California native making the world his home

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 31, 2005

CENTREVILLE &045; Gil Patterson is homeless, but he’s not unhappy. After all, he’s living a kind of freedom most Americans never know.

Earlier this year, the 63 year-old California native left San Francisco en route to Key West with all his possessions-on a bicycle.

&uot;It’s an education. You talk to people more. They see you on the bicycle, and they want to talk,&uot; he said.

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On Sunday morning, Patterson was headed west on Mississippi 24 between Centreville and Woodville, laboring up a long hill in the morning sun.

&uot;It took me three and a-half months to get to Key West, including work stops. I don’t beg,&uot; he said.

Patterson found odd jobs to support himself along the way, digging trenches on a California farm, razing an old building in Arkansas, selling watermelons from a truck bed in Tennessee and roofing hurricane-damaged homes in Florida.

But the journey has not been without moments of uncertainty.

Patterson awoke one night to the weight of a rattlesnake crawling over his sleeping bag in the Arizona desert.

&uot;I felt him first, sliding over my ankles, and then I saw him crawl off. I laid very still there for a long time,&uot; he said.

Often camping along roadsides, Patterson has drawn the attention of a few policemen, too.

&uot;I’ve been checked several times, but I have all my identification and documentation. But it’s alright. I know they’re just doing their job,&uot; he said.

Patterson tows a small trailer behind his bicycle, an American flag waving atop a mound of tents, sleeping bags and supply sacks. He bought a new bike when he reached Key West.

&uot;I’ve worn out three back tires, three front tires, 15 tubes and four sets of brake pads,&uot; he said.

Holding an art degree with a minor in English, Patterson admits life on the road is hard at times. He’s dubbed his sleeping bag ‘A River Runs Through It’ because it’s been rained on so many times. And meals usually consist of cold beans and chili or spam with crackers.

But good fortune has followed Patterson, too. Following an interview with a television camera crew in Arkansas, he was treated to a family barbecue. And an alderman running for re-election in a Mississippi town invited him to a free jambalaya dinner.

&uot;I told her I didn’t vote here, but she said ‘That’s OK, come on and eat anyway.’ People have been really generous to me, especially in the South,&uot; he said.

Patterson got his first taste of travel in the Army when he was stationed in Korea in 1960.

&uot;I went on R & R in Japan, and that put the bug in me,&uot; he said.

Nicknamed &uot;Guido&uot; for his Italian cooking skills, Patterson said he lived in Europe and the Far East, working in restaurants in Hong Kong and as an English language teacher in Thailand.

Suffering a serious illness after being stung on the leg by a horseshoe crab in Thailand, Patterson returned to the United States for an extended recovery in 1989. He chuckled as he recalled how doctors recommended bicycle riding to rehabilitate his leg.

&uot;That leg is healed up good now,&uot; he said.

But Patterson said he found it even harder to recover economically after the incident. &uot;I was out of the workforce for a long time, and it was just hard to get back in,&uot; he said.

Still, an unfettered lifestyle, free of mortgages, deadlines and commitments, has been a blessing, Patterson said.

&uot;All I have to do is work for my next meal and take care of my bike…I’m about as happy as I’ve ever been. I don’t think I’ve been more attuned to my senses and with nature than anytime in my life.&uot;

Tucked away in one of his satchels, wrapped in plastic bags for weatherproofing, Patterson keeps an accurate daily journal in several languages and is considering writing a book about his life on the road.

&uot;Would it be worth a book? Maybe. It would have to be a humorous book, though, because I’m a pretty positive person.&uot;