on October 12, 2014 by Staff in Golden News, Comments Off on Man hits road of life with hands off wheel

Man hits road of life with hands off wheel

The call for prayer from the nearby mosque woke him from a restless sleep about 4 that morning.

He showered, dressed and checked his backpack. Water containers. Iodine tablets. Medical kit. Several notebooks and 24 pencils. Some Clif bars. One change of clothes. A credit card to be used only for emergencies. A palm-sized GPS tracker. Tent. Sleeping bag. Compass.

No cell phone.

He repacked, shut off the lights and knelt on the concrete floor. Let me be present, he prayed. Let me handle challenges with grace and humility.

Then, Donovan DiLorenzo – an olive scarf wound around his head, a shadow of a beard on his face, Teva sandals on his feet – stepped from the hotel in Madaba, Jordan, his heart a mix of trepidation and hope, and began walking.

“The first time you step out – that’s the scariest,” he said. “You’ve built up all these expectations … and you’re just not sure how they’re going to unfold.”

Donovan’s Journey, as his family calls it, began Aug. 27, 2013.

It unfolded step by step, without any sure plan. Donovan, then 42, trekked as pilgrims in days of old through Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Egypt and India, letting the day’s encounters chart his path and depending on unexpected kindnesses for food, shelter and companionship. By the time he returned home in May, he had walked more than 1,100 miles.

Back home in Highlands Ranch where he grew up, his parents had anxiously followed his path through intermittent signals from a GPS tracker. They thought he was searching for self-discovery.

His younger sister later told him she thought his choice to travel without resources or a way to communicate with home was selfish because of the worry it caused those who loved him.

Donovan thought doing so was the only real way to live fully in the moment – to see and feel and understand a profoundness of life uncluttered by distractions. He wasn’t really searching for something; he just wanted to see what would happen if life directed him rather than the other way around.

“It was a kind of shedding or surrendering …,” Donovan said. “It was just about letting go and seeing how life would unfold being a little more present.”

His life had already detoured from the main road.

The tragedy of 9/11 caused him to rethink his course: He left a lucrative job as an account executive in New York to teach in New Orleans’ most challenging urban school district. He later helped with reconstruction and outreach following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. From there, he joined the Peace Corps, working in Africa in Malawi, one of the world’s least-developed countries. He returned to New Orleans and taught there until last summer, when he decided to abandon life as he knew it.

He chose to walk most of his journey to have “more time to think, write and connect with others.”

When Donovan refused to take a cell phone, his parents, Neil and Michelle, persuaded him to pack a small GPS tracker.

“You’re not really communicating,” Neil told him. “At least, as long as the coordinates are moving, we’ll know you’re alive.”

Donovan agreed. Every three days, he activated the device and Neil plotted latitude and longitude on maps to follow his route. Even so, Neil and Michelle slept only a few hours each night those first few weeks.

“I am very nervous …,” Michelle said then. “That has been really, really hard, not knowing where he’s at.”

Donovan, at times, wasn’t sure exactly where he was, either. The trails seemed confusing, the heat unbearable. In those moments, anxiety would begin to seep into his thoughts – “that feeling,” he wrote later, “when you are unsure about the road ahead.” But then he would gather courage, bring himself back into the moment, summon a sense of peace.

At the start, his feet bled. The backpack rubbed raw a spot on his back. Hunger became a frequent companion – he thought often of his mother’s pasta and meatballs. But fortune continually crossed his path in the form of curious children, interested villagers or, simply, a patch of shade under a tree.

Strangers gave him freshly baked warm pita bread. They invited him to share tea around campfires and offered space in their homes to sleep. They shared stories that bound them across cultures and beliefs.

“I was really taken aback at how hospitable people were and how people would open up their homes,” Donovan said. “There were those moments when you kind of step back and think, ‘Wow, that was truly amazing.'”

In those instants, he said, God gave him wonder.

He prayed in mosques, saw the Dead Sea, visited Cana and other places of the Holy Land, navigated military checkpoints between Palestine and Israel. He walked about 650 miles, according to Neil’s map calculations, before flying from the Red Sea to Cairo at the end of October.

After two weeks in Egypt, he flew to Mumbai and walked another 500 or so miles, visiting ashrams where he learned to meditate, and Buddhist temples where he prayed, and, finally, homes in Calcutta run by Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity, where he volunteered for two months.

He massaged lotion into the withered arms of old men, bathed sick patients, prayed over the dead then carried them to crematoriums.

“In Calcutta, there are moments when you have incredible suffering,” Donovan said, “but somehow people find a way to be joyous.”

There was the blind man who always sang. There were the children who laughed and played amid the squalor. And the special kinship shared with others who helped.

“… a lot of suffering,” Donovan repeated. “But a lot of people giving of themselves.”

From India, he traveled to Indonesia for a month.

And then, life told Donovan it was time to return home to the much-missed embrace of family and friends.

Near midnight on May 12, Neil and Michelle drove slowly into the arrival lane at DIA as a tall figure with a bushy beard and a backpack walked to the curb.

“He had a scarf on,” Michelle said. But “I would know him anywhere.”

At home, Donovan ate a big plate of pasta and meatballs, satiating the craving that hunger had instilled. He reveled in the warmth of family.

“He’s very strong,” Michelle said, “but I’m just glad he’s home.”

Neil agreed. “We don’t have to worry.”

They listened to their son’s stories, marveling at the generosity of strangers who gave to the man who is always giving to others.

Yet, Neil said, “his experience is probably hard to share because we can’t understand it – we didn’t live it.”

Donovan is in California now, helping develop programs for the mostly Hispanic and disadvantaged teens served by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Sonoma.

Life kept telling him, he said, this was his next chapter.

He’s written 10 short stories about his pilgrimage and has ideas for about 10 more. He’s writing them, primarily, for family and friends so they can know how letting go propels life to unfold in wondrous, unexpected ways.

He would like to return to the Denver area someday.

But “you never know,” Donovan said. “The main thing is I’m present and have the courage to follow where life is taking me. We’ll see.”

Perhaps, for Donovan, the journey hasn’t ended at all.

Ann Macari Healey’s column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. Her column earned first place in the 2013 Colorado Press Association Better Newspaper contest. She can be reached at [email protected] or 303-566-4110.
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