"Is it an even or an odd day?" asks Edward "Eddy" Rodriguez as he leaves the Crowne Plaza Hotel on Hampton's waterfront to start the trek to Williamsburg. "Even? Then I think it has been 142 days," he responds to a well-wisher's question as to how long he has been on the road.
Rodriguez, 53, left Hillsboro Beach pier, some 36 miles north of Miami, on foot in March. He has moseyed along coastal roads, hitched rides when the weather dictates, camped and stayed in hotels when they open their doors to him. Rodriguez plans to make a grand arrival on the Mall in Washington, D.C., at 3 p.m. on Aug. 27. His journey is all about spreading happiness and uplifting spirits. He hopes it will culminate in a crowd gathering to "smile and wave and say 'America we love you'" at the appointed time.
It's more than entirely possible. Every day he connects with people he meets along the way. He's helped at least one person, an unemployed Georgia man, who found a job soon after their encounter. "I was able to help him shift his thought processes," says Rodriguez. Among his "amazing, amazing experiences," he counts a police officer allowing him to use his cruiser's computer to check his email.
Of medium build with intense brown eyes, his head covered in an Australian bush-style hat, Rodriguez prepares for the day's walk by tethering a lead to the neatly packed 160-pound wagon he hauls behind him. An upside-down yellow sign carrying the message, "This is a good sign," is tacked to the back. He's wearing a custom-made T-shirt that proclaims "A journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step," along with a cartoon dog mascot, Deeogee.
As Rodriguez leaves the hotel, he slips one of his cards to a man standing at reception. Introductions follow and lead to an animated conversation in which Carlton Ashby, vice-chair of Newport News School Board and a Baptist deacon, shares his own motivational advice. "Begin with the end in mind, as you have" he says. "Imagination makes it possible and commitment assures success," he adds, before offering God's blessing to Rodriguez and his mission.
Then Jeffrey Fork, director of sales and marketing for the Hampton hotel that extended lodging to him for a couple of nights, emerges to wish him well on his travels. "I didn't hesitate. It's an opportunity to lift people's spirits in this economy," Fork says, adding that if Rodriguez walks back, he'll have a room for him.
He's only gone a few steps when John Graham, unloading basketball tournament T-shirts from a van with Michigan plates, says, "What's up?" Rodriguez explains his adventure. Graham hands him a dozen shirts to give to people along the way and wants photos of him with his son, Ty. They exchange hugs and good wishes. Then Rodriguez takes off at a steady clip along Settlers Landing Road with his wagon behind him.
His journey started about four years ago, when his 27-year-old daughter died in a moped accident. "It's the worst thing that ever happened to me in my life," he says. Within a few months he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that cast him into a depression. It took him six months to relearn how to walk and talk; for four of those months he suffered excruciating headaches. He gave up his business.
Then, someone asked him the question, "What do you want for your birthday?" He realized he wanted people to smile and get along with one another. He started to focus on how he could be happier and on how he could help others be happier.
He started to focus on the positive, on being grateful, and on forgiving himself and others. "I have so many blessings in my life. I'm above ground. It starts there. You go into self love and what you can do to affect life rather than infect it," he says. His homespun philosophy — he doesn't hold to any particular religious belief so as not to exclude anyone — sounds like an echo of Forrest Gump. "Life is like a box of donuts," he says. "There are lots of holes in it, but what's left is really sweet."