A few lessons I learned from my pilgrimage that may be helpful to you in the trials ahead…
The Unknown is Scary. Despite my jaunty confidence before leaving, I was scared. I have serious neurological damage that was supposed to leave me partially paralyzed on my right side, but just left me in constant pain. Privately, I thought friends who thought I was going to be badly hurt or killed out there had an excellent point. Early on I was afraid of the animals that would come sniffing around me at night; I was afraid every morning of not being able to find suitable cover that night; I feared inclement weather; I worried about being attacked by other people.
We are More Adaptable Than You Think. Eventually, I learned to tell the animal by the noise it makes coming through the brush (the louder they are, the less dangerous they are). I learned that when you get soaked, you get dry again – and I got to be really good at knowing how the weather was going to turn by various signs and smells in the air. Thank God my first few months were through the south, where greenery and good cover are lush and abundant. I learned over time how to camp undetected within the midst of urban areas and within feet of where people were walking. A couple of times when cougars woke me up coming into my camp at night, after they recognized me and ran off, I just went back to sleep.
Misery is not as Miserable as We Imagine It. When people asked me what I would do when it rained, I loved to smile and casually say, “Usually, I get wet.” Not so bad, but if you didn’t have good cover and it was cold, spending a night shivering and wet is really no fun. But you get warm and dry again. Waking up with frost in your hair and eyebrows, with your water bottles frozen solid is, well, a bracing experience. You can’t lay around. Get up and get moving. Get that circulation going to thaw out your feet so you can feel them again. Later on, when I hit over a hundred days of temperatures over 100 degrees, I HATED having to drink hot water out of my bottles…and I hated the salty sweat that, no matter what I did, got into my eyes and made them burn as I walked. But oh! how good it was to get a fountain soda after a hard day’s walking in the heat – and how sad it was not to come upon any little store after the same type of hard day. Creek and river water are fine – it often kept me going – but a fountain soda after a hard day’s walk is nirvana. The multitude of hardships were not as difficult as you think, but made the little pleasures much more delightful.
We Cling to What We Know. In the year and a half before I left, as I divested myself of just about everything of the few things I had, the hardest was my library of books I had read. Though I gave away a lot individually, I still had about 1,300 books, going back to when I was in high school. Oh, was I attached to them. After I left with nothing, (literally $50 in my pocket), I thought I was really living detachment. But it is hard and scary not knowing where you are going to sleep each night, not knowing if you’ll get anything but trail mix to eat that day. When I would find a place that was really comfortable, well-protected with great cover, I would not want to leave. Seriously, a nice clearing in dense woods close to civilization would get me thinking I had found a home. I laughed to realize that when you have nothing, a clearing in the deep woods can become the subject of your ardent desires and covetousness. But when each day you choose to venture into the further unknown, you find yourself wanting to cling to the littlest comforts. Sometimes I would stay a day or two, but that’s all. I learned something about detachment along my way.
Keep Moving. Even when you have nothing, what you know is so much easier and soothing than what you don’t. Don’t let it beguile you. Keep moving. In Mississippi, I sprained my ankle. It is tough slogging carrying 75 lbs. on your back with a sprained ankle. But if you want to eat, if you want to make progress, you gotta keep moving. For a week and a half I limped along…couldn’t bear to go more than five miles in a day. But I kept moving. Your goal is ahead of you, not behind you. If you go back, it is too easy to lose sight of your goal or to get comfortable and lose heart. Keep moving.
Learn to Receive With Gratitude and Grace. Early on a young couple with their toddler picked me up and gave me a ten-mile ride. We shared our stories. They were saving up to pay the electric deposit so they could move into a trailer and out of his Mom’s house. When they dropped me off, he tried to slip me a five-dollar-bill. I refused and told him to put it towards the deposit on his electricity. I will never forget the crestfallen look on his face when I refused. I never did that again. People hate being played, but there is almost a desperate need for the glow of helping another when you know you are not being played. After that, I never refused the spontaneous kindness of strangers. If someone went overboard, I would scale them back, but otherwise, I received with grace. I wrote little articles for an online studio on my laptop at libraries. The pay was tiny and often I could not find a library…so I was sometimes raggedly self-supporting and deeply in need at others. The little kindnesses came in handy – and on a few occasions a friend bailed me out when I had gone too many days without food. Sometimes, the only gift you can give is to receive with grace – and how good it feels to give to a joyful receiver. I realized what good it did others when a young man gave me ride in far western Alabama over the border into Mississippi. He had seen me in the library the previous day and was, himself, going into Meridian to try to get work. He had been in jail for three months and was broke, except for the gas he had in his car – but hey, another passenger didn’t cost anything. I was profoundly grateful I had enough money on my cash card to get both him and me breakfast at McDonald’s. At first, he didn’t want to accept my charity, but he grinned when I reminded him how grateful I was for his charity to me. And he was hungry. Middle class people usually know how to give with grace, but their pride often prevents them from accepting with the same grace, In Christianity, we are to care for each other as loving brothers and sisters. Sometimes we are in need; sometimes we can fill a need. If you don’t know how to receive with grace, discipline yourself to learn – for in the times ahead, you will sometimes be a giver and sometimes a receiver. And sometimes, the greatest gift you can give is to receive with graceful gratitude.
Expect the Unexpected. I had a general route I was following, but several times events changed it in minor ways. A few times, it was disrupted and changed in major ways. You have to live fortitude with flexible muscles. I knew where I began and what my ultimate destination was. That’s pretty much it – along with my basic direction. Do not quibble with God just because it turns out that your plan is not precisely what His plan is. Give thanks and keep moving.
If You Really Need Help, Ask a Poor Man. I had a few middle class people who were kind to me or invited me to stay with them a day or two. I had one man who turned out to be quite wealthy who gave me shelter for a few days. But for the most part, it was the people in rattle-trap old cars and trucks who would stop to check on me and help me along my way. A sad commentary, but a true one.
God Will Give You More Than You Can Handle. Thanks to my sister, Kim, for putting this into words for me. The great evil of our time, the one that has gotten us here, is that we believe we are sufficient to ourselves. We are not. So sometimes, in His love, God puts us in situations we can’t handle in order to force us to trust Him. What a blessing it is! It teaches us how little our efforts ultimately amount to while vastly growing our confidence in God’s providence – which, again, often does not look like what we thought or planned.
Grace is Where You Find It. Be Open. Two of the most touching kindnesses were shown me by homeless people – a young woman in San Antonio and an older man in Oak View, California. People’s hearts want to reach out to each other. Live so you encourage the reaching.
Trust God. I encountered many perils along the way; twice threatened with knives, once with a gun. In the beautiful wilderness, I was usually gnawingly hungry and terrified each day I would not find another stream in which to keep my water fresh. Once, near the end, I had gone four days without food and was eating plants. A friend put some money on my card. When I finally came near a small restaurant, my mouth was watering for a half mile out. The next three restaurants I went to refused to take any money from me. I thought, ironically, that had I known that was going to happen I would not have gotten so hungry to begin with. And then I thought, it’s God’s gracious little way of telling me, “My grace is sufficient for you.” And so it is for us all. We will all soon be on pilgrimage. It is the beginning of our reclamation, not our destruction.