the edge of a highway can be dangerous -- but it did. And the depth of sadness that struck me also surprised me. After all, I had known, if known is the right word, the man for only a few passing moments. But there was something about him, that something that I am struggling to describe, that is rare, that we seldom come in contact with in our ordinary lives. This is the part where, if it were a better story than it is, I would announce that I have thrown off the shackles of my mundane life and was headed out to walk beside the highway with a Free Tibet sign. But I'm not. That's not my path. There are other Jigmes out there walking hard roads for good causes, and I salute them. It is not in me to give up the pepperoni in the roll. I can only say the world was a better place with Jigme Norbu and his friends in it, and a sadder place without him.
Walk on, Jigme, walk on.