"I carry it around the world for the love of Jesus!" Arthur hollers back over the roar of traffic.
"Oh. I thought you was one of them Klan people out to kill niggers."
"Oh, no, no, no. For the love of God!" shouts Arthur, smiling and sailing by at a four-miles-per-hour yomp.
The open road, curious onlookers, a prayer on his lips - it's just another day for Arthur Blessitt, the man who, in the past 30 years, has carried his cross in every country in the world, all 277 sovereign nations. He is in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest walk of any kind - 32,765 miles - and in October he finally completed his God-given mission when he walked through part of North Korea. Now he and Denise, his English wife, are mopping up the 25 American states he hasn't done a "cross walk" in, and 25 or so groups of islands, including the Orkneys.
We meet at a gas station in South Bay, on Lake Okachobee, about 100 miles from Miami. Blessitt has a two-month walk ahead of him, up the East coast from Florida to Virginia, so he is in the habit of doing two 10-mile walks a week to keep in shape. And, of course, to keep up his ministry. No sooner has he removed his cross from its bag and bolted it together (it is collapsible and, for ease of movement, has a wheel at its base) than he is attracting the first punters. He approaches a macho-looking Hispanic man and asks him if he has accepted Jesus as his lord and saviour. Unexpectedly, the man gives Arthur his full attention, admitting that he has personal problems and allowing himself to be prayed over. Then he tucks a bank note into Arthur's top pocket. A minute later, Arthur stops a woman who is walking her small son to the doctor. Arthur gives them "Smile, Jesus Loves You" stickers and says he'll pray for her, which reduces her to tears. Then off he goes again, up the hard shoulder at a brisk pace, face into the traffic.
In 1969, Arthur was a pastor running His Place, a free coffee house on Sunset Strip in Hollywood. As part of his mission, Arthur preached in night clubs and strip joints, and he ran the Jesus tent at rock festivals: free food and help for the overdosers. He met the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and was at the Beatles' last recording session in Hollywood. Then, one night in September of that year, Jesus spoke to him and told him to take the cross which hung on the wall of the coffee house and carry it across America. So on Christmas Day he set off with four friends - beard, sandals and all - for New York.
For the last nine years Arthur has been accompanied on his world travels Denise who is as dedicated as he is to spreading the word. A former Catholic schoolgirl from Kent, today she rides shotgun in their modest camper van, meeting her husband every few miles with refreshments. In the camper van they show off their condensed photo album. Here's Arthur with his arm around Yasser Arafat in the Seventies. Here he is in Tripoli, with Gaddafi making a speech in the background; here in Belfast, with Billy Graham. Here with Chief Buthelezi, or Menachim Begin, or Prince Michael of Kent, or Pope John Paul II. At Red Square, at the White House, at Kensington Palace. Arthur, it seems, is a real-life Forrest Gump.
He has walked in 49 countries at war and dismisses bureaucracy, border guards, police and armies as minor inconveniences. "If I can't talk my way in I'll just drive into the bush and go around them." Denise chips in. "We'd walked 8,000 miles and arrived at Uzbekistan and the guards said, `No way are you coming in here.' So we got out the photo album and a guard flicked through it until he saw Yasser Arafat. Suddenly it was, `Ah, come in, come in!'"
A welcoming letter from the Libyan government has proved invaluable. "Even those Muslim countries that don't like Gaddafi still don't want him as their enemy. They let us in because they think we're his friends. But generally the Muslim nations are very welcoming. Muslims respect Jesus as a prophet." Only last year Arthur was in Iraq, and found that he was given complete freedom to carry his cross. He met Suni and Shia Muslims as well as the Christian minority.
Every so often a car or lorry driver toots a horn approvingly and waves. Isn't walking on the hard shoulder a bit dangerous? "I'm always thinking which way to jump if a car comes at me. But in 30 years I've never once slipped or tripped with the cross, though I'm pretty clumsy otherwise." Of the passers-by, he says, "If they're in my way I'll approach them." He is well aware that Americans can be hostile. One man threatened to nail him to his cross if he didn't get out of town. On another occasion, someone pulled over in his car, waited until Arthur came up to the window, and took a pot shot. He missed. "I don't know if he had blanks but he shouldn't have missed from there," says Arthur blithely. "Another time a guy shot at me from a pick-up truck. Apparently he missed too." He recounts how, one hot day in the Seventies in Birdseye, Indiana, four men with a petrol can told him that they were going to burn his cross, and him as well. Pretending not to hear them, he offered to buy them Cokes, which must have startled them. Twenty-four hours later he had them all in church praying alongside him.
Experience has taught him that most dangerous situations can be salvaged. "I've had a guy put a gun to my head and five minutes later we're having coffee together. And when I know people are coming to rob me, I say, `You look like big strong guys - can you help me with my cross?' and they end up looking after me."
A few miles outside South Bay a stout white fellow in a sedan is kerb- crawling on the other side of the road, waving and smiling at Arthur, who eventually leans his cross against the crash barrier and goes over to talk. Praise the Lord, it's another preacher.
The man in question, Carl Feyos, also works at a gospel radio station. Excited at meeting Arthur, he tries to lure him on the air. Then he calls the local weekly paper, the Belle Glade Sun, and a few minutes later another car pulls up. Two women jump out, praising the Lord. They take photographs for next week's edition, and Arthur does a live radio interview on Carl's mobile phone. Everybody joins hands to pray by the side of the road.
Then yet another preacher turns up, Steve Smith, who is from Ringgold, Georgia. Steve has blow-dried silver hair and a large gut. He looks like a pub landlord but in fact he has a TV spot in Georgia and issues Arthur with a standing invitation to go on the air. They pray together, Steve in a deep and serious "preacher voice", as Arthur calls it. After praying, Steve says that the Lord has the best advertising, because it always works.
Arthur says he fights a daily battle to keep his chosen way of life from being corporatised. He tells me that he wears Columbia hiking shirts and modern hiking boots by HotTrail, but he refuses to endorse any product. "Because of my world record, I've had companies asking me to wear their shoes but keep quiet about the cross. I've had the big five religious promoters trying to get me to sign exclusive preaching contracts. Then there's the self-help circuit. That lot want me to say I did it through perseverance and inner strength, but I just laugh and say, `No, Jesus did this!' So many religious people are hustling, it's more revolutionary not to ask for money in this day and age." He and Denise live off small private donations. They have no savings or retirement plan.
After a few miles, we climb into the camper and head for Gatorama, an alligator farm. Arthur had met the owner's sister earlier, who had insisted that they go there, as the owner was a woman who loved the Lord too. When we arrive, the owner admits that she doesn't love the Lord as much as her sister had claimed, but invites us in for a look at the 'gators. Arthur, who was rushed by a croc in Zimbabwe (he has also been attacked by baboons and snakes), drags his cross over the grass to within 10ft of a basking fat one. He says he feels protected.
The police tend to pose the greatest problems to Arthur. In America, he says, "a lot of them are really hostile, they come up with lights on and sirens blaring, asking me where my permit is. This country has changed at street level since 1969: the highway is about the last place of liberty left. You'd need a permit to do this in a park now. I wouldn't even attempt to take the cross to a mall. Security would get me in the parking lot!"
Arthur Blessitt hears the voice of Jesus in his head loud and clear, and he remembers the exact words. Christ has been a tough old taskmaster. In 1971 he told Arthur he wanted the cross carried not only in America, but abroad too. In 1977 in Jerusalem Arthur asked if he should stop and Jesus said, "I've called you to the common man, with peasants of the world, to sweat, walk in the rain, smell exhaust fumes, sleep on the road. Go! I want you to go all the way." In 1988 Jesus said, "I want you to commit to carrying the cross in every nation by 2000!"
"I don't say I'm a Christian," says Blessitt. "That has too many political connotations. I say I follow Jesus." He compares himself to the early Christians who lived without churches or bureaucracy. And although he quotes the scriptures a lot, his politics are relatively laissez-faire. He tells anyone who asks that he's a liberal and a fundamentalist. "In the Third World, people's first thought when they see me is that I'm a holy man. In America, though, some people think of the Ku Klux Klan, women often think I'm an anti-abortion protester, other people that I'm a right-winger."
So what are the theological arguments against carrying a cross around the world? "Oh, there aren't any!" he says, happily. "People say that this isn't what Christ meant when he said `take up your cross', but I'm not saying anyone else should. Others say, `Christ didn't have a wheel on his cross.' I say, `Well, he didn't carry it as far as I have.'"
Blessitt's travel tips Average shoe life: 1,000 miles Average cross tyre life: 2,000 miles Miles the cross has been carried on foot: 32,765 Miles the cross has been transported by boat: estimated 20,000 Air miles the cross has flown: estimated 1,700,000 Miles the cross has been carried on automobiles: estimated 233,000 Longest walk in a single day: 72 miles (with help); 47 miles (alone) Longest walk (timewise): Africa - almost two years Number of countries the cross has been carried in: 277 Number of war zones in which the cross has been carried: 49 Number of times Blessitt has been arrested or jailed: 24 Country most likely to be arrested in: USA City most likely to be arrested in: Hollywood Most beautiful countries: Norway; Switzerland; Greenland; Antarctica Most peaceful places: American Samoa and Manos Island in the Pacific; Maldives Most modern cities: Perth, Australia; Hiroshima, Japan Worst traffic: Lagos, Nigeria; Istanbul, Turkey; Bangkok, Thailand Cities angriest toward the cross: Amsterdam, Netherlands; Tetouan, Morocco Coldest reception to the cross: New York; Montreal; Sydney Warmest welcome to the cross: Papua New Guinea; Poland; Spain; India; Lithuania; Kiribati; Solomon Islands; Central Africa Friendliest armies: Israeli army; Palestine Liberation army Best roads for walking on: Holland Worst poverty: Tchad; Mozambique; Djibouti Most beautiful views: Mount Kilimanjaro; Mount Sinai; Norwegian coastline Most beautiful city: Jerusalem Worst weather: Nova Scotia, Canada; Antarctica; Baltic states Worst food: Squid in ink in Spain; monkey leg in Africa; rat soup in Belize; pork soup for breakfast in Russia Best food: Freshwater shrimp in El Salvador; salmon in Finland Worst mosquitoes: Greenland Best beds: St James's Club, London; Le Chateau d'Ouchy Tower, Lucerne, Switzerland; Livingstonia Beach Hotel, Malawi Worst beds: a pigpen in Colombia; a narrow board at a blown-up bus stop in the Golan Heights, Syria Longest time the cross has been lost: a month (by Alitalia airlines) Cross stolen: Christmas Day 1979, Assisi, Italy Cross wheel stolen: Bordeaux, France Cross overboard ship: Philippines Cross broken: Joplin, Missouri; Portugal; Nigeria; Turkey; New York Worst animal scares: Green Mamba snake in Ghana; baboon attack, Kenya; elephant chase, Tanzania; crocodile attack, Zimbabwe Worst jail: Concord, New Hampshire Memorable scares: Firing squad in Nicaragua: stoning and beating in Morocco; pistol attack, Orlando, Florida Biggest crowd preached to: Half a million, Atlanta Rock Festival, 1970; half a million, Washington for Jesus Rally, 1980 2Reuse content