The novelist Martin Amis once described his lifelong friendship with fellow writer Christopher Hitchens like this: “My friendship with the Hitch has always been perfectly cloudless. It is a love whose month is ever May.”
It’s a phrase that comes to mind when you meet the good-tempered Dewayne and Vicki Smith, whose sunny 22-year romance is refreshed every morning when they leave their home on North Jefferson and set out for the fast-paced walk that has been a staple of their union ever since they first met.
Rain or shine, through high winds or snow, the Smiths briskly traverse the town’s main avenues — Cottonwood, Lincoln, Kentucky, East, Madison and State — for a sum total of four and a quarter miles. They do this every day, and every day they smile and wave at the cars that pass, and for every step of the route they hold hands.
“Actually, we hold hands wherever we go,” said Vicki. “We always have.”
For many Iolans, the Smiths, with their matching strides and friendly demeanor, are as much a part of their morning commute as their mug of coffee or their talk radio program. If they don’t know Dewayne and Vicki by name, they’ve seen, probably through the scrim of early-morning light, their cheerful faces.
“In fact, this is why we’ve kept with the route we’re currently doing,” said Vicki, “because we see more people this way. Drivers will wave and honk or flash their lights. Or sometimes they’ll pull over and comment: ‘Love to see you guys out walking,’ they’ll say. Or, ‘Seeing you guys started my husband and I walking and we lost 20 pounds.’ It’s really motivating to hear people’s stories, just from the little we do.”
And if Dewayne and Vicki, who figure that they typically leave the house between 6 a.m. and 7, are running an hour late, say, or maybe a half an hour early, they’ll hear about it.
“We have a lot of people, if they miss seeing us for a day or two, they’ll get concerned,” said Vicki. “Or they’ll stop us in Walmart and say, ‘Where have you been?’”
The Smiths are equipped for all weather. Snow pants and ski jackets for the bitter months, breathable shorts and tees in the summer. The couple guzzles a pot of coffee before they embark each day and Vicki straps on the Camelbak water belt for hydration. “We’ve worked out that in an average year we walk the equivalent of from here to Maine,” said Vicki. “And we figure we can go about 600 miles in a pair of shoes, before we have to change them out.” In all weather, the Smiths try to finish their four-plus miles in under an hour.
ON TUESDAY morning, just after 7 o’clock, a handful of regular coffee drinkers sat in a back booth at the McDonalds on the corner of State and Madison. For years, the Smiths have passed the restaurant and sent up a wave to the crew of mostly elderly regulars inside, and every morning the handful of regulars waves back.
“You know, they do it rain or shine,” said DeWayne Vance, who’s been sipping coffee in that corner booth for 15 years. “They’ll put on their rain suits and hats and, if it’s pouring down rain, they’ll still walk by here. And if you’re driving along in a car — well, they’ll wave to you there, too.”
Jeri Waters sat across from Vance and held her cup of coffee with both hands. She waited for him to finish. Finally, she said: “I think it’s really sweet.”
“HONESTLY, we were just blessed,” said Dewayne. “We found each other. From day one, I think it was just meant for us to be together. Really.”
“We’ll be married for 22 years in July,” said Vicki.“We’ve always just been so close. He’s my best friend. That’s probably the best way to put it. There really isn’t anything we don’t share together.”
The couple cooks together and gardens together. They’re raising a miniature horse and a cantankerous donkey in a bit of pasture behind their home. They love to camp and bike and travel.
“Plus, by now, we just think so much alike,” said Vicki. “Even getting dressed in the morning, without knowing what the other one’s going to put on for the day, we’ll turn around and we’ll go: ‘Hey — nice color.’ ‘Nice color.’ We’re just on the same page.”
Falling in love, as the metaphor hints, is easy. It possesses all the dumb elegance of gravity; you’re pulled toward another by a force that feels beyond your control. But the Smiths, in figuring out how to sustain that passion across two decades, seem to have solved the more formidable challenge.
So: Why do some relationships last while others wither?
Dewayne and Vicki are too modest to pretend they have the answer. But they did reflect this Valentine’s season on what it is that keeps their own hearts whirring.
“It starts with the little things,” said Vicki. “For example, for 22 years Dewayne has always opened the car door for me. He’s always been, in every way, so considerate. Also, we don’t take the little chores that one another does for granted. Maybe he makes the meal and I set the table and do the prep-work. Little things. If he mows the yard, I weed-eat. We try to compliment each other with everything we do. If he’s out there with a rake and a shovel, then I’m out there with a rake and a shovel.”
“Also,” added Dewayne, “it helps to try to always look at the other person’s point of view. And think about what you’re going to say before you say it.”
“It’s simple, but always tell the other person you love them,” said Vicki.
“Yes,” said Dewayne, “and that you appreciate them. I always tell Vicki that I appreciate her and that I love her very much.”
“And, again, he does those little things,” she said. “He’ll go outside and he’ll clip some roses from the rose bush and bring them in.”
“Or, if she’s drinking tea, I’ll get up and fill her cup.”
“Or I’ll draw a heart with ketchup on his hamburger bun. Just the tiny things to let somebody know that they mean something to you. I think too many people take those things for granted.”
Such gestures of affection can invite an easy cynicism from those souls who find themselves, perhaps, less lucky in love. Somehow, though, charges of hokiness or schmaltz appear feeble in the presence of the Smiths’ very real, very rare, bond. We should all be so lucky.
Not long ago, a worker from the Environmental Protection Agency stopped the Smiths on one of their morning walks. The pair had passed him a number of times in the preceding days. “I want you to know,” the man said, “that you have to be the happiest couple in all of Iola, Kansas.”
The Smiths didn’t disagree.
The couple will continue to walk for as long as they’re able, and will continue to introduce themselves with silent waves to the thousands of Iolans who encounter them in the years to come.
“It’s just that whatever we do, we want to do it together,” said Vicki. “And, actually, there are a lot of times, late in the afternoon, where we’ll say, ‘Hey, it’s a great day. Why don’t we go for another walk?’”
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