GREEN RIVER, Utah — When the walking dead and the defeated road warriors wander in from the wasteland, the Highway Angel takes them under her wing.
In the unforgiving desert of southeastern Utah, heaven is where you find it. For more than 5,000 lost souls in six years, the pearly gates have been chain-link, and salvation has been waiting in seven aging trailers at the desolate intersection of Interstate 70 and U.S. Highway 6 just west of Green River.
The unlikely-looking guardian angel at the door is a 65-year-old Chippewa Indian woman with sunken cheeks and wire-rimmed glasses, black hair streaked with gray and a heavy crucifix around her tanned neck.
Food, Bed, Acceptance
A steady parade of life's castoffs have found solace with Helen Murray, along with a sandwich, a bed for weary bones, a cool drink for parched throats and a moment of acceptance in a world full of rejection.
"I call them the walking dead because their minds are gone," Murray said. "And when your mind is gone, why, the only thing that's left is your body, and you're putting one foot in front of the other."
Many of the wanderers are military veterans or mental patients released from institutions, people who don't know where they're going and don't know where they've been, who talk to themselves or punch holes in her walls.
They Saw a Light
Sometimes Murray cruises the highways, sharp eyes on the lookout for people who haven't had a ride all day. Sometimes, people with nowhere left to go walk down a hill to the trailers where she acts as a 24-hour security guard for two companies' abandoned buildings.
"At night, you can't see any lights down here, and I asked them, 'How did you know I was down here?' and they would tell me, 'There's a light at the top of the hill.' But there's no light up there," Murray said. "And I thought, well, if there's a light at the top of the hill, and I didn't put it there, and nobody else put it there, then God must have put it there, and there was a reason for it."
She used to have an arrangement with the Emery County sheriff's office, which would refer transients to her. This year, they stopped doing that, citing liability worries.
'I Can and I Will'
Emery County officials "tell me I cannot do the work God set in front of me," she said, fuming. "I can and I will. What I do in my own house is my own business. You still have the right to have who you want in your house, whether it's a bum or a millionaire."
Murray said she plans to move her trailers to property she owns in neighboring Grand County.
Tom Kuehne, unit supervisor of Grand County social services, said the county informally supported Murray's efforts but had the same liability concerns as Emery County.
"We were afraid somebody was going to knock her over the head," Kuehne said, adding that employees greatly admired her skill and good will. "She's got a huge heart. No question about it. She's helped a ton of people in her time."
1,072 Wanderers Last Year
Last year, Murray said, 1,072 people stayed in her trailers, sometimes as many as 16 in one night. The trailers have no electricity or running water, so she hauls water from town in five-gallon containers. Her charity is all at her own expense, exactly $22,727 last year. That left her just enough to live.
"Honey, you only have to have what you need to survive," she said. "When you have what you need, if you have a need for something more, a way will come."
A way always has come for Murray. On her own since she was 10, she said she has lived in chicken coops and barns, and has chopped wood and cleared brush for a meal. Her brother nicknamed her Lucky, she said, to make her feel better because she wasn't. One day when she was 18 she had something of her own--27 acres of bottom land in Kansas with a corn crop ready to come in--but she didn't hang onto it for long.
Gave Away Her Farm
"These people came along, they didn't have a place to stay, no place to go," she said. "They had these two kids, and the kids were hungry. I bedded them down and I fed them and the next morning I got up and I took the deed to my property and signed it over to them. It was the first thing I ever gave away. They needed it worse than I did."
Murray has acquired a few more things since then: 12 children, the trailers, and three dogs, Princess, Rusty and Cheech, a pit bull terrier that's her pride and joy. Most everything else has passed into someone else's hands.
"Things don't matter," she said. "Things can always be replaced. They come and they go like the wind. If you have something that is important to somebody else's well-being, and you can get along without it, why not give it to them?"