BANGOR, Maine – “Howdy sir!, Where are you hauling that big cross off to?” I rhetorically called out to a man walking down Maine highway 1A with a full sized Jesus cross slung over his shoulder.
“To Mexico!” he responded, as he momentarily halted his hike to shake my hand.
To Mexico. Why is it a given that anybody walking down the highway with a cross over their shoulder is not in it for any distance short of an entire continent?
While flying down highway 1A in my sleek little Subaru, I spotted a large cross looming on the horizon.
This is ordinary in America, a land that is fertile ground for sprouting large crosses as readily as weeds in a garden. But this cross was moving. Yes, it even appeared to be on wheels. And a man with a crown of thorns disguised as a bandanna toiled beneath it as he labored down the road with a backpack laden companion at his side.
Vrooom. I blew by the slowly moving cross-men at highway speed. As I watched them fade away into the distance through my rear view mirror, a guilty tinge stabbed me in the gut: I had questions, lots of questions, about why a couple of grown men would be dragging a humongous cross down the side of highway 1A in the middle of Maine. I knew that they must have been on a long journey, as nobody carries a full sized Jesus cross with them on their way to the corner store in search of a six pack: no, these men were obviously on a mission.
And I needed to find out what it was.
A sense of journalistic duty soon took hold, and I swung around the little Subaru like a vengeful madman and returned to interrogate the mobile cross bearers.
I pulled over near them without being noticed, and made my approach from behind.
“Howdy, sir!” I yelled out and then shook the hand of a cross bearer who seemed surprised at my brisk arrival.
I introduced myself as a journalist, which sort of half way explained how I managed to drop down out of the sky from seeming nowhere. This introduction lays out a journalist’s intentions perfectly: everyone knows that journalists collect stories, and to get a story you have to ask questions, so the man laid down his large cross and got right down to answering mine.
His name was Tom Helling, a refurbished sinner, and his companion was John C. Prosser, a legally blind traveling musician. They met up on a Greyhound bus going from Milwaukee to Bangor. Helling was provisioned with $20, an 8 foot high Jesus cross, and a mission: to walk from Maine to Mexico bearing the cross over his shoulder. Upon noticing that Helling’s faith so obviously trumped his preparation, Prosser, an experienced man of the road, felt compelled to lend his expertise to the expedition.
“He didn’t even have a sleeping bag, you should have seen him all curled up on the ground last night,” Prosser described Helling’s condition on their previous night of camping in the bush. “So today I took him to Walmart to get him a sleeping bag.”
Helling then laughed a big hearty sort of laugh and agreed that it was Prosser’s job to save his butt. In this way, the two men were thrown together by the circumstantial run of destiny, chance, and fate that comes easily to travelers on odd journeys in odd lands.
The story runs as such:
Helling took a flight from his home in Tucson, Arizona to Milwaukee, where he built the cross and etched out the rough logistics of his expedition.
His planning did not seem to get beyond building the cross and picking starting and ending points though, as Helling’s traveling gear was fearfully scarce: he only had a small bundle tied around the bottom of the cross. I cannot imagine that much besides an old t-shirt, a scrap pair of pants, and a big load of faith could have fit inside of it.
Figuring that Maine was just about as far away from Mexico as you could get, Helling boarded a Greyhound bus for Bangor. On this ride, a big swing of fate intervened, as one of his fellow passengers was John Prosser, a wandering half blind musician. Apparently, the two men struck up a friendship on the long bus trip, and Prosser, knowing the Helling did not have any provisions for his journey other than faith, invited him out for a bite to eat. It was over this meal that the duo decided to walk down to Mexico paired.
From my initial meeting with the two pedestrian wanderers, their individual roles in the expedition were obvious: Helling was the faith packed inspiration, the man with the inertia, the idea, and Prosser was the nuts and bolts, the man who took Helling’s inertia and made it a reality.
I looked around at the forests on both sides of the highway, the moist grass, the big cloudy blue sky, and mentally pinpointed out our current location on a cerebral map. We certainly were a long way from Mexico. Any man starting down this long road must have some kind of story.
So I asked Helling for his story, how he came to be walking down a highway in Maine with a huge cross over his shoulder. He laughed heartily, and jumped into a tale of being a hard drinking, drug taking sinner who was turned over to Christianity in a brash moment of clarity. He told me about meeting Larry Munguia, a.k.a the Pastor of the Down and Out, in a Tucson half way house seven years ago. Helling said that Larry told him that he should ask the following question every day:
“God, Jesus, if you are real then show me a sign.”
“So I tried it out,” Helling spoke with a big grin on his face, “I tried it out because I wanted to tell him that he was full of shit.”
Helling then went on to tell me about the night of his spiritual breakthrough. After an initial run in with Munguia’s S.O.B.E.R. Project, which is a progressive faith based addiction rehabilitation program, he was at the Bashful Bandit motorcycle bar in Tucson. It was the night before he was to go into the hospital for an MRI on a tumor on his hip. The tumor had potential to be malignant. He was scared.
Tom then told me how he stumbled into the parking lot of the bar, and felt as if he needed to make a telephone call.
“I had no idea who I was going to call,” Helling explained, “I just knew that I had to call somebody.”
He then lifted his cellphone up to his ear, and then felt compelled to look down to the pavement. There, straddled in between his feet, sat a little palm leaf crucifix.
It was the answer to his prayer.
God, Jesus, if you are real then show me a sign.
“I am positive that it was not there before,” Helling stated with absolute conviction. “I went from a Christian hatter to a believer in that moment.”
Seven years later, Helling finds himself walking down a highway in Maine with a huge cross slung over a shoulder with a half blind traveling musician. I stood on the side of the highway doing my interview as cars flew by right next to us. Some honked. Others waved. But all passerbys appeared interested in the man on the highway carrying the giant cross.
The large cross that Helling was carrying seemed to serve as a catalyst for conversation — as a way of inviting people to come and talk about spirituality, religion, and addiction recovery. To be blunt, if people saw Helling and Prosser walking down the side of the highway without the cross, they would probably either recoil from them in fear — for neither man possessed a very straight laced appearance — or pass by without finding any reason to become acquainted. The entire reason why I stopped driving and ran up to meet Helling and Prosser was because of the cross; without it, I would have just honked and waved to a couple of my brothers on the tramp. It was the cross that captured my attention.
I then looked down at the cross, the centering point of this expedition, and found the names of a score of people already written on it. I asked Helling where the names came from, and he answered that they were from the people that he met along the way. This was Helling’s first full day out on this long walk, and there was evidence that he had already told his story to at least a dozen curious strangers. He then asked me to sign my name, and I penned my mantra, “Walk Slow.”
Given the circumstances, I figured that Helling could use it a little more than I.
My inquires soon reach an affable sort of height, as we all stood on the Maine highway telling jokes and showing each other our tattoos. Helling turned around and lifted up his t-shirt to reveal a partially completed back piece of Jesus being crucified on a palm leaf crucifix. I found it an appropriate choice of tattoo, given Helling’s story.
“Jesus has got my back,” he joked.
It soon became clear that neither Helling nor Prosser were brow beaters proving their riotousness or bible thumpers looking for converts by completing this supreme test of endurance. They were just a couple of ordinary dudes with a couple of extraordinary tales celebrating God on the Open Road across the USA.
I then asked Helling if this arduous journey was in search of some sort of penance for his past misdeeds.
“Guilt and shame are barriers to Jesus,” he answered simply.
Helling’s cross bearing walk across the USA seems to be a way of reaching out to engage strangers in discussions about spirituality and the human propensity to overcome adversity. I then asked Helling what was the most important thing that he wish to communicate with people along the course of this walk.
Helling replied without hesitation, “That God loves you.”
He then added as an after thought, “You can’t do this,” indicating his walk from Maine to Mexico, “without God.”
This statement was good enough to wrap up my interview, and I shook hands with both Helling and Prosser, wished them a splendid journey, and then snapped off a few photographs before walking away down the road.
“Hey!,” John yelled in my wake.
I turned around.
“It’s called the Cross Walk!”
“You don’t say,” I responded with a chuckle.
Video of the Cross Walk
Read more about Tom Helling’s Cross Walk at his website, From Maine to Mexico
Vagabond Journey series on the Cross Walk
A Cross America: spiritually intoxicated ex-addict walks from Maine to Mexico