PALM COAST, Fla. – The Dalai Lama's nephew was smiling, radiating energy as he tackled the first leg of a 300-mile walk to promote Tibet's independence from China. He insisted on finishing the last two miles on his own, even as darkness fell.
"For the cause," Jigme K. Norbu said, as he had on so many similar journeys before.
Norbu was alone on a dark coastal highway Monday when was struck and killed by an SUV. He was headed south in the same direction as traffic, following a white line along the side of the road, according to the Highway Patrol. The impact crumpled the vehicle's hood and shattered the front windshield.
Authorities said it appeared to be an accident and the driver, 31-year-old Keith R. O'Dell of Palm Coast, swerved but couldn't avoid Norbu. The Highway Patrol was still investigating, but didn't expect any charges. O'Dell and his 5-year-old son were not hurt.
Norbu, 45, had completed at least 21 walks and bike rides, logging more than 7,800 miles in the U.S. and overseas to support freedom for Tibet and highlight the suffering of its people. He completed his most recent 300-mile trek in December in Taiwan.
He lived in Bloomington, Ind., where his father had been a professor at Indiana University and he owned a restaurant that served Tibetan and Indian cuisine.
He had set out Monday with a group of friends, but insisted he would continue on his own after one of his companions tired and they decided to take a van to a restaurant. Norbu planned to meet them there.
About an hour before the accident, Norbu met a Florida couple, Gary and Damian Drum Collins, who had heard about his jaunt through town.
"He was smiling and happy. He had as much positive energy as you could imagine," Gary Collins told The Associated Press.
His wife took a picture with Norbu, who was wearing running shoes, a dark pullover and a white sandwich board-like sign that said, "Walk For Tibet Florida."
The couple was troubled by the fading sunlight and urged Norbu to stay at their place for the night. He was already behind schedule, they said, and agreed to change his plans.
"It was becoming dusk. We were worried and we were concerned he wasn't going to have daylight," Gary Collins said.
They suggested Norbu stay inside their condominium, about three miles from their Hammock Wine & Cheese Shoppe, but he wanted to spend the night under the stars.
So the Collinses made preparations for Norbu and his group to spend the night outside the cheese shop. They left a towel, bar of soap, three bottles of coconut juice, a can of stuffed grape leaves and crackers on a table outside. The back door was also unlocked so the travelers could shower and use the restroom.
A note for the group read: "Hi! Please make yourselves at home. It is an honor to have you here."
Norbu was killed just a quarter of a mile from the shop. On Tuesday, a vase with seven roses marked the accident site on the side of the two-lane State Highway A1A, where the speed limit is 55 mph and there are no traffic lights.
A woman who identified herself as the mother of the SUV driver said her son didn't want to talk to the media.
"What more is there to say? He was wearing dark clothes. It was an unfortunate accident. He hasn't been charged. That's all we're going to say," said the woman, who would not give her name.
A dishwasher at a nearby restaurant was killed in September along the same stretch of road where Norbu died.
"It is such a sad thing," Damian Collins said. "I was honored to see him. I said, 'I'm sorry to stop you,' but he said he didn't mind because he wanted to raise awareness for his cause."
Norbu, the son of the Dalai Lama's late brother, Taktser Rinpoche, had done several other similar walks, including a 900-mile trek in 2009 from Indiana to New York.
After that four-week journey, his feet were full of painful blisters. He had lost nails and the feeling in one toe.
"But I feel energized, because the cause itself energizes me," Norbu told AP then, after emerging from New Jersey through the Lincoln Tunnel.
That walk marked the 50th anniversary of the failed Tibetan rebellion against Chinese rule that resulted in the exile of his uncle, who is Tibet's top spiritual leader.
Thupten Anyetsang, owner of Anyetsang's Little Tibet Restaurant in Bloomington, said he once joined Norbu's father on a 60-mile walk between Indianapolis and Bloomington to promote awareness of Tibet. He said the hazards posed by passing cars were evident.
"There can be dangers, especially when you're walking on the highway or rural roads," he said.
On the outskirts of Bloomington Tuesday night, about 40 friends and fellow Buddhists prayed for Norbu. They sat on maroon cushions aligned in rows on the floor of the ornately decorated shrine room of the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center that Norbu's father founded.
Center director Arjia Rinpoche led three other monks through a series of prayers in front of a framed photograph of Norbu lit by three burning candles. The prayers came amid the monks' rhythmic chanting and pealing of bells.
"He was so full of life, full of energy, and very, very dedicated to his father," said Mary Pattison, a Bloomington resident who was an assistant to Taktser Rinpoche, who was committed to the Tibetan cause.
"He (Norbu) grew up drinking that in," she said. "He was carrying forth, carrying the torch for his father."
Taktser Rinpoche was a high lama who was abbot of a monastery when the Chinese invaded. The brothers fled into exile following the 1959 uprising. Rinpoche, who died in September 2008 at 86, was a professor of Tibetan studies at Indiana University in Bloomington and the Dalai Lama's U.S. representative.
David Colman, whose son has an arts store near Norbu's restaurant, said he had shown some wild behavior during his youth but had come into his own in recent years and embraced the Tibetan political movement.
"He was maturing. Jigme was growing into being a full-fledged figurehead for Tibet," Colman said. "It's really tragic that this happened just as he was hitting his prime as the nephew of the Dalai Lama."
In northern India, officials at the Dalai Lama's office in Dharmsala could not immediately be reached and the Tibetan government-in-exile had not commented as of late Tuesday.
China claims Tibet as part of its territory, but many Tibetans say Chinese rule deprives them of religious freedom. Beijing accuses the Dalai Lama of pushing for Tibetan autonomy and fomenting anti-Chinese protests.
Norbu talked about his relationship with his uncle in an interview with the Chicago Tribune published in 1995.
"It's hard sometimes," Norbu told the newspaper. "I don't get next to him that often. I can't just hug him or anything like that. You don't do things like that. Sure I have an audience with him. Sure I see him. I respect him to the point where if I'm in India I don't go see him every day. He's got more important things to do. He's got 6 million Tibetans to worry about."
Associated Press writers Freida Frisaro in Miami and Rick Callahan in Bloomington contributed to this report.
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