By the early spring of 2010 I knew that early the next year I would embark on a cross-country pilgrimage. It excited me, scared me and relieved me.
For many years I had known that a time would come when I had to walk alone into a wilderness. I had long feared that I would be fleeing from oppression as things in the nation and world degenerated. I was very relieved that it appeared my journey would not involve fleeing from anything.
I was scared because, back in 2003, I had suffered a neurological problem that was supposed to leave me at least partially paralyzed on my right side. Thank God the surgery was far more successful than even the doctor anticipated (though the planned two-hour surgery took eight hours. They nearly lost me several times on the operating table). I was not paralyzed at all. But ever since the problem first manifested itself at 9:03 Central Time on Good Friday of 2003, I have not had a moment without significant pain. The pain is usually bearable, but if, before that Good Friday, I had ever had as much pain as I have had since on my best days, I would have considered visiting the emergency room. What is more difficult to endure is how easily I fatigue. I have to take naps and I dare not let myself get over-fatigued since then. If I do, I am in danger of having an episode where I get terribly nauseated, disoriented, and can’t walk. I get those episodes every few months, anyway, but certain things can trigger them. If I lay down quietly for a day or two, it passes and I am fine. If I try to push, I have lost as much as a week. So I am very careful, no matter how much of a wimp it makes me look like.
I am grateful that, for short periods, I can pretty much hide the disability entirely. Since it occurred, I have often spoken to and worked with large crowds in my political work. I am always absurdly pleased when someone who has followed me for a while is shocked to learn that I have any problem at all. But people who are in close proximity to me for long periods have a good idea of how much I struggle physically. I was genuinely fearful that I was not physically capable of this at all. Being alone in the wilderness when an inevitable episode would enfeeble me for a few days was not something I anticipated, either.
But, God had made clear this was what He intended for me. Don’t think I submitted gently or easily. All my life, the Lord had showed me a terrible time coming in the world, a terrible Storm that would become the greatest prolonged crisis in the history of western civilization. He had also shown me work that He wanted me to do to help people endure the Storm and return to Him. Now He was telling me that we were on the threshold of the time of trials and His plan was…that I should take an extended walk?! I had thought that would be the time to lead some group or head a think tank to prepare for the trials of the Storm and alert people. Some friends even tried to set things up for me to run in that way. But they – and I – were thinking the way men do, not the way God does. The Lord was insistent that my final preparation was to embark on the pilgrimage. I had had much experience thinking I had known a good plan while God was telling me to do something else that made no sense to me. So I had vast experience in discovering that however incoherent and scary God’s plan seemed to my little mind at the outset, I almost always learned in the process that it was just the right plan. So I began to consider how I was going to do this.
It would be charitable to call my planning scattershot and hare-brained. I did not know what I was doing. I went back and forth over whether to ride a bike or walk. Most friends who knew what I was planning urged me to take a bike. It would go quicker and would make for easier carrying of equipment. On the downside, I thought that, as I would usually be sleeping in the woods – and sometimes walking through real wilderness – the bike would just be another burden at those times. There were good arguments to be made either way. A few months before I left, I decided definitively in favor of walking, ultimately swayed by neither set of arguments, but because that was the classical way a pilgrimage was conducted. It seemed more obedient to me.
My initial plan was to go without a cell phone and with no electronics of any kind: to commune solely with God and the people I met along my way and to learn whatever He intended to teach me through this. Again, my friends who knew what I was doing strongly objected to this. I was adamant, though. At least until one of my closest friends said something in frustration that caused me to look at things differently. It was Steve McGlynn, a judge in Southern Illinois. He and I have been dear friends and confidants for some 20 years. He had been trying to convince me to take a fancy phone – he wanted to pay for it. I told him no and finally he said with real angst, “Look Charlie, I can’t just drop everything and go traipsing across the country – but this is my pilgrimage, too.” It hit me like a board. Steve and his brother, Michael, had kept me afloat during the five-some months I was completely disabled leading up to my surgery. We had worked together, scheming and plotting in state and local politics, he and his wife would care for my son if I had not survived the surgery, the extended McGlynn family had long made me part of the family. It really was his pilgrimage, too.
I called one of my priests, Fr. Mark, and told him I thought I had this wrong. One of the things I most wanted was for my journey to somehow become a sign of hope for those I loved and those I met along the way. If I was completely disconnected, how could it be a sign of hope to those I already cared for? It would, instead, be a sign of worry and concern. I asked Fr. Mark what he thought of me setting up a Facebook Page that would chronicle my way as I went. Nothing fancy, just something for family, friends and those I met along the way to enjoy the journey with me. I really got caught up in the idea that doing that could make this a virtual pilgrimage for many others – and that would surely be a sign of hope. Fr. Mark thought it a fine idea. Since my confirmation name, my Christian name, is Abraham and I, like him, was embarking upon a long journey, I named the Facebook Page Abraham’s Journey. And I did carry a cell phone with me so I could check in with friends and family.
I did not know what to bring. Oh, I understood some basics; sleeping bag, backpack, trail mix and such. But on an extended hike, weight is your worst enemy. As I was to find later, you build up to a weight you can carry regularly. You can actually carry a good chunk more than that, but there is an ideal at which, if you go beyond, even though you can bear the weight, the likelihood of injury such as a sprain or pulled muscle goes up dramatically. Eventually, I found I could carry 90 lbs. for a few days just fine – but with increased risk for a sprain. My ideal weight was between 75-80 lbs. I could carry it comfortably. Though it would weary me if I was going steeply up hill, it did not seem to increase the likelihood of injury. I must admit I did very little to prepare. I read a few websites on nutrition and extended hikes. I found that when you are on that type of hike, many of the rules of nutrition are exactly the opposite of normal. You need as much fat and as many calories as you can get. (My sister-in-law, Fran, hearing this one night told me with amusement that she had been preparing for an extended hike all her life!)
Physically, I did nothing to try to get in shape in preparation. I figured it would happen as I went. I had over a year and a half. If I got fatigued after five minutes, I would sit and rest a bit, then get up and go another five minutes – until I had built up to where I could go for longer periods. That worked out just fine. I was never interested in showing how macho I was. I did what I could and rested when I needed to. From that standpoint, my disability was an advantage – not for the hike but for the mental preparation it gave me. I had already spent almost a decade learning that I was NOT a stud and that if I tried to push myself beyond my limits, I was likely to be laid up for a week or better. So I had no incredible strength or endurance. I was just relentlessly persistent and patient. If you get any random group of people for a photo shoot and ask people who in the picture they thought had walked across the country, I would be among the last to be selected. But I did it.
Also dominating my thoughts was how to support myself as I made my way. More on that next week.