An old rugged cross

You see some odd things on California beaches in the summer, but this one stood out: a grizzled man in a dark hat, dragging a wooden cross along the sand.

And the cross had wheels.

We were up along the beaches of the Central California coast this holiday weekend, staying in a small town known for its deliberately off-the-wall Fourth of July parade: a float of tap-dancing seniors from the local center; a life-sized, home-made yellow submarine; and two guys on uni-cycles tossing a giant American flag back and forth down Main Street.

As the parade ended and the crowd thinned out, I walked past the town pier and toward the beach. That’s when I saw him: in weathered jeans and weathered face, hauling his wooden cross over his shoulder.

He introduced himself as Chuck Johnson, and said he’d been carrying the cross from one end of the country to the other for 23 years – the last ten years without stop. He’s on his seventh cross, he told me -- he left one on an Indian reservation; another was donated to a small church in South Dakota. The others, he said, just wore out from the never-ending journey.

What made him take up the cross was something he left unclear. He’d done some bad things, and then one day God told him to drive into Tijuana, Mexico, with $55 and buy the wood he’d need to build his cross. It came to $53 and change -- just enough change to get him back across the border and into San Diego on the trolley.

He took it as a sign and began walking.

Chuck said he was happy to be back in California because of the weather, but that it was tougher to do his thing here than in places like Oklahoma and Arkansas -- in the Bible Belt, people understood him and were generous. They took him in, cared for him, made sure he had all he needed before he went on his way.

But in California, he said, people just lumped him in with all the other nuts out here on the beaches and in the alleyways -- no one paid much attention.

That was, to a point, true. Live here long enough, and the eccentrics just coast off your back, like the turban-wearing guitar player on roller skates who still calls Venice Beach home. As Chuck talked, perhaps a dozen people gathered around, out of a Fourth of July weekend crowd of many thousands.

But there was a difference: the folks who came up to him didn’t approach him like he was some typical California crazy -- they asked sincere questions, were moved by his story, and signed his ink-covered cross with a certain reticence you could only call reverence.

Back at our rented beach house that night, I googled Chuck and found a few articles about him, some video taken by local TV stations and churches across the country. My search also turned up more than a few other people doing much the same thing: carrying crosses from coast-to-coast in search of redemption for themselves or others.

In its own way, this seemed a proper thing to do on July 4th. More than the yellow submarine -- more than even the old surf music played by a grey-streaked band billing itself as “The Dentures” -- Chuck and those like him were the real independents, and very American.

Out on the beach, it was soon time to move on. The small crowd who signed his cross stood and watched as he started off down the sand to the next town a few miles south. He walked along the shoreline to his own drummer, and kept walking.

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