Photo via The Tennessean, submitted by Kathy Taylor
By DREW TAYLOR The Opelika-Auburn News
OPELIKA, Ala. (AP) -- Nearly a year ago, Rodger Howell was given only five weeks to live.
Howell was serving in the Military Assistance Command during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s when he was exposed to Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the army to kill the foliage in trees. In the years since, Howell has had double-bypass surgery, two stints placed in his heart as well as deteriorating kidneys.
Despite his heart condition, Howell said one of the primary things that has slowly kept him alive so far is a cross-country trip he has taken on a horse-drawn buggy, where he has logged over 2,500 miles with the company of his two horses, Sonny and Dancer, as well as his border collie, Banjo.
"I've felt better now than I've felt in 11 years," Howell said, crediting his improved health to stress-free travel.
After being given his initial diagnosis, Howell began the trip from his home in Erin, Tennessee on Aug. 5 as a way to see his children, Sonja and Jason, and his grandchildren near Detroit, Michigan before he died.
"This trip started out as self-pity," Howell said. "It was all about me proving that I didn't need nothing, I didn't need nobody and that I could do it."
Since then, Howell has continued to ride through the country, even passing through Opelika Monday morning on his way to Tampa, Florida to visit his cousins. After he leaves Tampa, Howell would like to keep traveling some more and continue seeing the country with his animals.
"I'd like to go to Niagara Falls with them," Howell said. "I don't know what I'm going to do."
In his long, black 14-foot buggy and the wagon he drags behind him, Howell carries several pairs of clothes, a weather radio, food and water for himself and his animals, as well as a cell phone with a solar panel attached to the buggy for emergencies. Howell also has medication mailed to him at various stops along the way.
"This is about the most self-reliant that you can ever get, I believe," Howell said.
The trip has changed the way Howell views life, as well as society.
"When I worked in law enforcement, I had no use for human beings," said Howell, who worked in law enforcement from 1982 to 1996, the last six years as chief of the Erin Police Department. "The majority of them were liars and thieves when I worked as a cop."
During his travels, Howell stayed everywhere from churches to the homes of strangers, all whom he said took him in with grace and generosity.
"I've met thousands and thousands of good people and six people I could do without," Howell said.
One of the people Howell ran into along the way was Jacquelyn Sherbert, a Beulah resident who grew up with his him and his brothers in Belleville, Michigan, as well as attending Belleville High School, although they weren't close then.
"Her and her sisters lived a few blocks from us and were couple of years older," Howell said. "They were the beauty queens and everything."
Sherbert said she first heard of his trip last year and that when she found out he would be stopping near the Cowboy Church of Lee County on Hwy. 280 outside of Opelika, she had to see him.
"Our high school was so close that anybody from that area means a lot to us," Sherbert said. "We were all connected in a certain way, so anyone from that area means a lot to me."
Between Thursday and Friday, Sherbert visited with him for four hours, catching up on their lives since leaving Michigan.
"It was interesting to see someone that's been on such an adventure," Sherbert said. "You never know what people are going to do later on in life."
Despite his health problems, Howell doesn't blame anyone for what happened to him in Vietnam, saying he could've easily gotten cancer from working in a factory or lung disease from working in a coal mine.
"We're going to all die," Howell said. "We just have to style when we go out."