SPRING HILL — The world blew into Suzanne Kidder's storefront office on the afternoon of Feb. 13.
Hanging on to it was 50-year-old Erik Bendl of Louisville, Ky., with his walking companion, Nice, a sturdily built, people-friendly blackmouth cur of mixed big-dog breeding.
The duo was en route from Pensacola to Tampa, propelled by a 6-foot inflatable world globe. A squall of wind and rain made for less than ideal travel conditions.
"We sort of got blown across the street. We stopped under an awning," said Bendl, a stocky carpenter who wears a broad-brimmed felt bush hat.
At the small plaza at U.S. 19 and County Line Road, employees of Kidder's Central Energy regional office spied the bedraggled travelers. She invited them inside.
Bendl told Kidder his story. He ended staying in Hernando for more than a week — to help Nice mend a bit — and now Kidder hopes to help him out today with a fundraiser.
Bendl explained to Kidder that he was walking "to change the world" — specifically by drawing attention to walking as a way to manage diabetes, more broadly by encouraging donations to the American Diabetes Association.
Bendl's mother, a Kentucky state representative, died of diabetes at age 54. Prior to her death, she had suffered amputation of her toes, vascular surgeries on her legs and removal of her gall bladder, all due to the disease.
Imbued with his mother's do-good philosophy of life, the mild-mannered, soft-spoken Bendl took on the diabetes awareness cause at the invitation of a Kentucky diabetes group in 1998. Tethered to his wrist, and guided by a stout willow walking stick, the 80-pound world replica sphere turned eyes and drew questions, as intended.
Bendl is now on his ninth walk, previous jaunts having tallied 6,000 miles in 39 states and raising donations of about $1,000 a month. Each outing has consumed one to five months.
When the walks began, it was "just me, my backpack and the ball," said Bendl. Nice came later, six years ago. The pair travel without assistants or backups.
Home base is a custom converted, eye-catching purple Chevy van, where they sleep. They rise and shine with the weather's permission, spend much of the day walking and then re-walk their route back to the van before driving back to the point where they had stopped walking.
They eat and sleep, then get up and go again.
"I do travel with a GPS," Bendl said with a grin, then explained: "Good People System."
"Nice people always want to give me dog food," he said.
And he thanked Kidder for her assistance over the past week while he has been held up in Hernando.
"Suzanne has taken us under her wing," he said.
After a weekend jaunt to Tarpon Springs and back, Bendl pointed out that Nice had developed a growing limp in his left rear leg. Kidder called Westside Animal Clinic, staffed by veterinarians who care for her own dogs, Drs. Jim Hicks and Mary Green.
They diagnosed a bone spur in the knee.
"They ordered two weeks of light duty, like normal what a dog should walk," Bendl said. "It wasn't worth destroying the dog just to get to Tampa, so I decided to stay here."
Since he has encountered his own muscle and bone strains previously, he now describes his outings as going "toward" a destination rather than "to."
Kidder plumped up a bed of pillows on her office floor for the 75-pound Nice. He plops down with an audible thud and a sonorous sigh.
Kidder didn't stopped there. She enlisted Michael's Bistro, a neighbor in the shopping plaza, to stage a fundraiser today to help pay for Nice's veterinary care, with any extra proceeds to be given to Bendl's nonprofit foundation, which raises money for the American Diabetes Association.
In the meantime, Nice reposes in respite, and Bendl repairs his "world." It snagged a roadside signpost last week. In the strip's parking lot earlier this week, Bendl slathered glue on a canvas patch and to edges of previous patches on what originally was a kids group activity ball, popular on school playgrounds in the 1970s and '80s. He touches up paint to keep continents and oceans within identifiable boundaries.
Otherwise, Bendl is changing the world, according to his followers on Facebook. Recent postings include a sufferer of diabetes-induced neuropathy who wrote that after two days of inspired walking she once again had feeling in her feet. A mother who started regular walking with her son wrote that she reached a long-elusive goal: losing 90 pounds in 90 days.
Kidder herself, since encountering Bendl and Nice, has begun daily morning walks with her 16-year-old border collie, George.
"I noticed last night that for the first in a long, long time, he slept all night through," said Kidder.
Such testimonials give Bendl a great deal of satisfaction.
Of today's fundraiser, he said: "If you can't come, at least go for a walk."
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]