For most of 2010, the year before I left on my pilgrimage I stayed with family in Alabama, mostly with my Mom and Dad. I was afraid that, once I left, things might be very different when my journey was finished – and this might be my last chance to immerse myself in family, almost all who lived in Alabama, before things got seriously hinky.
Unfortunately – or maybe fortunately – I had no luck in getting anything other than knock-around jobs while I was down there. There was one time when I thought I had a job I really liked. But after discussing when to be ready to start, things suddenly turned frosty for reasons that were never explained.
One day, while driving through a small town with some pretty little cabins along a lake, it suddenly dawned on me why I was having so much trouble. Most people, when they think of their dream house, envision a mansion, marble halls and such. I love cabins, small lodges…little hobbit holes by a lake or stream in the mountains. These cabins evoked a chord. I thought how cheap everything was down there, particularly in the rural areas, and thought, hey, I could get one of these after I get solid work. Suddenly I realized how frightened I was of the prospect of going off walking and how much I was drawn to simple comforts. It dawned on me that if I had any good, comfortable reason to talk myself out of this, it would be a sore temptation. So by keeping me just knocking around the Good Lord was delivering me from temptation.
During one glorious morning in early summer, while knocking around in the garden with my Dad, he told me with great warmth and emotion how happy he was that I had finally relocated to the south – and that once I got good work it would be a great joy to me and to them to be amongst family again. I had not yet told Dad what I was really preparing for. He is not a man given to emotional displays, so I could not just let it lay. I stiffened slightly and told him that, no, I would only be there for a while…that there were things I must do and then I would be gone for a good long time. He looked at me somewhat sadly, then quietly went back to cultivating his watermelon patch.
It was a very good – and a very strange – year. My mother and I had had a strained relationship for decades. Somehow, in that year, it was healed. We became almost as close as we were when I was just a little fellow. On Wednesday nights we always watched the TV show, “Criminal Minds,” together. If I wasn’t there 10 minutes before the show started, Mom would call to check up on me. Dad worked part-time nights as a security guard at a hospital, so Mom and I would sit up talking about all sorts of things, laughing, ribbing each other, and discussing serious matters. After decades of strained awkwardness, it was fresh and easy as a cool breeze.
Oddly, as things developed, a certain distance grew between my father and me. We had been very close since I was in junior high school, but somehow things got awkward. We had long enjoyed football together. Dad is a lifelong Auburn fan in college football and a Green Bay Packer fan. Thank God that year Auburn won the national title and the Packers, the Superbowl. Dad and I could rarely talk about serious things that year without a terrible awkwardness, but we were able to be our old, enthusiastic selves together when the weekends came. The strain between Dad and me kind of hurt – and I did not understand it. Until my very wise son spoke to me as I was musing on the matter. “Dad,” he said, “as close as you and I are and have been our whole lives, how would you feel if, all of a sudden, you discovered what Poppo has about you this last year?” Startled, I told him it would completely freak me out. “Ya think?” he responded.
It wasn’t the religious dimension. Dad is, himself, a deeply religious man. Nor was it knowing that I saw and spoke with heavenly beings. Dad had long suspected that. Even before I told anyone, he would sometimes open up a conversation that touched on those things in his subtle, sly way and press so hard that I knew he was on to some of it. Others in the family told me in later years that he would occasionally tell them I was a seer while assuring them that the Bible spoke of such things. Rather, it was the magnitude of it all, the details, and that I had been being examined and guided by priests on the matter for over a decade and a half. There were and have been periods of easy discourse between us since, but the awkwardness usually hovers over us like a spectre. As Thomas Wolfe said, You can’t go home again.”
I was surprised at how different people reacted as I made my plans clear. Some of those I expected to be most enthused about it tried the hardest to persuade me not to go. My youngest brother, Ron, is an Alabama State Trooper and a no-nonsense kind of guy. I was a little fearful that he might act vigorously to prevent me from going. But he and his wife, Fran, turned out to be big enthusiasts for my plans. They went hog-wild at Christmas, getting me my great backpack, very warm micro-fiber sleeping bag and a tent. I pretended not to know about most of the debates that waxed and waned around me as I prepared. Much of the family thought I was going to die or be seriously injured out there – a point that, despite the confident face I put on the whole matter, I thought was well made.
It was my son who finally both made the debate overt and ended it. As I mentioned, I have serious neurological damage that I can hide for short periods, but not among those who are around me regularly. Rarely can I get into or out of a car without at least grunting – and often yelling. My son and nephew jokingly decided one time to live solidarity with me – and every time they got in or out of a car with me let out a Viking Roar. It was hilarious – and I loved it. Kneeling at Mass can be agonizing – so visibly so, at times, that my confessor gave me a permanent dispensation from kneeling. I don’t use it except when in fiery agony, but I appreciated it. At Christmas, 2011, the debate opened up with the whole family. My son, young Charlie, then said, “Look, if God sent some marathon champion to walk across the country, what would that prove? But you send a guy who has trouble walking across the room to walk across the country…that MEANS something.” That perspective startled everyone, including me. We all busted out laughing in agreement and the tension was ended.
There was still the matter of how to support myself on my way. I never had much, but in the couple years before departure I gave away all of what little I had. The worst of it was my books. I had over a thousand books that I had read in my library. It had been my habit, up until my pilgrimage, to sign my name and the date I finished at the back of each book I read. I had read my first full books and novels in third grade, but those were all from the library. The first novel I was ever able to buy was ‘Tom Sawyer’ when I was 10, in 1967. I still had it with my signed scrawl in the back. My books were like friends. Oh how I hated to part with them! I started giving them away in groups in 2007, but held on to my favorites. I was so attached. They weren’t fancy. Almost 80% were soft binders. But they were never for show…they were friends and my security blanket. Giving away furniture and other treasures hardly hurt at all, but those books, oh the pain. Finally, I gave away the whole lot of what remained when I left Galesburg, Illinois.
This gets to what the purpose of the pilgrimage was in the first place. That was a question I was frequently asked. I was not telling people, except those closest to me, about my prophetic visions and visitations and I had no interest in starting then. My brother Ron enthusiastically told me I ought to do the “Full Gump;” long hair and beard. It tickled him when I responded that I was perfectly happy to be crazy but I would be darned if I was going to look crazy. The truth of the matter was simple. I thought the world was in a lot of trouble and that this time we were not going to get out of it. We worry so much about what we have and what we might lose. And worry we should, for there is much loss ahead. But we have lost sight of the fact that our only reliable source of security is in God. So what my pilgrimage really was was a radical act of faith – throwing myself in a radical way into complete dependence on God. Along my way, I would pray all the way I walked. I would always walk against traffic, never hitch-hiking. If someone stopped to offer me a ride, I would always accept, figuring that God was putting us together to chat for a while. I was not proselytizing. Rather, I wanted to meet people, to enjoy them and to see what God had in store for me. I have never been big on praying in public or carrying on or browbeating anyone. I like to pray in secret. I always feel like my prayers have been robbed of a certain grace if anyone catches me at it. And I like talking about ordinary things with enthusiasm. God loves ordinary things and so do I.
My destination was the site of the Shrine that will be built, but it was not my motive for pilgrimage. It loomed more important as I went, but it was not the catalyst – just the logical destination and end.
In the year and a half and 3,200 miles I walked, I can count on one hand the number of people who disagreed with my purpose, that we are in deep trouble and won’t get out of it easily. Some people, when I would tell them, would let out a breath, their shoulders would sag, and they would say sadly that, yes, they knew. Some would actually start crying. The ones that startled me the most were how many would, sometimes tearfully, but always joyfully, start exclaiming, “Oh thank God. God DOES have a plan.” There were a lot of those. I hope I don’t sound impious when I tell you how much that baffled me. I was usually very light on the God stuff, except to tell them what I said earlier. I still did not see how this was much of a plan. I was just an old man walking. Interesting certainly, but I honestly did not see what there was about it to cause an eruption of tears of joy. Yet it happened at least four or five times a week. God’s ways are surely not man’s ways.
Next week I will discuss the final preparations and my departure.