Chris Baxter/The La Grande Observer
By JACK HEALY
Published: October 15, 2013
DENVER — As he made his way across the country, Joe Bell walked through rain squalls, slept in ditches and talked to anyone who would listen about how his gay son had killed himself after being taunted and bullied at school.
Mr. Bell’s artificial knees ached and his feet were mapped with blisters, but he told friends and strangers that he was determined to make it on foot from his home in eastern Oregon to New York City, where his son, Jadin, 15, had dreamed of one day working in fashion or photography. “I miss my son Jadin with all my heart and soul,” he wrote on Facebook in late May. “I know you’re with me on this walk.”
But last Wednesday, Mr. Bell’s American journey — one that drew attention from local newspapers and attracted thousands of followers on social media — ended in an instant on a two-lane road in rural eastern Colorado. He was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer whose driver had apparently fallen asleep, the state police said.
For nearly six months, Mr. Bell, 48, had been on the road, sharing his son’s story and trying to salve his own grief. He spoke at motorcycle rallies and college bars, schools, diners and gay-outreach centers, telling people about his sensitive, artistic son who hanged himself from a piece of playground equipment on Jan. 19.
While Jadin had plenty of friends and support — 200 classmates and community members showed up at a vigil while he lingered on life support — he also stood out in his hometown, La Grande, Ore., family friends said. Some students pushed him around at school, or threw things at him on the street, said Bud Hill, a friend of Mr. Bell’s who knew Jadin for most of his life.
“He was very open and very proud,” Mr. Hill said in an interview.
After Jadin died in early February, Mr. Bell lay in bed and wondered what he could have done differently, reproaching himself for missing signs or yelling at his son for smoking days before he hanged himself, his friends said. One day, he decided he needed to get out on the road, joining scores of others who have crossed the country to raise money or promote social causes. For Mr. Bell, the cause would be his son.
“He had to heal himself,” Mr. Hill said.
Mr. Bell mapped out a route and assembled a network of friends who would track his progress from afar. He quit his job at a plywood mill, threw some clothes and a sleeping bag onto his back and loaded up a three-wheeled pushcart with food and gallons of water, then set off on April 20. As he walked east, from Oregon to Idaho to Utah to Colorado, he chronicled his progress in Facebook posts and videos describing the people who fed him chicken dinners, refilled his water jugs and lent him a bed and made small donations to keep his trek going.
He wrote about sleeping under the stars, and described how a sunset in Utah made him miss his family and wish he could be with them. Sometimes, he would meet up with his partner, Lola Lathrop, or one of his three other children when he stopped in a big city. Mostly, he was alone.
He considered how long he would be on the road — two years, at least — and wrestled with the hunger, aches and loneliness that accompanied his trip.
“I’m going through a tough time right now,” he said in a video message posted on Facebook in early October as he headed away from Denver. “I’ll get it straightened out by the time I get to Wichita.”
He met people everywhere, knitting together a diaspora of friends, family and strangers who are now reeling from his death.
Ed the cabdriver helped him when his pack got too heavy. Juliet at the Turkey Crossing Cafe fed him dinner. Jim and Janice gave him a warm bed. In Utah, when his pushcart was stolen and a sinus infection hobbled him, Ann Clark helped him find a place to stay after meeting him on the road, and helped organize meetings in Salt Lake City where Mr. Bell could speak.
“I worried about his safety,” Ms. Clark said. “There were times I said, ‘I wish you’d go home.' ”
When Mr. Bell was alone in the mountains or the desert, he would unfurl his sleeping bag and sleep under a tree or along the side of the road. He spent weeks in larger cities, finding speaking opportunities and a place to sleep and do laundry with members of anti-bullying organizations and suicide-prevention groups.
Many of them offered to drive him down the road, but Mr. Bell always demurred. He would accept rides inside a city or to a particular destination, but once he was back on the road, every inch had to be on foot.
The day he died, Mr. Bell had been trying to log a few more miles before speaking at a Methodist church in Hugo, Colo. A day earlier, he and the sheriff of Lincoln County had started chatting on the side of the road, and bonded quickly as fathers of gay sons. The sheriff, Tom Nestor, set up a talk for Wednesday evening.
Mr. Nestor had been planning to fetch Mr. Bell when he got word that a pedestrian had been hit along Highway 40. He raced to the scene. Mr. Bell’s cart was lying in the road. Medics were already covering his body.
On Thursday, he will be remembered at a memorial service in Oregon.
“I got down on one knee and put my hand on Joe’s head and said a silent prayer,” Sheriff Nestor said in an e-mail.
“I only knew him for a very short time but this man had to of made a huge difference in everyone he met. He made me realize how important basic humanity still is.”