When Richard Noble arrived Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla., a mob was waiting for him.
More than 100 townspeople and residents from other eastern states came out to greet the Palm Springs man as he entered the city with a rainbow flag and a small entourage.
Noble knew only one of the followers who joined him during the last leg of his journey — Trinity, the boxer/greyhound mix he adopted in San Antonio, Texas. The rest were drawn to Noble by the novelty, inspiration and earnest determination of his cause.
Since March 2011, Noble has walked across the U.S. carrying the flag and a mission to bring awareness to anti-gay bullying and a proposed federal bill for full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.
He says it’s the first time anyone has carried the rainbow flag on foot across the country.
His route was a zig-zag of sights and experiences. Starting in San Francisco, he walked west to east until prompted by inclement weather to get a straight-line ride north to south before heading east again on foot.
During 15 months, he crossed 2,700 miles in 10 states. Remarkably, he did so without incident.
“I did it without a hate crime,” Noble says. “I went through Ku Klux Klan towns, conservative towns, redneck towns. I went through it all — swampland.”
Mostly, Noble encountered support and kindness.
“I was always on guard but every day I was amazed by people,” he says. “I could not have done this without the good grace of people who saw me on the road and helped me out.”
Strangers took Noble into their homes to feed him or put him up for the night; city councils and elected officials issued 12 proclamations and three resolutions for LGBT equality; and the staffs of Congressional leaders met with him to discuss their efforts toward equality.
He was encouraged by the political and cultural shifts that occured nationally while he was on the road. He cites as examples the same-sex marriage victory in New York, President Obama’s support for marriage equality and the United Nations resolution declaring gay rights to be human rights.
“So many wonderful things happened in the last 15 months, but we still have a lot of work to do,” he says.
Noble’s trek also was personally and spiritually enriching. He was honored with an Indian name bestowed upon him by the Paiute tribe. He’s called Poo’e'ta’gwnea, which means “In sky bright flash of light” – a translation for rainbow.
He also realized his childhood dreams of white water rafting in Colorado and running with wild horses; held an alligator; and visited the Wyoming site where gay college student Mathew Shepard was killed in 1998.
But the journey was not without difficulties.
“Physically and mentally, it was a great challenge,” Noble says. “I managed to stay focused.”
In addition to constant exposure to extreme weather conditions — from the intense heat of the seemingly neverending Nevada desert — to the rain and snow of Midwestern states, he walked through eight pairs of hiking boots and once killed a water moccasin in his path.
A frightening moment occurred while walking along an isolated part of Highway 50 just outside Ely, Nev. A pickup truck of young men passed him twice and then turned in the middle of the road. As the truck approached a third time, Noble removed his backpack, assumed a stern stance and braced himself for whatever was to come. The truck slowed, the window came down and the passengers asked about the rainbow flag. Noble explained what it was and said “Peace.”
“Oh, OK peace,” was their reply before waving good-bye and driving off, he says.
The hero’s welcome that awaited him in Jacksonville was an unexpected reward for achieving his goal.
Representatives from Obama For America were there to congratulate him. Dwight Eubanks of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” showed up to greet Noble, and Dorothy Bishop serenaded him with “Over the Rainbow.”
“It was a great day for the Pride flag,” Noble says.
He’s optimistic there will be many more great days ahead for LGBTs and the particular flag he carried. He drilled its staff with mementos given to him along the way. Noble plans to meet with the Smithsonian Institute about taking it.
Other plans include attending Gay Pride celebrations in New York City and New Orleans, then visiting his mother in Carson, Nev., before returning to the California.
His new goal is to be home in Palm Springs by the end of June or in early July. The next year will be spent writing a book about his once-in-a-lifetime experience — the time he overcame self-doubt and his naysayers to show us all that if any cause is worth walking across the United States for, it’s full equality for all Americans.
Photos courtesy of Richard Noble