Deadly diagnosis leads Vietnam vet to ride horses across country

Deadly diagnosis leads Vietnam vet to ride horses across country
Published: May. 27, 2014 at 9:18 PM EDT
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SALEM, AL (WTVM) - What would you do if a doctor said you have five weeks to live?

A Vietnam veteran received that news and he decided to quit his job to go on a cross country trip by horse and carriage.

Rodger Howell passed through East Alabama on Memorial Day and that's where News Leader Nine caught up with him.

"When I first started out, it was self-pity on my part.  I just wanted to escape society, but I ended up running right into it.  And I found out society isn't all that bad," said Howell.

So far, he has ridden through eight states in nine months. Starting in Tennessee, he made a stop in Michigan, and his next destination is Tallahassee Florida. From there he plans to head back north to Niagara Falls.  The only companions on the trip are his dog, Banjo, and his two horses Sunny and Dancer who pull the wagon. 

"[The horse] swam at Lake Michigan, so I want him to swim in the Gulf of Mexico."

Doctors originally predicted Howell had a very short time to live, but after the first leg of his trip, they changed their outlook dramatically, saying they don't need to see him again for another year.  Howell credits his new stress-free lifestyle for improving his health.

"I figure I'll do it until the end of my life or until I get tired of it."

Most of the space in his carriage is devoted to storing feed for the horses. When it's time for a meal, he'll tie them off outside a fast food restaurant alongside the rest of the cars.

"I'll pull it in the parking lot, go inside and eat my meal, come out and give [the dog] two hamburgers, and [the horses] usually drink water while we're there."

Howell said he's often approached by children who want to pet the horse and by adults who want to hear his story.  Today, one of those people was Mrs. White of Salem, who called her husband after she met Howell outside a store in town.

"He said he's looking for a place to camp out tonight and I was just wondering if you cared if he came to the house and camped out in the back.  I said no, shoot no, bring him on.  I love it.  A Vietnam vet too, just like me.  He's not a vagabond, he's not bumming, he's just out enjoying the last years of his life," said Jerry White.

Howell suffers from a heart condition that he traces back to a chemical to which he was exposed during his service in Vietnam.  Agent Orange is an herbicide that was sprayed on forests to kill trees, eliminating obstacles and removing places for the enemy to hide.  The chemical has been linked to a number of debilitating diseases. Originally from Michigan, Howell says he's not bitter about receiving these side effects.

"It was safer in Vietnam than it was in Detroit. I went on my own, nobody forced me.  If I went in the coal mines, I could have had black lung, if I went to the factories I could have had cancer. Either way, something's going to get you.  The best thing to do is to make the best of your life, set an example, and go on," said Howell.

He has endured a lot of bad weather on the road. He was originally traveling in an open carriage, but as he passed through an Amish community in the Midwest, they insisted on building him the covered wagon he's riding in today, which offers better protection from the elements.  It also has reflectors and mirrors.

When it comes to planning his travels, Howell can't bring horses on the interstate, so he's often forced to take detours that add hundreds of extra miles to the journey.

"I try to stay out of traffic's way, but I still want to take the most direct route. Instead of going through Columbus, hopefully I can find a way around it where I won't impede traffic but I can still get where I need to go."

Right now, Howell is enjoying his new way of life and says he is completely at peace knowing that his time is limited.

"there's no sense sitting on a porch and crying about what took place. It's there.  We're all going to die sooner or later.  It's just how you go out.  I want to do it with a little bit of style."

Remember to drive safely, because sometime in the near future, you may see his horse and carriage riding down Hwy 280 and then to Hwy 27 on his way to the Florida state capital. You can follow his journey on Facebook by searching his name, Rodger Howell.

*UPDATE: On Tuesday, May 27, we received word that one of the wheels brokk on Howell's wagon, and the other seems unstable. Anyone who knows how to repair wagon wheels is asked to contact Michelle Holmes at 334-540-2940.

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