When Joe Rethmeier passed away he saved lives.
The Des Moines man was known for his generous nature and general good will toward mankind. So when he died in 2011, it only seemed natural that his goodness live on.
As an organ donor he saved five lives, and affected many more. One of those affected was Don Erickson, also of Des Moines. Erickson never met Joe, but as he walks from New York to California he carries that legacy on his shoulders.
"When I read about Joe, I saw how it affected so many lives," Erickson said during his brief stay in West Liberty. "You see its impact on others and it's like…wow. Because of someone's death, he continued someone else's life."
Erickson is walking from one end of the United States to the other, a total of 3,300 miles according to his calculations. The Iowa man uses each step to promote and encourage organ donating, carrying a sign that reads "Organ donor awareness, walking across America one mile at a time."
He uses his smart phone to track the mileage. So far he's come a third of the way, around 1,200 miles. Using Highway 6 as his main route, he sleeps in a tent when the night falls. That is, if he isn't invited somewhere.
Erickson recently came through West Liberty, where he was given a good bed and hot meals by residents Kevin and Deb Lawman for the night.
"99.9 percent of the people have been awesome. Most people are inherently good, they see my sign and it gives them an opportunity to help," he said. "Especially the people of Iowa, I haven't had to sleep in my tent since I've been here."
He's also slept in police department lots, fire departments, and churches. He likes to call ahead, but when push comes to shove a night under the stars will do.
However, the elements have been one of his biggest adversaries on the journey. Last week the heat was brutal, reaching 100 degrees. The pavement on the roads he travelled only increased the temperature.
In Pennsylvania he faced consistent rain for weeks straight, in New Jersey he saw a bear while camping out. Lightning and ticks have also factored into his journey.
But his passion to promote organ donating pushes him on. Erickson says some people see him as crazy, but that craziness mixed with his beliefs is what gave him this idea in the first place.
"One day I thought I could combine my need to push myself with a worthy cause," he said. "That's when I came up with walking across the country."
Erickson averages around 15 to 18 miles days. He can get into the 20s, but then he begins to feel it in his ankle, the same ankle he had surgery on less than a year ago around Christmas.
"After that was all done with my ankle, I was pumped and ready to go," he added.
For those following his trip on Facebook, they may have noticed a daily photo entitled "Glove of the Day." This has to do with the monotonous and tedious nature of the walk.
Erickson doesn't allow himself to listen to music, rather he focuses on his journey. It was due to this focus he noticed something odd, but reoccurring, on his walk.
"As I was walking, I started noticing an enormous amount of gloves," he said, "I thought this would be a great pictorial montage."
Some days he would see up to twenty gloves on the road. When his family noticed how many gloves he was seeing, they suggested it was from Joe Rethmeier.
"I think it's a high five from heaven from Joe," he said. "And so far everyday I've seen a glove."
After his journey Erickson plans to jump in a car with his girlfriend, Val, and retrace his entire route. He wants to see everyone he met on his journey once again.
But until that day he'll keep walking along, pushing his cart and promoting his cause. To him it's more about the journey than the destination.
"If I only affect one person's life on this walk, then it's worth it," he said moments before grabbing his gear and going.
To read more about his journey go to facebook.com/OrganDonorAwarenessOneMileAtATime, where Erickson has also provided a link to more information on organ donation.
Iowa man stops in WL during walk across U.S.Jacob Lane · Wednesday, September 18, 2013