On the afternoon of Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, Jadin Bell—the only openly gay student at La Grande High School, in La Grande, Ore.—left his home, on foot, in 20-degree weather. He walked down Walnut Street to the campus of Central Elementary—past the empty bike racks, past four leafless cherry trees and a single, white-barked birch. He sent a text message to his friend, Tara, telling her where to find his suicide note. Then he climbed onto the school’s playground equipment. He hanged himself with a length of rope. He was fifteen years old.
Doctors later told the family that the rope had deprived Jadin of oxygen for roughly nine minutes—nine minutes before a passing stranger had seen him, and taken him down, and begun to administer CPR. Those nine minutes, while not immediately fatal, had been enough to shut down all activity in his brain. Though paramedics had restored his heartbeat during the flight to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, Jadin never regained consciousness. On January 29, his parents, Joe Bell and Lola Lathrop, made the decision to take him off of life support.
“He was having seizures at that point,” Bell later told me. “It made it so he didn’t suffer anymore.”
Still, Jadin lived for five days without food or water. In La Grande, the small logging town in eastern Oregon’s Union County, 200 residents held a candlelight vigil at the library. At a school assembly, students shared stories about Jadin and sang—with a soft, tremulous cadence—“Lean on Me.” Details of Jadin’s story filtered out through the media. He’d been taunted and harassed by his peers—both in person and on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram—because of his sexuality. “He was different from the mainstream,” said family friend Bud Hill, “and they tend to pick on the different ones.”
When he finally died on Feb. 3, Jadin’s suicide became part of the nation’s ongoing dialogue about bullying. Salon wrote an article about him, as did the Huffington Post. Nationally syndicated sex advice columnist Dan Savage reiterated his call for parents to home-school their gay teenagers, if home schooling was what the teens, themselves, requested, “because you don’t want to find out the abuse was more than your kid could bear when it’s too fucking late to do anything about it.”
As a recent father of twins, this story wouldn’t leave me alone. It lingered, with granular specificity, in the fabric of my imagination. So much of the joy of the early years of parenting, for me, was the physicality of my kids’ bodies—the way it felt to lift and to hold them, to smell the buttery scent of their skin, to pull them close against me. Now, I imagined the converse of this: Jadin’s parents, watching their son die in his bed in the pediatric ICU, beloved but unreachable, a compression bandage holding the IV in his wrist, his immobile body tucked into the starched cotton sheets of the hospital bed.
Jadin’s death opened a deep reservoir of some kind within me. Because when I was 15 years old, I, too, tried to kill myself. I, too, was a bullied teenager who was unable to fit in, anywhere. And though I survived—though it did, in fact, get better—it wasn’t linear, or quick, or predictable. It took many years for my life to improve. Today, as an adult, I still struggle to overcome the feelings that nearly killed me 20 years ago—and I live in fear of their replication, someday, in my daughter, or my son.
In 1990, when I was 14 years old, my grandmother died. Following her death, my grandfather moved into our Seattle home. A devout Melkite Catholic—born in Aleppo, but exiled by the First World War to Cairo, and then by the Second World War to America—my grandfather was functionally deaf. He watched Looney Toons at maximum volume on his television and, when he wasn’t filling our house with the sounds of “Yosemite Sam” or “Tom and Jerry,” he filled it by chanting the rosary in French. I can close my eyes today and summon his voice: Je vous salue, Marie, pleine de grâce. Le Seigneur est avec vous. There was no quarter.
Though I can laugh now—at the time, to a teenager, it was not funny. The constant noise, the invasion of my living space, left me wishing, guiltily, for my grandfather’s death. Add to this a few other factors—a furtive ninth grade crush, the fact that I was overweight and teased constantly for it—and the result was a toxic cocktail of self-loathing. Today, in adulthood, it’s difficult to remember it clearly. But at the time, all I knew was that the riot within me would not subside. I could not calm it, could not control it, could not find relief.
And so I don’t remember climbing out the window, or even making the decision to climb out the window. But I do remember the moment that I snapped into awareness of what I was doing. I was crouched, barefoot, on the shingle-covered, sloping roof, 20 feet above the concrete of the driveway. I could feel the chill of the shingles against the arches of my feet; fear roared up to consume me.
I tried to get back inside. But I slipped. My feet went out from under me and I slid—head first, out of control—down the slope. At the last moment, I managed to snag the gutter. It pulled me sideways and I fell like a pendulum, landing on the cement, off-balance but on my feet. I staggered a few steps, realized I couldn’t really walk, and collapsed into the grass of the front yard. I called to my mother for help.
In his posthumously-published autobiography, “Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (From My Life: Poetry and Truth),” Goethe wrote that “suicide is an event of human nature which, whatever may be said and done with respect to it, demands the sympathy of every man, and in every epoch must be discussed anew.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that each year in America, 4,600 young people take their own lives. This number is astonishing in its bigness. Yet the shocking truth—the idea that the way we live, as a society, is killing thousands of our children each year—produces little disturbance in our collective consciousness. Maybe this is because each suicide feels so individualized. There I was—besieged by the noise of my grandfather’s television, worried that I’d never really find love, and called, by nearly everyone at school, Pauls Too Hungry. How is this an experience from which broader lessons can be drawn?
Later that night, in the emergency room, I would lie to everyone, making up a story so flimsy that I was astonished when people believed it. I’d crept out on to the roof to retrieve the screen from my window, I told them. And then I’d slipped. “Were you having any suicidal thoughts at the time?” the nurses asked me. “No, no,” I said. “Of course not. Not at all.” It was a secret I’ve always been able to keep.
Jadin Bell dreamed, in an outsize way, of being a cheerleader. During the first semester of his sophomore year at La Grande High School, he tried out for—and made—the cheerleading team, the only boy to do so in recent memory. Jadin hoped that cheerleading would be a path to some measure of social acceptance in his broader community. It wasn’t.
“They ripped him apart,” Joe Bell said. “Even when I was in the stands, they made fun of him, called him hateful names. There he was, at the football games, cheering his heart out. But he just got abuse.”
Cheerleading in America has changed over the decades of the 20th and 21st centuries. “The reputation of having been a valiant cheer-leader,” wrote the editors of The Nation in 1911, “is one of the most valuable things a boy can take away from college. As a title to promotion in professional or public life, it ranks hardly second to that of having been a quarterback.” Dwight D. Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan all were cheerleaders in high school. Female cheerleaders, in fact, were deeply controversial—even banned—as late as the 1950s.
In its current incarnation, the sport is built around a youthful, gymnastic kind of feminine sexuality—one that greatly appealed to Jadin. The pageantry and ambiguous gender identity of male cheerleading provided him with a kind of imaginative home. He also, importantly, loved the physical challenge of it.
“He took it very seriously,” his mother, Lola Lathrop, told me, in an interview over the phone. “He didn’t have any patience for cheerleaders who didn’t. And he was very, very good. He wanted to compete. That’s what drove him.”
“I have no doubt,” added Joe Bell, “if he hadn’t been kicked off the cheerleading squad, all of this could have been avoided.”
It happened late in the year—close to winter break. A teacher caught Jadin smoking a cigarette and turned him in to the school’s administration. Disciplinary action was swift. For whatever reason, the administration suspended Jadin from the team. Bell speculates that Jadin’s very presence—in the hyper-masculine world of small-town football—was somehow embarrassing to his high school.
“They hit him where it hurt, you know,” Bell said. “He was devastated.”
In his book “On Suicide,” Emile Durkheim locates the act, itself, in the social body. In Durkheim’s view, suicide is primarily a response to social isolation, above all other factors. “Man cannot become attached to higher aims,” Durkheim writes, “if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs.” The feeling of belonging—elusive, ephemeral, fleeting—is sustenance, he believes, for the human spirit.
And so at first glance it would seem almost impossible that a teenager’s entire identity could crumble from being kicked off the cheerleading team. But my own experience reminds me that emotional pain is a rhizome—and not a linear root. It touches unexpected places in the psyche, extending far from its original source. Cut off from the sport he loved, Jadin began to spiral out of control. His grades, always strong, faltered. The local police cited him for possession of alcohol. He stole his father’s pain medication. And, over the holiday break, the bullying intensified.
The La Grande High School administration didn’t return my phone calls regarding Jadin’s death. But, in the aftermath of his suicide, they worked with Union County PFLAG to set up a gay-straight alliance at the school. This was something that Jadin had hoped to do himself—but something which had garnered no support from anyone in the principal’s office while he was still alive.
“Parents still teach their kids that being gay is a choice,” Lola Lathrop said. “But all things being equal, Jadin would have never chosen to be bullied. All things being equal, he would have never chosen the way he died.”
Driving to La Grande from Portland takes you into the Blue Mountains, up through Pendleton, Oregon, and the West’s longest continually operating rodeo, past Poverty Flat Road and Old Immigrant Hill and Dead Man Summit. Pine trees blanket the land to either side of Interstate 84. In winter, the pines look almost artificial—like a child’s rendering of what a snow-covered hillside should be.
Forty-eight years ago, when Joe Bell was born, La Grande’s population was 14,000. Timber was the main industry in town. The La Grande Drive-In was showing “Dr. Zhivago” and “The Sound of Music.” In August 2013, La Grande’s population was 14,000. Timber was the main industry in town. And the La Grande Drive-In was still operational—one of four remaining drive-in movie theaters in the state of Oregon.
I visited La Grande in April of this year, setting up a meeting at the Smoke House Restaurant with Bud Hill—a man whom Jadin had considered an uncle, and who was now handling the family’s media requests in the wake of the suicide. Before our meeting, though, I had several hours to spare, and so I headed up to La Grande High. Getting out of the car, walking around the perimeter of the campus, I immediately felt, or imagined I felt, a certain pressure in the air—a certain wildness—the residue, perhaps, of hundreds of teenagers packed into a single building.
Accustomed to urban schools folded into commercial neighborhoods (as almost all the high schools in Portland are), I was struck by the physical loneliness of La Grande High. There was nothing near the building other than a few homes and, beyond the residential neighborhood, a Congregational church. Parked in front of the school was a rusted Ford F-250 with body parts in three distinct colors, 44-inch tall Interco Super Swamper TSL radial tires, a bumper sticker that said “Do not wash,” and a suspension lift. This was, then, a giant, ugly truck, and seemed appropriate only for a resident of the Everglades, or perhaps a Mad Max aficionado.
A bell rang deep within the school. The students began to filter out—including the owner of this particular vehicle. He was a tall, skinny boy in a Skull Candy T-shirt and a hunter’s orange baseball cap.
“Where did you get those tires?” I asked, hoping that I sounded friendly.
He stared at me. He frowned. “They came with the truck,” he said.
“Were they expensive?”
“They weren’t cheap.”
I lingered there for a while, watching the students board their buses and head home. They did, in fact, look like versions of the self I remembered, of the kids I remembered as my friends. I listened to the pattern of their voices, watching as the teenager in the Ford F-250 loaded four of his friends into the cab. They drove away with a flourish of the gas pedal, the intake valves of the truck’s carburetor rattling with an almost hormonal embellishment.
Later, when I described the truck to Jadin’s father, his reaction was quick and animated. “Those are the kids,” he exclaimed. “Or, that’s the truck, anyway. They’d chase him and scream insults at him from the cab.” And I had a brief flash of what Jadin must have felt. Because it would be terrifying—that giant machine pursuing you—the kids inside of it calling you a faggot, its engine roaring like an implacable beast, nobody there to intervene. If there was physically nowhere for Jadin to go—no buildings other than the school itself and the homes around it—where could he be safe? Where could he find shelter?
I met with Bud Hill at the Smoke House later in the day. Hill was hesitant to assign blame for Jadin’s death. The high school, in his view—while unforgivably slow to act—was motivated more by fear, embarrassment and conservatism, rather than outright malice. But the churches in town were, in his mind, a different matter entirely. Three different congregations had just refused to host a fundraiser to help pay the family’s medical bills.
“These churches run La Grande, really,” Hill said. “They are the social life of the community. And because Jadin was gay, they didn’t want to be associated with the family. Even after he’d passed away.”
Jadin’s father echoed this anger at organized religion. “Jadin went to church with a friend of his one Sunday, a couple of months before he died,” Bell told me. “And during the service the pastor said, ‘If you’re here, now, and you’re gay, you need to come up to the altar and repent your sins.’ What do you think about that? Does that seem Christian to you? That’s why my kid is dead, because of that kind of attitude.”
Since 1996, Bell had been employed at the Boise Cascade plywood mill in La Grande, starting on the graveyard shift green chain—then progressing through the various stages of plywood production, eventually rising to the rank of assistant millwright. After Jadin died, though, the job seemed like an impossibility. It seemed like part of a different person’s life, like a memory witnessed through intervening glass—separate, distant, unapproachable. As a member of the Lumber and Sawmill Workers’ Union No. 2851, Bell had earned some sick leave—but he quickly burned through it.
“I was broken,” Bell said. “I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. Nothing. Everything just felt empty to me.”
On February 5, 1993, President Clinton signed the Family Medical Leave Act into law. FMLA required, for the first time in our nation’s history, that employers provide job protection and unpaid leave for certain qualifying medical and family events. One of these events, however, is not the loss of a child—for which corporations must offer only seventy-two hours of personal time.
“It’s 12 weeks off to have a child,” says writer and activist Barry Kluger, who lost his only daughter, Erica, in 2001, to a car accident. “But only three days to bury her.”
In 2011, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., introduced the Parental Bereavement Act, a piece of legislation intended to amend FMLA and give more help to grieving parents. The act, however, is stuck in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions—waiting to come to the floor for a vote. A companion bill in the House, introduced by Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., is similarly stalled.
While Bell supports both of these bills, he feels like Boise Cascade was generous in the wake of Jadin’s death. “They said to take the time I needed. They’re still paying my health insurance. But I just couldn’t imagine going back there, you know. How could my life be the same?”
Unwilling to return to the plywood mill, Bell searched, in vain, for a response to Jadin’s suicide. One thing, in particular, haunted him.
“That night, the night before he did it, I caught him smoking again. And I yelled at him. I lost my temper. I said, ‘Jadin—when are you going to learn?’ That’s what I said to him. I was mad. But I shouldn’t have done it. I should have been more calm.”
Joe Bell, of course, did not cause his son’s death. He was, by all accounts, a loving father. He’d accepted his son’s sexuality, supporting Jadin’s decision to come out in the challenging environment of La Grande. Still, Bell’s guilt would not let him rest. He’d yelled at his kid; his kid had killed himself the next day. Even if they weren’t linked, the two events felt causal.
In 1982, when Bell was 17 years old—and struggling with his relationship with his own father—he’d decided to kill himself. In the middle of the night, he’d taken his dad’s .22 caliber pistol to his bedroom. He’d held the gun in his hands, willing himself to raise it to his temple and pull the trigger. He’d cocked the hammer. But then his determination had faltered. He’d slipped the gun beneath his pillow—and gone to sleep.
“It’s hard to explain,” Bell said. “You know how if you dream about falling and you hit the ground—then you’ll die? That’s what happened to me. I died, both in my dream and in reality. I died and my soul floated around. And I saw the most beautiful, most soft golden light. It filled the air all around me. And I woke up with this incredible sense of purpose. Just a pure joy.”
A sense of purpose. Over the years, Bell had always believed he was supposed to do something significant with his life. Once his three sons were born, though, he concluded that this significant thing was simply playing the role of father. He would work at the mill, be a member of the La Grande community, and raise his children. Jadin’s death, however, had upended this sense of order.
In the weeks after Jadin died, Joe Bell watched as his wife went back to work and Joe Jr. returned to the eighth grade at La Grande Middle School. He, however, spent his days inside the house, blinds drawn, submerged beneath a river of grief. And then one morning in March, sitting at the breakfast table, it came to him—the idea just appeared in his mind, fully formed. He would walk across America, speaking to community groups as he went—telling Jadin’s story. He’d talk to high schools, middle schools, elementary schools, church groups, Boy Scout troops, anyone who’d listen. It took only a few seconds to visualize, to imagine himself out on the side of the highway, moving one step at a time towards forgiveness—towards expiation for whatever he, as a parent, had failed to do.
“This is my purpose,” Bell later told me. “That’s what I’ve told Jadin. I’ve told him now I know what I was meant to do, now I get that dream I had when I was seventeen. It was about this thing happening to me. It was about losing him, and then, with walking—that’s how I’d find him again.”
Before Bell could start, though, he had to get a doctor’s clearance. He’d had both of his knees replaced with artificial joints in 2011, and even the rigors of a day at work could make his legs swell. On the doctor’s advice, he began to train, walking a loop from downtown La Grande to Jadin’s grave in the hills above the city. Slowly, his conditioning improved.
By mid-April, he thought he was ready to go. His friends had started a nonprofit, Faces For Change, that would accept donations to keep him funded on the journey. He’d consulted other people who’d made the trip, and determined that he would push a rolling cart as well as carry a metal-frame hiker’s backpack. A gallon of water weighs eight pounds; Bell would carry four of them at all times, along with his clothes, his books—many of them Bibles—his sleeping bag, his tent, and all of his food. On April 20, he hosted a pancake breakfast in La Grande and set off on the road.
Finding Joe Bell was astonishingly easy. He was equipped with a locator beacon—one that updated his GPS coordinates on the hour. I flew into Salt Lake City, refreshed my mobile browser, and sure enough, there he was—a blinking yellow dot on the margins of the Wasatch Mountain Range.
I rented a car and drove through downtown, past the Disneyesque spires of Temple Square, and the beacon worked like it was supposed to. Within fifteen minutes, I’d found him—spotted his eighty-pound handcart and his bulging blue backpack—behind a public restroom near the Salt Lake City zoo.
On the phone the previous day, Bell had asked me to bring him Dayquil and three gallons of water. He’d had a cold for the last week and, as a result, he’d only been walking 10 or 15 miles a day. Though we’d had several phone conversations, this was the first time we were meeting in person. I was nervous. As soon as he saw me, though, Bell smiled and reached out to shake my hand. “I’m so glad you’re here,” he said. “Want some chew?”
He pulled the tin—a small container of Copenhagen—out of the pocket of his nylon cargo pants and held it out to me. When I declined, Bell simply nodded. “Been using this for almost thirty years,” he said. “I got nauseous every day for the first two years I done it, but I pushed on through.” This didn’t seem, quite honestly, like much of an endorsement.
Standing on the side of the road in suburban Salt Lake, I took stock of Joe Bell. He was wiry and his skin was deeply tan—a roseate shade of brown—from the amount of time he’d been spending in the sun. He was wearing a dirty baseball cap with an American flag on it. He had a gray goatee. He was also wearing hundreds of dollars worth of clothes—an REI Safari Tech shirt, polymer pants, expensive walking shoes—but there would be no way for the casual observer to know this. Within the visual lexicon of contemporary America, Bell looked homeless: pushing a cart bound with bungee cords, carrying most of his possessions in a pack on his back. Later, on our walk, we would approach a woman in a Lexus SUV to ask directions to a restaurant. Terrified, she would lock the door as we came closer, refusing to speak to us, even through the sealed window.
I thanked Bell for allowing me to accompany him. We started walking. At first, I wanted to push his cart—to see how difficult it was, physically, to do even part of what he was doing. But then, after an hour or so, I decided to carry his pack, too. It was a hot day and the sweat soaked through my shirt. The sunscreen ran off of my forehead and stung the corners of my eyes.
“How far are we going, today?” I asked.
“We’re climbing Little Mountain,” Bell told me.
Little Mountain, it turned out, was 7,032 feet of vertical ascent in just over eight miles. Bell shot out ahead of me. Today was Day 63 of his walk. He’d lost 20 pounds—but his knees hadn’t given him any trouble. He’d had to contend with several malicious truck drivers, though, drivers who’d purposefully swerved towards him on the shoulder, trying to startle him for their own amusement. He’d also been soaked—twice—by unexpected, middle-of-the-night sprinklers, which had erupted from two of the many public lawns on which he’d slept.
“Boom,” he told me. “Just like that. Soaked.”
Bell reflected on the fact that he’d thought that more people would want to walk with him; I was only the second. Another man had met him in Idaho, but had only managed a few hours before blisters claimed his feet.
We ascended the mountain. Our conversation veered wildly. One minute we were discussing bow hunting techniques (of which I knew very little), and the next we were talking about the decision he’d had to make, together with Lola, to take Jadin off of life support. We talked about the plywood mill for over an hour, Bell going into detail about the ways raw trees were processed and reduced to pulp, then glued into enormous sheets for use in industrial-grade construction projects. Then, Bell told me how he’d felt when his son had first come out.
“I was proud of him for it,” he said. “For how brave it was, to do that, to be open about his identity.” Bell stopped walking when he said this, and stood next to the highway guardrail. He spat a shot of tobacco into the roadway. “In a small town, a town the size of La Grande, what Jadin did took enormous courage. And I’m not just saying that because he was my son. But it destroyed him.”
In 2009, the Oregon House and Senate passed the Safe Schools Act, a piece of legislation that mandated that every school district in the state draft anti-bullying policies. The La Grande District—with its four elementary schools, one middle school and one high school—received a Gold Star rating in 2012 for compliance with the act. This was the highest rating that the Oregon Safe Schools and Communities Coalition could give. Only 34 percent of Oregon school districts received it.
And yet, when Jadin and his father approached the high school’s administration for help with the near-constant harassment that Jadin was enduring, the school was slow to act. They set up an appointment with a guidance counselor, one who was not trained in crisis management or suicide prevention. And when they finally did suspend one of the main bullies in Jadin’s case, it was three weeks after Jadin’s death, when the bully had started harassing someone else.
“The problem with the Safe Schools Act, and acts like it, is that they generally lack an enforcement mechanism,” said Paul Fukui. Fukui works as the Operations and Community Engagement Manager for Portland’s Q Center, which is—astonishingly—the only brick-and-mortar LGBTQ community center from San Francisco to Vancouver, British Columbia. “Our current reality is grossly unjust. Even the phrase, ‘bullying,’ is so kid-like. But in actuality it’s assault. Kids are 13, 14, 15 years old, and they’re thinking: I’m being tormented for something I don’t even understand. Why are you doing this to me?”
Walking next to me, Bell said that he still feels his son’s presence. He recounted something from Jadin’s childhood—a ritual that the father and son had at the movie theater downtown. Bell would always buy a box of Red Vines and give two of them to Jadin. Over the last four months, if he’d gone to a movie, Bell had left two Red Vines on the seat next to him.
“It’s just my way of saying hello,” he told me.
And then, on the second day of his journey, Bell came around a corner and there, in the road, just sitting on the white highway line, were two Red Vines. He was so startled that he looked for either of his remaining sons—or his wife. But he was alone—just Bell and a long ribbon of road, glittering and bituminous in the late afternoon sunlight. So he bent down and picked up the strands of licorice. They were fresh—soft and sweet-scented, like they’d just come out of the box. What could he do? He ate them. He started to cry. He cried and walked, and walked, and cried, and walked. The sun went down. For hours that night, well into darkness, he kept on walking.
By the end of my day with Joe Bell, I was in agony. My quads ached, my hamstrings pulsed with fire. Little Mountain seemed to be growing larger and larger by the minute. I was having chest pains, flashing back to my father’s recent triple bypass surgery. Blisters had formed on both of my heels; though I didn’t yet know it, I would lose a toenail. Over the next week it would darken to purple and then black and finally fall off.
At 7 o’clock, I asked Bell to stop. We’d gone a long ways but we hadn’t made it to the pass. I took his pack off of my shoulders, which immediately erupted into a spasm of cramping. I was sad. I’d wanted to complete the climb with him, to ease his journey, even a little bit. But I’d failed. Bell prepared to call the woman—a friend of the family—who was going to pick me up and drive me back into town.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s the altitude. You did great for your first day.”
As he took out his cell phone, a cyclist came around the next bend in the road. He was a spandex-clad marvel, broad chested and impressively fit. He’s a different species of animal, I thought. Related to me but only at a distance.
“Hey,” I yelled out, “how far is it to the summit?”
The man smiled at us as he shot past. “Seventy-five yards,” he called back over his shoulder.
That night, in my hotel room near the airport, I lay down in bed with bags of ice on both of my ankles. I was about to fall asleep when my phone vibrated with a notification—I’d just received a direct message from Twitter.
It seemed almost impossible, so I called Bell. Sure enough: He’d been checking his voicemail on the side of the highway when someone had pulled up behind him. Twenty feet away, his back turned, he hadn’t heard them snatch his cart and put it in their vehicle.
As I talked with Bell, the police arrived to take his report. I offered to let him sleep in my hotel near the airport. He accepted. When he got to the room an hour later, driven there by the police, he just collapsed on the bed, wearing all of his clothes. Within minutes, he was asleep and snoring. The scent of sweat, of unwashed laundry, rose up and filled the room.
I sat up and looked over at Joe Bell. Exhausted, sick, victimized by thieves, tortured by a sense of guilt that wouldn’t ease—I worried for him. Alone on the road, he still had many thousands of miles to walk. But the thing I wondered was: How would he know if—and when—he’d really arrived.
There is a little known illness from the history of psychology called traveler’s fugue, an affliction that struck thousands of Europeans—typically working-class people—in the late 19th century. Often, the sufferer would be a male factory worker. The man in question would wake up, say goodbye to his family, and leave for his job. Somewhere on the road he’d suddenly be gripped by a dissociative state and possessed by the overwhelming urge to walk, to travel by foot in one continuous direction. The disease was so common in France that it spawned pop culture terminology – les fugueurs, or those who fugue.
Take the case of Albert Dadas, as described by the French clinician Phillip Tissié:
One morning last July we noticed a young man of twenty-six crying in his bed in Dr. Pitres’s ward. He wept because he could not prevent himself from departing on a trip when the need took him; he deserted family, work, and daily life to walk as fast as he could, straight ahead, sometimes seventy kilometers a day on foot, until in the end he would be arrested for vagrancy and thrown in prison.
Leading psychiatrists presented papers on the disease; the newspapers were full of panicked editorials wondering what to do. Then, just as suddenly as it appeared, traveler’s fugue disappeared. It became a footnote in the history of psychology. In the twentieth century, there were exactly seven diagnoses of the disorder.
But today, walking across America is more common than you might imagine. People walk to raise money for cancer research, to encourage women to get regular mammograms, to raise awareness of multiple sclerosis, to promote peace, to evangelize for Jesus Christ, to warn against the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle. Art Garfunkel did it over the course of nearly a decade, in segments of several hundred miles. In 1999, in response to the suicide of his son, Steve Fugate began walking across the country, carrying a sign that said “love life.” In thirteen years, he logged 30,000 miles on the road. When he stopped, in 2012, Oakland, California, gave him the key to the city.
Joe Bell will end his walk—after 3,985 miles, and roughly one and a half years—in New York. Jadin wanted to live there eventually; he’d gone to New York on a class trip in eighth grade and fallen in love with Manhattan. “I feel like it would have been his home someday,” Bell told me. “It would have been his ultimate destination, so I’m going to make it mine.”
Over the last three years, responding to what appears to be a rising tide of gay teen suicide, a number of organizations have initiated broad-based efforts to try to save the lives of queer youth, who seem—despite undeniable progress on several social equality issues—more endangered than ever. The Trevor Project, the It Gets Better Campaign, the National Center for Transgender Equality, GLSEN—all are devoting significant resources to combat harassment based around sexual orientation. In Portland, a local teenager, Alex Horsey, has started Project Believe In Me, a youth-led initiative that’s trying to end bullying entirely.
“It’s always been a crisis,” says Neola Young, the Youth and Young Adult Program Manager for Portland’s Sexual and Gender Minority Youth Resource Center (SMYRC). “But it’s just now getting reported.”
Yet progress is elusive. In the state of Oregon, one of the country’s more progressive states, the numbers are unquestionably grim: 45 percent of homeless youth identify as queer, 53 percent of LGBTQ youth report being harassed within the last month, 20 percent of LGBTQ youth in the state have attempted suicide—compared with 5 percent of straight youth.
I, myself, was fighting to come to a moderate conclusion with respect to Jadin’s death. I was trying not to simply decide that he was murdered—that bigotry, bureaucratic paralysis and small-minded religious zealotry had killed him, killed him as surely and as effectively as the rope itself.
Jadin’s mother took a more pragmatic stance. “The fact is,” she told me, “everyone is bullied. But when does it get destructive? When does it take someone’s life away?”
The night I returned home, I helped my wife put our 3-year-old twins to sleep. Just after 1 a.m., my daughter Beatrix woke up crying. I went into her room and lay down next to her, cradling her until she stopped sobbing. Then I slid her back under the covers and rubbed the small of her back with my thumb.
Tired, bewildered, sitting beside my daughter in her bed, I said a series of wordless prayers, my clumsy attempts at devotion. Beatrix rolled back and forth, whimpering. I continued rubbing her back. In that moment, I was a lifetime away from my confused teenage self; the room, my daughter, the fact that I was giving someone else comfort in the dark—all of it was evidence of how far a life can go, if it’s not cut short at fifteen. I leaned closer to her. “Don’t worry,” I whispered. “It’s nothing. It’s just a bad dream.” Her breathing became deep and regular. I hope she believed me.
Late in the evening of the day we walked together, Joe Bell and I came across a butterfly on the side of the road. It was a Western Swallowtail—Papilio rutulus—bright yellow, almost implausibly so. It was dying. Sitting on the concrete shoulder, inches from the passing traffic, it seemed to stagger, listing to one side, then the other, unable to remain upright. Its wings opened and closed, filled with the memory of flight but not its power.
“Hit by a car,” Bell said. “Knocked the powder right off it.”
He was probably right. Butterflies do, in fact, have powder-like scales on their wings, scales that both reflect the sun and act as a protective carapace. And an impact—especially one with a vehicle traveling over seventy miles an hour—could certainly knock the scales off a butterfly’s wings.
We stood there, pausing over the insect, and Bell started to tell me a story from Jadin’s childhood—a story about a time when, at only 3 years old, Jadin had removed a butterfly from the grille of his aunt’s car. Freed from the metal latticework where it had been trapped for so long, the insect had suddenly revived. It had flown right out of Jadin’s hands, disappearing into the bright summer sky.
“I think of him that way, you know,” Bell said, and I could feel the wave of grief surfacing, threatening to consume him once again. His voice cracked and faded away, barely audible even in the silence of the mountain roadside. “It’s how he is to me, now, anyway.”
Then Bell bent down and picked up the butterfly—cupping it in his palms. He tried to help it fly away, throwing it underhand, almost like you’d pitch a ball to a child. But it was injured; it plummeted through the air with a dispiriting amount of speed, landing hard on the edge of the pavement.
This was an awful moment. Clearly, we were both hoping that the butterfly—now imbued, explicitly, with Joe Bell’s memory of his son—would take flight. It didn’t. And so Bell walked over to it and picked it up again, placing it carefully in the shelter of a creosote bush.
“There,” he said, stepping backwards, dangerously close to the roadway himself. “It looks much happier.”