(This is the seventh installment in my narrative of my pilgrimage, my walking journey of 3,200 miles and a year and a half across the country from Feb. 11, 2011 to Aug. 21, 2012. Things have been pretty serious around here lately, so I change it up a little).
I started making my way south on Rte. 69 out of Cullman. A month and a half later a tornado flattened the historic downtown area of Cullman. It was the beginning of a pattern that troubled me all throughout my pilgrimage. It seemed that major natural disasters, primarily in the form of tornadoes, massive fires, flood and drought stalked me the whole way. It felt, to me, like satan was raging, unable to touch me directly but striking all around me. The disasters never reached me, but they often hit towns and areas shortly after I walked through. It was the only thing that ever caused me to consider abandoning the journey. I spoke with my priest, Fr. Mark about it at one point. He said if I was right, how did I think adding disobedience to the mix would help anything. I agreed, but made it a point to offer up a Rosary of prayer for every town and county I walked through. I kept silent about it, but several people who were following my progress on a map noted it. I was planning to spend the Christian holidays with my brother, Steve, and his family in San Diego. He noted wryly at one point that he was glad to see me coming, but he was not sure whether he was willing to let me leave. At first I did not understand, as I had said nary a word about the phenomenon. But he explained, “Wherever you go, as long as you stay, everything is fine. But after you leave, all hades breaks loose in a lot of places.” (He may not have used the exact word, hades.)
For about 10 miles, Rte. 69 parallels I-65, then it breaks away heading southwest towards Jasper, Alabama. When I reached the point where it broke off, I encountered another troubling phenomenon that would bother me for several months. When I left on my journey, knowing that Catholic churches would be few and far between and I would often be in at least a semi-wilderness, I resolved that when I saw any sign of life at any Christian Church I would stop and visit a little – and ask the blessings of prayers of whoever I met while carrying their intentions with me on my way.
Just at the point where Rte. 69 breaks away, there was a little Baptist Church. A whole bunch of young folks (from about 10 to 16 years old) where whooping and playing outside. So I went up to see what was going on. The young people were fascinated with what I was doing. They told me they had a dinner at the church going on that night and invited me to come in. When I did there were women preparing mounds of food. As I explained what I was doing, the women were not as welcoming as the kids. In fact, they eyed me as if I was likely to steal the silverware (as if I didn’t already have enough weight on my back!) Of course, I looked rough…heavy pack on my back, funny hat, a bit grizzled. But people usually quickly recognize that there is no harm in me. But no matter how cheerfully I chatted with them, they kept giving me seriously disapproving glares. I was astounded. They had heaps of rolls and cakes already laid out, but they did not offer me so much as a single crust. The kids remained enthused and talkative. They said they had a worship service that night and asked me to stay for it. Out of the side of my eye, I saw raw panic in the eyes of one of the women at this invitation. I gently thanked the young folks and told them I would love to, but I need to find a place to make camp for the night. You could see the visible relief among the adults as I turned to leave. The kids, as disappointed as their parents were relieved, followed me out chattering away.
I thought to myself with anger that it was a good thing for that church that I was not an angel sent to test them, for their cold animus spoke poorly of them. I reflected on that for a minute and wondered what people expected an angel sent to visit would look like? Rich…handsomely…arrayed in sartorial splendor? I had to believe he would look much like me at the time…itinerant and tired. It startled me, for my family had always been quick to help and show hospitality to anyone who needed it. Once when I was a little boy, on Christmas Eve, a bad blizzard was going on (good for Christmas, bad for travelers). Just before we were sent to bed, a fellow knocked on the door. Even bundled up as he was, he was half-frozen and shivering terribly. He said his car had broke down a few miles back. He had knocked on a few doors, but hadn’t found anyone to help. Mom and Dad had him come in and warm up, while Dad went out to warm up the car. Dad spent over two hours that Christmas Eve helping fix the man’s car and getting him going again. It was inconvenient, but Mom and Dad never shirked what they considered their Christian duty of solidarity.
I thought it must be an aberration. Truth is, in both my political and private life, the non-Catholics that I seemed to have the greatest affinity with are Baptists and Methodists. Always get along great with them. But all through Alabama, Mississippi and halfway through Louisiana, the Baptists I encountered at churches were invariably arrogant, condescending, self-righteous and dismissive. They literally made the Biblical Pharisees look downright hospitable and tolerant by comparison. I was appalled. I was so shaken by it I called one of my dearest old friends (John McConnell’s mother – the fellow who publishes the Peppy Prepper), who is a Baptist to ask her if she could help me understand what was going on. She laughed and said she has been in the south and finally quit going to Baptist Churches when she is there – for they treated her the same way and she’s a Baptist. She said the churches have the same name, but it was an embarrassment to her, because they sure don’t have the same spirit as the Baptists I knew and enjoyed so well. It was in Mississippi where I finally gave up trying. I stopped into a big Baptist Church. I asked to speak to a pastor or pastoral aid. Some man in his mid-30s came up in the anteroom to talk to me, looking at me with great hostility for interrupting his day. His first remark was, “What do you want?” I held my temper and gently told him what I was doing and said I would appreciate his prayers. He told me they didn’t tolerate beggars around there. I held my tongue and told him I didn’t want anything except to chat for a few minutes and to share some prayers. He told me that if I really didn’t want anything, he had important things to do and I needed to leave. So I did. I prayed for those Baptists in the Bible Belt the rest of my way – and still often do. I think they are in some serious spiritual trouble. Fortunately, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I met a wonderful Baptist family that I befriended. We had Easter Dinner together…a marvelous gumbo. That was the beginning of finding the Baptists I had always known again and after that, for the rest of my journey, they were friendly, welcoming and delighted to speak of Christ.
God does have His little graces. As I left the little Baptist Church in a notably sour mood I had not traveled more than half a mile before I came upon a wonderful little – and elaborate – Shrine to Our Lady of Fatima. You cannot imagine how rare that is to find in rural Alabama. It was closed, but there were stations for prayer all outside with Crosses and lovely well-landscaped grounds. I sat and prayed for a while, sweetly recovered my peace, and then got back on the move.
Shortly after I got walking again, a man in an old Chevy truck going the other way stopped and asked me if I needed some help. I told him what I was doing – and that I appreciated his concern, but was fine. He told me that a few miles up the road he had a travel trailer set back in the woods a little. Described it exactly, where it was precisely and said it was open and that I was welcome to sleep inside that night if I wanted. I thanked him and said I would, that I much appreciated it.
Well, a few miles up there it was, just where he said it would be and exactly as he described it. I walked up and, sure enough, it was open. So I rather jubilantly took my pack off, laid a few things out and prepared to make camp in comfort for the night. After I was all settled I went outside, sat on the steps and smoked my pipe, enjoying the dying rays of the day’s sunlight. After a little bit, some neighbors from across the way drove up, an older man and woman. I said hello and the man asked me what I was doing. I explained that the man who owned it had told me I could stay for the night, gave his name, and commented how nice it was the neighbors watched out for each other. The couple looked a bit befuddled. The man said, “Well, that was nice of him, but he doesn’t own this. We do. Our daughter uses it when she’s in town.”
I was flummoxed. I was deeply apologetic and told them I had laid some stuff out inside, that if they would just let me gather that up, I’d get on my way. I was utterly mortified. They stood there for a few minutes, still apparently shaken at seeing an old hobo brazenly taking possession of their trailer. But then they apparently decided I was legit and said, “Well, we’re going to go home. But would you lock up after you get your things together so we don’t get any more unexpected tenants.” I chuckled and said I certainly would.
It was the first time that I walked for a good while after dark. I avoided that when I could. I figured an old man walking with a cowboy hat and heavy pack in the middle of nowhere in the daytime was a curiosity. At night, it would probably be creepy for folks – and I didn’t want to scare anyone. But I could not avoid it this night. Fortunately, after a few miles, I found a serviceable copse of small pines in which to make camp.