The Kindness of Strangers

Apple-cinnamon cookies, given by the good folks of Kyle Lutheran as we passed by (too late for the service, but not the snacks!). Iced-tea and cookies from the young women of the Swift Current Hutterite Colony. Cold water, muffins and washroom use (always appreciated!) from the Elliott family, near Otter Springs, who saw us passing and took up the binoculars to have a better look.

Hutterite women offering iced tea

People ask what the difference between pilgrimage and tourism might be. One of the main differences, I’ve discovered, is how the pilgrim relies on the kindness of strangers. Especially on an arid prairie landscape, both feet blistered, under 28 degree Celsius heat and no wind or shade, a refill of water is a blessing, pure and simple.

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Tonight we’re resting and recharging in rented rooms in Elrose SK. Only 16 or 17 km today, but they were hot ones…I was thankful for the mid-day break, sitting on a tarp in the midst of a rare oasis of cottonwood poplars listening to the red-winged blackbirds complain at our intrusion. White Bear Lake was a surprise. Tomorrow we pass by Otter’s Creek and see the depression in the earth where a home was once built into the earth. This trail seeps history at every step.

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earthen home Matador SK

 

Why Walk?

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‘Pilgrimage’ is such a tired metaphor it’s hard to remember sometimes that it’s based on actually doing something.  “Let’s go on a pilgrimage to my favourite restaurant”. “Life is a pilgrimage from birth to death.” Yes, sure. But…But what keeps me interested in not just studying journeys, but also walking them, is the way the brain unhooks at 5 km/hr. Without even trying to, you begin to notice geography, and your own body, and the relationship between the two (as you walk up a long prairie hill, for instance, or start to sweat in the sun). You pay attention in a different way to nature. Or better, nature presents itself to you, when you are available: coyotes sleeping in a burrow, badgers running ahead along the fallow-line, the meadowlark calling from a grey fence-post, a family of otters playing as they cross your path from the river, some old abandoned buildings, the soil at your feet. This is almost impossible at highway speeds. When you walk, you begin to think emotional and philosophical and spiritual thoughts – not because you plan to, but just because of the leisure and the rhythm, maybe even the slight boredom. For those fortunate enough to be able-bodied, the fact is that walking is one of those conscious activities closest to being unconscious, freeing the mind up for contemplation and surprise intuitions. Walking journey connects landscape, body, story and movement in a unique way. For those of us who try to allow space for the spiritual, walking pilgrimage is a gift. It’s meditation for anyone, like me, too undisciplined or lazy to meditate in other ways. Rebecca Solnit puts it this way: Pilgrimage is premised on the idea that the sacred is not entirely immaterial but that there is a geography of spiritual power….  it reconciles the spiritual and the material, for to go on pilgrimage is to make the body and its actions express the desires and beliefs of the soul (“Wanderlust” Penguin Books, 2000. Page 50).

Five clues that you’re already a pilgrim (even if you haven’t yet walked a trail)

 

Take this simple test. You know you’re a pilgrim when….

 

1. you find yourself washing our your shirt or underwear by hand even when you’re at home.

 

2. you think it would be cool to live a very full life out of a very small bag

 

3. it seems completely normal to you to carry blister bandages and pack water every time you step out the door

 

4. you’ve come to believe that for the most part, strangers are just friends you haven’t yet met

 

5. in your mind you dream of new landscapes to walk, and when you walk, you dream of new landscapes for your mind

at rest at St Cuthbert's cave