I've learned a few things in recent months about the kindness of strangers. The first is that if you are virtually homeless, just this side of broke, don't know a soul and are going to get yourself run over by a truck, then go do it somewhere around Peoria.
That is where a new friend of mine, motorcyclist Vladimir Yarets, nearly met his end. And it is where, in a manner of speaking, he found his salvation.
We were both on the road in Montana last August when I first met the guy. Not tall, but stout as an oak staff, 63-year-old Vladimir sported a bushy beard and a jacket with large letters telling you he was proud to be from Minsk, Belarus. He was riding around the world on a badly worn, smoke-belching Czechoslovakian Jawa motorcycle.
You can say hello to Vladimir, but he can't hear you. And he can't tell you about his trip because he's mute, and even if he wasn't, he doesn't know English. When he was an infant, a bomb blast blew out his ear drums, and now he's on a six-year quest to become the first deaf and mute person to ride a motorcycle around the world. When our paths crossed in Montana, he already had racked up 69,000 miles and 29 countries, and was wrapping up his ride through all 50 U.S. states.
A few weeks after our first meeting, Vladimir swung through Minnesota and spent a week at my St. Paul home. As soon as he settled in, out of his weathered pack came a scruffy little book of phone numbers. He'd flip through the wrinkled pages, spot a name, and gesture for me to call. I'd start by saying, "I am from Minnesota and you don't know me but ..." By the time I got that far, the other person would say, "Hey, you must have Vladimir. He stayed with me, too. How's he doing? Give him a big hug." I had become part of an international network of friends of Vladimir and the price of admission was pretty simple: you had to be willing to help a stranger.
A few weeks later it was my turn to receive a call, but it was awful. A woman from Puerto Rico called with news that Vladimir had been run over by a semi on Interstate 74 just east of Peoria. "Could you find anyone in Illinois to visit him in the hospital?" she asked.
Vladimir was alive, but barely. He was airlifted to a top-flight Peoria trauma hospital, OSF St. Francis, where surgeons reassembled his broken legs, ankles, left arm and shattered pelvis. It took 50 days in the hospital and another 90 in a rehab nursing home to glue him back together. His care, literally, was a gift from the good Sisters of St. Francis.
Just as amazing was the support group that sprang up to help Vladimir. What started as a single message posted on a national Internet site for long-distance motorcyclists blossomed into what we call the Vladimir Pit Crew. People from all walks of life began visiting him and helping with chores ranging from buying him new underwear to storing his demolished Jawa. Entire families would show up and kids would draw him pictures. Church groups held fund-raisers, cards and donations arrived from throughout the world, a Russian immigrant lawyer donated his services, a Chicago motorcycle dealer donated a new bike, and on and on.
Not to toss around the word "miracle" lightly, but Vladimir walked out of the nursing home in late February. He was using a cane, but he was walking. This spring he stayed at the homes of his new friends in Illinois, rebuilding his strength and waiting for warmer weather.
Right about now, the Vladimir Pit Crew will hold a send-off party and we'll say goodbye to our still-limping Belorussian buddy one last time as he boards his new bike and continues his journey. I'll miss him, of course, but just as much I'll miss the good people I've come to know only because a truck plowed into Vladimir.
I think it was kindness that helped Vladimir walk out of that nursing home door as much as anything. It was kindness that came pouring out of complete strangers. Vladimir thrived on it and it helped make him well. It was a wonderful thing to see.
Meanwhile, if you see a motorcyclist riding down the road with "Belarus" in big letters across his back, be sure to wave. But whatever you do, don't tailgate the guy.