Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Friday, December 25, 2015

Day 55: Merry Christmas

Like the delicate dusting of powdered sugar on a Linzer Torte, snow was sprinkled on the ground in this region between Green Bay and Lake Michigan on this fine Christmas morn.  It stuck around for the few hours it took me to walk the final stretch from Poland (a village in Wisconsin, not the country in Europe) to the Shrine Our Lady of Good Help.  I made it with minutes to spare for the 11 am Christmas Day Mass.  Taking note of my backpack, a visitor whispered as I entered the church - 'have you walked far?'  'from Denver, and phwew, I'm not late for Mass'  She audibly gasped, but as she opened her mouth to ask the usual string of questions, all I could hear was the blast of The First Nowell from the organ.  Her questions waited until just after Joy to the World an hour later.  Satisfying that duty, and then getting my credential signed, an after-Mass photo was taken and uploaded by the presiding priest on their facebook page for documentation... my third set of Pilgrim Doors since the Year of Mercy began,

I've made a fast tour of the Wisconsin Way, an innovative pilgrim route being developed to link the three major pilgrim shrines in Wisconsin for pilgrims on foot.  I sort of walked it backwards, in the sense that there is an interesting spiritual progression beginning at Our Lady of Good Help here near Green Bay on the east side of the state, then going to Holy Hill (Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians) outside of Milwaukee, and finishing at the Shrine Our Lady of Guadalupe near La Crosse in the west of the state.  East to west would make more sense, now that I've walked it and can see.

Going quickly to make it here by Christmas, I stayed on some paved roads which are more direct rather than the more scenic and tranquil footpaths that are abundant in the state.  Nonetheless, I spent a good portion of the route on rail-to-trail bike paths and on the Ice Age Trail, part of the National Park System.  Unfortunately, the persistently soggy weather, drenching at times, left the footpath pretty soft and mushy, compelling me to return to the paved but quiet country highways.  What I walked in 12 days, an unhurried pilgrim might better enjoy in three weeks.

Because there are a multitude of interesting side trips, Catholic, cultural, and natural, the actual path any pilgrim might take would vary.  Going directly, I walked about 180 miles in 7.5 days between the Shrine Our Lady of Guadalupe and Holy Hill, though with more time spent on the Ice Age Trail rather than on paved roads, it would be more reasonable to think of it as a 225-mile segment.  There are plenty of towns and villages, all with parish halls or other possibilities for accommodation.  A fun feature of the route I chose was the ferry across Lake Wisconsin at Merrimac.  Often not running in winter because of ice, I suppose there is a benefit to rain after all.

The segment between Our Lady of Good Help and Holy Hill was for me about 120 miles, done in 4.5 days.  Again, because of all the rain, the sections of Ice Age Trail were uncomfortably mushy - therefore tiring - and I chose the stodgy paved roads instead.  The rail-to-trail portions are well surfaced, wide and flat, with compacted crushed limestone gravel, so even wet, these were great to walk.  Scenic, too.  I saw much in the way of wildlife, including a majestic bald eagle one foggy morning.

A spectacular diversion on this segment - which again could be lengthened by 20% or so by using more of the footpaths - is the Holy Resurrection Monastery in the village of St Nazianz, about midway between the two shrines.  The gaggle of monks of this Eastern Rite Catholic community are definitely pilgrim-friendly and totally 'get' the camino-esque pilgrim experience... they may look a bit like Dumbledore, but they're hip to pilgrims.

There are many options available on the Wisconsin Way to make an interesting personal pilgrimage.  The communities I spoke with - mostly Catholic parishes, but also Methodists and Lutherans - were open and accommodating, taking me in, taking care of me, stamping my credential book, sending me off well-fed and happy... I let them know to expect to see more pilgrims.  Consider the way figuratively paved, fellow pilgrims...

Off tomorrow across the city of Green Bay and then up onto the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Sault Ste Marie... where oh where will there be enough snow to wear my snowshoes???

Merry Christmas everyone, Happy Kwanzaa, too.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Day 45 Mercy

The Year of Mercy has begun, just in time, I think.  I reached the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the rain Sunday afternoon, as scheduled.  Northeastern Iowa I found quite pretty, even in its pig-scented sogginess.  The southeastern-most corner of Minnesota even more so, lacking pigs, and no more compass-straight roads to follow; instead, dirt lanes following the natural contours of the land.

While I missed Guadalupe Day by one day, by arriving on the 13th, I was able to enter the church through the specially designated pilgrim doors.  The shrine is rather new, and rather posh, huge grounds, tasteful buildings and services, and a welcome center - no pilgrim house yet, but the staff was efficient at finding superb accommodations for me for the night in a nearby convent.  I left, as usual, at dawn - and as seems increasingly usual, in the rain...

Following small roads, I climbed through mists and downpours into the rolling Wisconsin hinterland of huge barns full of dairy cows.  Midday, I passed through a village cheerfully named 'Coon Valley', then onto a small road up another valley.  A fella in a work truck pulled aside and offered a ride.  I declined easily (since the rain had stopped), and he offered me his coffee.  We talked for a few minutes and he ended by saying 'people around here are generally real friendly.'  A few miles later, a woman driving down the valley pulled aside asking if I needed a ride. 'No thanks, I'm enjoying the beauty of this valley on foot.'  She laughed at that - it had started raining again - and concluded that I should feel comfortable, people here are always willing to help a stranger.

After another mile or so, a gruff guy pulled up from behind in a huge SUV, an unseen big dog barking obnoxiously in the back.  The guy shouted to me curtly - 'Hey! I want a word with you!'  Answering his aggressive tone with a forced smile, I accommodated his request.  'My neighbor just called me to say that you were poking around my driveway and house.  We don't like people like you around here.  Just last month, two different times, I had to call the sheriff to chase them away.'  Being unjustly accused of trespassing, I told him in as pleasant a tone as I could muster that his neighbor was mistaken and that I was only walking on the public road since leaving the convent that morning.  I told him that I'm a pilgrim of peace.  Recovering from the accusation and aggression, I offered that just last week, the Pope opened the Year of Mercy, saying "everyone should make a pilgrimage, in part by foot".  'Don't you know that there's a pilgrim shrine just a few hours' walk from here?  Yesterday, the Cardinal opened the special pilgrim doors - which is pretty big deal.  You can expect more pilgrims, if that's what you meant by "people like me" [with emphasizing air-quotes], so go ahead and put the sheriff's number on speed-dial if you're going to call every time you see a person with a backpack.'  The guy notably gasped his disapproval, and rendered speechless, sped off in a huff.  I'm certainly glad to have encountered the two kind and friendly valley residents before Mr. Gruffity.

The next day - yesterday - between raindrops, I stopped to rest in a village coffeeshop-gas station-convenience store.  The ubiquitous old men sitting around talking about land auctions, equipment repairs, and hunting, fell silent with curiosity as I walked toward the counter, a few standing up respectfully, a few scooping off their caps nodding "morning, ma'am"... coffee came, a doughnut per usual, and the questions - where are you going, where are you from, etc.  When I explained that I'm heading to the Shrine of Ste Anne and that I just visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, on the way to the Shrine at Holy Hill, and hope to be at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help by Christmas, one of the men spoke up after a long silent pause with 'I had an uncle who was a Shriner' to the nodding approval of his cronies.  I love the gesture of finding something in common with a stranger to make everyone feel good.  Everyone should make an added effort to show mercy - especially to someone who looks a bit different.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Day 39 - Were I an ode-writer…

Were I an ode-writer, I'd write an ode to the hypotenuse.  The midwest mile-grid is slowing down my northeast progress by limiting me to walking north then east then east then north… ugh.  The first day entering Iowa - a few days after the spectacularly fun Thanksgiving festivities in Nebraska - it finally snowed enough that I pulled my snowshoes off my backpack and stuck them on my happy feet.  The mile-square grid of Iowa is draped on a much hillier and forested surface than the land further west.  I enjoyed the unfettered freedom of snow-covered roads and took off cross-country in a northeasterly direction in an ode to the hypotenuse.  That was it, though, just one day of snow, then many days of icy  gravel roads with unfrozen mush underneath.  A string of sloppy days followed.

I'm having a ton of pilgrim fun, though, and should be soon 'off-the-grid' in the sense that as I progress eastward and northward on a few days more, and the mile-grid organization will disappear into topography more suited for cows than corn.  Iowa's been stellar pilgrim country, with everyone, including Catholic priests, telling me that I'm the first pilgrim they've ever met.  Protestants, mostly, saying they've never heard of a pilgrim, or a shrine for that matter.  It's a smashing delight to find my senior citizen hosts tickled to be learning something new.  All communities have accommodated me well, and always with genuine hospitality.

My delinquency in posting new updates can be attributed to the just-pre-dawn to the final rays of dusk walks every day.  I've been racing to get to the shrine Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin by Guadalupe Day - December 12th - but realize it won't be possible [by foot] until December 13th.  One day off… doh! … but it's okay.  The pace will only ease a little to make it to Our Lady of Good Help by Christmas, but the days will be getting noticeably shorter, too… blogtime is the thing that suffers most when I'm walking dawn to dusk…laundry, too, I must admit.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Ann and CK Sisters


Thank you and God bless you!
In the heart of our merciful King, I am,
Sister Maura Thérèse, CK
Mission Advancement and Archives
School Sisters of Christ the King

 "Stir in flame the gift of God that you have . . .
          for God did not give us a cowardly spirit,
                    but One that makes us strong, loving and wise!"
                                                                                      (2 Timothy 1:6-7) 

******  I use GoodSearch to support Charity: Water (NY,NY)
Raise money for your favorite charity or school just by searching the Internet with (powered by Yahoo), shopping online with, and dining or taking out from your favorite local restaurants.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Day 25 Happy Thanksgiving

I'm still having a delightful - surprisingly hilly - autumn walk on the arrow-straight quiet gravel roads across Nebraska.  Having crossed south of the Platte River now heading to the capital of Lincoln, the terrain has gotten more rolling with small rivers and marshes adding textural interest.  The perfect one-mile grid of unpaved roads overlay the topography like a graphical network display - it's not possible for someone on foot to get lost here.  Now walking due east, I've been on the same dirt road for days.

Noisy Sand Hill cranes are keeping me company overhead migrating south in their rather untidy vee-formations that would certainly entitle the Canada geese to sneer with superiority in their efficient and silent vees.  Despite the sub-freezing night temperatures, there are still plenty of locusts and snakes keeping me company on the ground.

How tame is an American pilgrimage?  A pair of unleashed dogs - a young St Bernard and a Golden Retriever mix - lumbered across a farm field as a passed close to a house at Road "Q".  With wagging tails and slurpy tongues, I was hardly afraid.  Big, of course, without collars, they obviously were pets rather than strays, and revealed the full understanding of "down" and "sit".  By Road "R" a mile away, they equally revealed a lack of understanding of "stay" or "go home".  They ran huge circles around me, so for each straight mile I walked, they romped at least two.  I tried the tactic of disinterest at one of the occasional old family cemeteries - on a bluff, encircled with a fence, and entered through a gate.  With them outside the gate and me leaning against a stone dated back to the 1880s trying to enjoy a snack, their whimpering and whining tugged at my heart - come on, let us in, we only want to play... that's what they were saying... trying to dig under the fence to get close to me... ach, leave me in peace...

I couldn't take them with me, didn't want to make them stray too far from wherever their home was, but how to get rid of them??  I tossed a few rocks at them, but they only fetched them and frolicked all the more... I tried 'whipping' a cornstalk at them, but they only played tug-of-war... I continued walking to be sure to arrive in the next village before dark, and they stayed with me.  They adopted me.  With big eyes and goofy hanging tongues.  A pickup truck came by, but the dogs hid in a gully when I flagged the driver down and asked if he knew where the dogs lived, what dogs? no.  The dogs rejoined me when the truck drove off after frolicking more in a small river.  I walked all the way to Road "X", then "Y", then before "Z" another pickup came in the same direction as I was walking.  I flagged down the driver again, this time a woman, and this time the dogs leapt with their paws on the door - both taller than I - as I explained that the dogs had been following me and implored her to drive me a mile or so to loose them, though the idea of them not being able to find their way home hit with a pang...

After all that, I laughed at the comparison to so many of the wild animals and narrow escapes I've met on past pilgrimages... here in the heartland, foolishly besieged by two sweet enormous friendly companions, who no doubt slept well that night from all their exercise.

Happy Thanksgiving my American friends,
cheers from pilgrimland!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Day 14 - There were 20 miles to Ogallala...

There were 20 miles to Ogallala when the 'blizzard' hit... such advanced warnings, such turmoil and discussion... bah, that was no blizzard!  A tad of blowing snow in the morning, turning to slush when it hit the ground... all rather pedestrian, a strong northerly wind, ok, but the sun was out by mid-afternoon... the kids off from school hadn't a chance to even make a snowball before it all evaporated away.  Yawn.  Everyone was of course very kind to me, insisting on giving me a ride - which I did for two short distances just to get off the road and not be a hazard.

I'm having a grand time walking eastward - the corn harvest is full on with giant machines and haulers in the fields, mice scurrying everywhere and hawks swooping without noticing me at all.  I'm trying to stay on the little roads, mostly north of the South Platte and south of the North Platte.  Despite the one morning of snow, the weather's been nice for autumn walking, though a bit on the warm side, keeping my pack full and at the weighty ready for real winter weather.

I'm still happily engaged with the folky history indicators - on the Mormon Trail, the Oregon Trail, the Pony Express Trail... - and meeting loads of people everyday, many of whom have never heard of a pilgrim before.  I'm happy to educate them =D  In a delightful village named Paxton, several different people implored me to stop in Sutherland where there is a local newspaper, to give them the opportunity to write a little story about why a little woman carrying snowshoes is walking across their communities... alas, the office was closed when I walked through, so I wrote a little note as I sat for a rest on their autumn-decorated bench out front - a pilgrim passed by, heading east, thanks for the resting place!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Day 8 Along the Overland Trail

For those thinking that I'm some sort of super-pilgrim, rest assured, my feet hurt just as much as the next pilgrim's.  With them elevated and resting after a particularly asphalt-y day, though, I can put aside the tender throbs and report that I'm again a happy little pilgrim.  Middle America is as good a pilgrimland as anywhere... people are friendly, gracious, and generous, especially with that left-over Halloween candy that seems to work its way into the side pockets of my backpack so easily.

Walking out of the city limits along the South Platte River - described in a novel as being 'too dry to drink, to wet to plow' - I haven't let the rustling golden cottonwoods out of my sight for these nearly 200 miles.  When I've been wedged away from the banks of the river, the farm tracks and stubbly cornfields have been by and large serving me well, although I've popped out on paved country highways a few times to walk the hypotenuse rather than the right angles when necessary... the farm roads commonly seen from the air score the earth into a grid with tidy one-mile spacing - due north, due east.  Songbirds entertain me; flustered pheasants startle me; leaping deer and pronghorns delight me; and whatever little critters slither beneath the ground cover politely keep hidden from me.  Approaching the border with Nebraska, I'm traveling on the Overland Route used by countless westward pioneers back in the day, 150 years ago, and there are scattered information plaques telling some of the details, mostly where sod houses used to be, cornfields and feedlots now.

I yearn for proper winter weather as soon as possible, since carrying my snowshoes and heavy winter clothes has made for an uncomfortable first week of hazing for my legs... on the wee pilgrimages I led from San Luis to Chimayo in September and from Oneida to Auriesville in October, I carried an airy 12 pounds; it served as little training for the compacted 22 pounds I'm now hucking on my back waiting for some good cold highs.  Since it's cold enough in the morning, I can bundle up and make good time until late morning when the bold sunshine forces it off my body onto my pack, only to slow my progress.  The vistas are expansive, so provide huge areas to occupy my mind and take the focus away from my whimpering puppies.

I'm on track toward Lincoln for Thanksgiving and encourage all pilgrims to consider making a pilgrimage across America - it's really wonderful.  People are good - better than good.

   ... and Michele in Ottawa, my faithful pilgrim follower for these many years now - look for me in that neck of the woods in late February / early March, depending on the snow and weather, eh...

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Winter is again nigh...

Tomorrow the winter pilgrimage begins for me.  The plan is to leave Denver with a worthy pilgrim send-off at an early Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe church - the official setting-out pilgrim blessing, albeit in the very fast Chihuahuan Spanish of Padre Benito, who walked with me on pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayo a few years back.

This pilgrimage will more than likely end with the traditional arriving pilgrim blessing in the French language when I arrive - insha'allah - at the Basilique Sainte-Anne de Beaupré a day's walk beyond Québec City by Easter, so goes the plan.

Having demonstrated that blogging is not my strength, I promise to strive for fortnightly updates if not more frequent.  The challenge I've experienced in these recent years is that when people ask - 'how can I help you, pilgrim'  I answer that I could use a computer to update my blog and check my emails.  They more and more have been offering me hand-held devices, which I find a tad awkward to use to update my blog or to reply to emails.  I'll endeavor to do my best.

So I'm off in the morning - the first stage will be to walk out the South Platte River to the confluence with the North Platte, thence through Lincoln (Thanksgiving) and across Iowa to Wisconsin.  Wisconsin now holds an interesting pilgrim route to be explored.  Fr. Andrew Kurz has been developing a route connecting four shrines in the central part of the state.  Called the Wisconsin Way, I'll walk it from west to east starting in La Crosse, where there is a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe and continue to the shrine Our Lady of Good Help, near to Green Bay, which is where I'm targeting for Christmas.

Continuing eastward, I plan to cross into Canada at Sault Ste Marie, and then play around the area where the early Jesuit missionaries did their thing.  There seems to be a lot of history in the area, and I can anticipate an equal amount of snow, so the path I take may be a circuitous one.  I'm looking forward to all of it...but then, don't I always?

Before firing off a comment letting me know it will be cold... I am aware.  I experienced exhilarating cold last winter in the Transcarpathians, and part of my off-season's efforts have been in developing new and improved winter pilgrim clothing...there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad preparation.  This season on the pilgrim runway, we've got a heat-reflective petticoat made from a Columbia OmniHeat shirt from last season, to be worn beneath my regular walking skirt.  For the lower legs, I'll be wearing tailored leggings made from boiled wool and lined with the OmniHeat fabric (the sleeves of the shirt) that will come over my boots to protect them from being infilled with snow - a lesson learned in snowy Montenegro.  Of course, I have an intact OmniHeat shirt to complete the heat barrier.  For the outer layer, I'm now outfitted with an easy-to-don rainskirt that will fashionably and functionally defy any amount of wind, snow, and beating rain.  Bring it on.  A new raincape, this season in a sporting teal (the only color in the green family available from Outdoor Wilderness Fabrics seconds bin when the order was placed).  Finally, my steadfast wool hat from Paris that has been with me from the beginning has been pimped-up with a disc of the OmniHeat fabric, to hold in any remnant of body heat with thoughts of escape.  The snowshoes are attached to the pack awaiting the first big snow.

New also this year is an official Society of Servant Pilgrims front page on my pilgrim credential - already stamped and signed by the Archbishop of Denver... in the ancient pilgrim tradition, I'm a declared pilgrim on pilgrimage and can prove it.

Society of Servant Pilgrims

What does a pilgrim do during the 'off-season'?  Work hard.

Based this summer in beautiful Denver at the foot of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, I've spent countless useful hours with many other pilgrims, soon-to-be pilgrims, and pilgrim-supporters.  The result of this has been the creation of the Society of Servant Pilgrims, an association formed to support and encourage foot pilgrimage around the world.

I have evolved into a life-dedicated mendicant pilgrim and developed the techniques necessary to have successful pilgrimages walking village to village throughout the world absorbed into nature and talking with people where I find them.  At its foundation, the servant function of this is to build trust - surely carrying nothing of value is strong encouragement for success in this if I want a roof over my head on a pilgrim night (and I do!) - and trust is the foundation of peace.  Peace is universal.  The world needs more pilgrims.  So the Society of Servant Pilgrims is developed to help people become pilgrims - companion pilgrims who get guidance on the route and accommodation; sabbaticant pilgrims who go off on pilgrimage for some months and then return to 'normal life'; and mendicant pilgrims who are dedicated to the missions of being on pilgrimage and of helping other pilgrims.

The Society of Servant Pilgrims is rather new and the website is currently under development...  A Facebook page has been started Society of Servant Pilgrims.  An email address is set for information exchange and general communication at societyofservantpilgrims >at< gmail >dot< com.  It's all being developed, so I beg patience while I'm unplugged on pilgrimage; others are active participants, too.

As the Society of Servant Pilgrims was in formation this summer, I participated in leading two pilgrimages - one on the Camino del Norte a Chimayo (New Mexico) beginning 115 miles away at San Luis, Colorado.  Always a fun one for me, and more about this pilgrimage is being developed.  The other was a shorter and much flatter pilgrimage of about 90 miles along the Erie Canal towpath to the closely spaced shrines of St Kateri Takakwitha and Our Lady of Martyrs in Fonda and Auriesville, New York.  These pilgrimages were both wonderful events, and learning experiences.  Guidebooks for these two pilgrim trails are being developed for future pilgrims.  More information will be forthcoming as the webpage gets developed.

I have plans to attend the next American Pilgrims on the Camino annual gathering at Our Lady of the Snow outside of St Louis in April.  I'll speak about the latest pilgrimages I've made, pilgrim trails in North America, and offer a peek in the pack again.  There are lots of pilgrim activities happening... stay tuned...

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Day 129 Arrived in Rome!

...and not much time on the computer at the moment, but just to say I've gotten here on a glorious sunny day after dawdling just a tad in gorgeous Umbria and other parts of the Italian interior - all those medieval hilltop villages that didn't make any guidebooks because they're too difficult to reach and cannot accommodate cars or busses - well, I passed through dozens of them following quiet old roads as much as possible, crossing olive groves with families out pruning and picnicking... a start contrast to when I arrived for Easter on my first long walk: 2 weeks of cold pouring rain then...

...more soon
thanks everyone who helped and encouraged me during these last four and a half months.

     .....this pilgrimage is over, sad but inevitable, but I anticipate spending my 'off-season' helping and guiding other pilgrims wherever they may want to go, and when the weather cools in autumn, I'll surely start off again... where to - eh?  I think I'll visit our friends to the north and walk from Denver to the Basilica of Ste Anne de Beaupré in Quebec, Canada's impressive pilgrim destination.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Day 119 I have crossed the Rubicon (sort of) !

The Rubicon, it turns out, no longer exists... at least the river that Julius Caesar famously crossed to set the collapse of the Roman Republic in motion.  Wikipedia says is believed to have been somewhere between the low coastal towns of Ravenna and Rimini on the Adriatic, and since I'm now in the marshes in between, I'm close enough.  The impact may not be so important to change the tide of world events, but to me, it means I'm very close to my destination.  I plan to be in Rome by the end of the month, and can't imagine that I'll need to venture into any more places my angels may fear to tread.

After fighting the wind to get out of Croatia, I'm head down below my visor to block the sun and rain showers.  How fitting it was, my first full day in Italy, seeking help to find a place to sleep and receiving it from a kind trio from a parochial school with the names Claudio, Augusta, and Lucius - hard to get more Roman names than those.  From Trieste along the coast, I've been walking along the Via Annia... the many canals of the River Po, and the many Venetian cities - Chioggia in particular was a pleasant surprise... except for some days of relatively warm rain, it's been such easy walking that I've upped my average distance back to a daily marathon.

Ravenna, a city I've never visited before, was the center of the empire for a few centuries up until the time of the final collapse, and interestingly, a center of the Arian Church for the short while it was in vogue.  Mosaics are the main remnant, impressive at that... I could spend several days as a tourist in such an interesting little city, but I'm a pilgrim now, not a tourist, so onward I go, coming up to 4,000 kilometers with an additional 400 or so to go.

   Shout out to Father Jim at the Santuario de Chimayò in New Mexico - thanks for the encouraging comments and thanks for warmly receiving foot pilgrims to Chimayò...walking isn't always as easy as it seems.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Day 108 Bonus Time!

Croatia is in the EU, but not, as it turns out, in Schengenland, so I have 16 more days to play on my 90-day clock...yeah!  But... I still must make it to Rome by the end of the month, so no time to waste - marathons every day and I can make it.

Here's a shout-out to the kids at Dr Antuna Barca high school - I was asked by the religion teacher to speak to her classes this morning on the subject of pilgrimage.  I was impressed with the interest the students took, their courtesy, and their proficiency in English.  Go team!

The Croatian coast is interesting in its variability - for a few days, I walked through lush Mediterranean glory...olive groves, orange trees, lavender and rosemary; then more arid terrain with fig trees and plum cactus, ancient stone walls poetically draped on the north side with moss and ivy and bleached white on the south-facing side with small lizards darting between the wide mortarless spaces between rocks... then ,with little warning except a caution from a Benedictine nun that I would have a blustery day, the fierce Bura wind attacked with fury in a remarkably unpopulated and barren part of the coast - stronger and more persistent than the ceaseless wind of Kansas last winter.  For four days - the first day unsympathetically accompanied by biting rain and snow - the wind blew at more than 200 kilometers per hour (125 mph), far more than that required to blow this little pilgrim right off her feet.  The danger was heightened by the steep drop to the crashing sea without even a guardrail.  After more than 3,000 kilometers of walking, new muscles got such a workout that I was sore all over again.  The roads were closed to traffic; I was rather alone.  Never a dull pilgrim moment.

Next will be Trieste and the familiarity of Italia - and good coffee.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Day 94 Starry Poots

Computers are not so easy to come by on this pilgrim trail, and a goodly distanced has been walked since my last update.  The long and the short of it... I've reached the Mediterranean; I'm in Dubrovnik, Croatia; I've got a long way to go and the clock is ticking...

I'll relate an abridged version of a rather dramatic escapade trying to cross some mountains in Montenegro - a country obviously misnamed - I'd have called it Monteblanco for all the snow.  It's beautiful, really, in a rugged sense, and surprisingly underpopulated for all the land area.

I entered Montenegro from Tutin, Serbia after having visited many Orthodox monasteries.  I hoped to touch a toe into Montenegro only to access a road with a high pass into Kosovo to visit two of the most famous monasteries there.  For the first time on the long pilgrimage, I accepted a ride in a car to the border crossing, because of the narrow, winding road with countless unlit tunnels.  In the Montenegrin town of Rozaje, I was advised both by the wife of the parish priest there and by the local authorities, that the days I wanted to travel into Kosovo wouldn't work - an anniversary of some strife, a minor religious holiday for the Christians, and, the advise resounded, I wouldn't be permitted to pass through the border on foot, nor to travel freely to the monasteries, and would need an escort, whom I'd have to pay.  Too much effort, and I opted not to wait around for two more days when the calm would return.

I walked down through a great deal of snow, past a ski resort enjoying a wonderful season, and arrived just below the snowline at yet another monastery.  From there, the adventure began.  Instead of walking along the main road - from what I could tell, the only one plowed regularly - I noted a secondary road on a map I got from a border police officer.  No one could tell me if it was plowed or not, since everyone stays on the main road.  I ventured onward and upward, toward a pass with an elevation of 1,770 meters/6,000 feet.  There were a few villages leading up to the pass and a ski resort on the other side, I estimated a distance of 40 kilometers - one long day for me.

On the upside, I passed the first village on a snowpacked road - plenty of cars had passed.  At the second village, few cars had come or gone, and very few left tracks in the snow beyond the village.  I ventured onward and upward.  The road had been plowed a few snowstorms before, but not recently and the snow was well above my boot-tops.  I kept going - it was a nice day, sunny, no sign of snow in the air.  Some many kilometers further, the plowed section ended, and I crunched through deeper snow - well above my knees - but a snowmobile had passed, perhaps earlier that day or the day before, and I could walk in its path, with some effort.  I came to the last village marked on the map.  It was completely deserted - summer home, chalets, cabins, and two large hotels - all abandoned for the season.  I kept on the snowmobile tracks upward.  I estimated only about seven more kilometers to the pass.

At the last cluster of summer houses, the snowmobile had left tracks of loop-dee-loops and were gone - returned on the same tracks.  Now there was just fluffy snow, sometimes a little icy on top and could support my weight, most times I just fell through to my waist.  I was close - now less than 4 kilometers, I estimated, and the pass would lead to the sunnier, more populated western slope... it should be easier...I hoped.  I found it better to 'swim' through the snow - distributing my weight across the slight icy crust kept me from falling through so much - lying face down and gripping my hiking poles just above the snowbaskets, I could stab the snow and pull myself up the steep slope, using my toes to sort of climb and propel myself forward.  I was close to the pass, I was sure, though I could hear nothing to indicate it, and there were no other landmarks.  The sun was sinking fast into clouds forming in the west.  I could see beneath the fir and spruce trees that the snow was about as deep as a single story house.  It took an hour to go another kilometer or so.  I saw only snow and trees; I heard only wet snow plopping off the tree branches into the snow below.  Try as I could, I couldn't even see the trace of the road.

I paused for an assessment.  On my last adventure in the snow, angels led me to a lovely cozy tavern... there was no cozy tavern on this adventure.  Doh! did my angels fear to tread (again) where I seemed to have rushed in??  That's no good.  I reached under and unsnapped the buckles of my pack, flipped myself over with my pack now on my front, and slid back down the mountain like a double luge team without the sled.  Back to the last abandoned houses, back to the snowmobile tracks.  It was 3:30, the sun was about to drop behind the mountains.  It was well below freezing.  I had thoughts of being a pampered pilgrim.  There was only silence.

Options analysis: find someone in the abandoned village and spend the night as an unexpected guest; find a suitable abandoned house and break in to spend the night (leaving a note, of course); return to the lower village at least an hour and a half away down icy snowpack.  No option seemed attractive.  I scanned the valley - no smoke coming from chimneys - few chimneys, in fact; no lights on; no snowmobiles or tracks; no noise at all.  I picked up the pace, heading for the lower village, accepting the fact that I'd arrive after dark, but hoping for another solution.  I do so hate the idea of breaking and entering, even in such circumstances.  Angels?? Where did you go??  Come back.  Please.

A great bellow filled the valley - Halloooooo - I whipped around.  Where did it come from?  Scanning... one side of the valley, the other... maybe 50 houses in all.  Another tremendous bellow - Halloooooo.  'Where are you?' I shouted in German - so little English have I had the opportunity to speak - my heartiest full voice pathetically unable to fill the valley like the bellower.  I asked again, but this time in Russian - this Serbian/Montenegrin/general Slavic has not been easy for me to pick up.  There - across the valley, deeply incised by a small rushing river - a portly man waving a red towel out of an open window.  I could see the light from inside the cabin.  I rushed back, found some footsteps in the snow just at the edge of the ravine.  Forget it - I skootched up my skirt and held up my pack with my elbows, and slide down the long snowy slope.  I found a snow-covered plank across the raging river, which at another time might have seemed too dangerous to cross, but now seemed like a minor inconvenience.  With a burst of residual energy, I climbed up the opposite slope and across a great field just as snow began to fall, the tops of fence just sticking out of the snow.  I could see the cabin again - the bellower's smiling and surprised face in the open window.  'Moshna chai?' he asked cheerfully.  'Da moshna'.  Some minutes more and I was in the cabin of two fellows who were having a guys weekend away from their families, playing cards and drinking beer in the beauty of the mountains.  Icons of the Serbian saints Sava and Simeon adorned the walls.  These were fine men, not scary ones.  The little cabin in the snow had a loft where I slept alone and unafraid after a reasonable portion of a manly meal of meat and potatoes.  The guys played cards in front of the fire and slept on sofa beds below.  My angels had returned.

In the morning, I reluctantly resolved to return down to the big town and take the main road around - hundreds of kilometers diversion - but prudent and practical.  I walked down passed the lower village and then heard an approaching pickup truck...towing a snowmobile... I flagged them down... you wouldn't happen to be going to the pass, would you? (In German)  We could do.  I hopped in, returning with them to the point where they could drive no further.  Two of them climbed on the snowmobile and made their way to the pass.  I followed on foot in the compacted tracks.  We met again surprisingly soon.  A tree had fallen across the snow, and they had to pull it aside.  This was as far as my swimming marks got - the fallen tree obscured the trace of the road.  It was less than a kilometer from the pass.  From the pass, many snowmobiles and snowmobilers - and kids on sleds, many people all the way down to the ski resort.  A family with many sleds offered me one of them and pointed to their car down in the parking lot - just leave the sled at the car, they'd get it later.  I sledded for at least two kilometers.  Fun!  Silly angels - they abandoned me too soon, I'd say.  With a little more persistence, I'd have made it.  But all's well that ends well.

I followed the River Tara, with its emerald torrents of spring runoff, down towards to Mediterranean.  A few more monasteries, then the famous Ostrog monastery built into a sheer mountain wall.  Gorgeous scenery, nice climate, shedding layers every day, very nice pilgrim-ing... other adventures, but without snow.  A final descent of 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) in a distance of 10 kilometers (6 miles) nearly did my knees in, and I was at the Mediterranean in the delightful but overtouristic town of Kotor.  Fabulous...springtime. Almond blossoms, olive trees, fig trees, lavender and rosemary.

Though I missed Kosovo and therefore bypassed Macedonia and Albania, I've got a deadline to be in Rome by 7 pm on March 31st to pick up my tickets for the Papal Audience and Holy Week celebrations in Rome, so I've got to scurry along.  I've decided to stick to the coast, staying in Croatia rather than venture back to the mountains of Bosnia and Herzegovina to make better time.  It means that I'll be in the Schengen zone the whole time, so using all my remaining days.  I won't be able to linger in Italy after Easter.

Update:  I forgot to add the reference to the title of this email... 'starry poots' translates to 'old roads' in the general slavic language.  I've been walking on the old roads all along - the Turkish roads in Serbia and Montenegro, Roman roads along the coast, and even roads referred to on the historical info boards as Napoleon's Road higher up the slope on the coastal road.  Napoleon's army is long gone, but I enjoy walking along them through the ruins of former villages, with just some goats for company.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Day 76 Unplanned fun

I left a monastery in a deep fog - and though the one sister there and an aspiring sister-to-be who live in the small fortress church with a history of Turkish invasions offered me plenty of the customary liqueur and wine to ward off the cold, the fog was not in my head, but hugging the mountains and the ground.  We had a fun evening, a treat for me that we conversed in English since the two women are well educated, happy to have an opportunity to practice, and happy to have a visitor, so it was a bittersweet parting at dawn.  The sister pointed out that though my footprints remained in the snow from the previous evening's arrival, the freeze of the night gave enough icy crust that there were no footprints as I descended the mountain path. She shouted after me - 'you don't disturb the snow, you must be an angel!'  I'm happy I didn't fall on the sheer ice.

I hiked for hours in the snowy foggy mountains, enjoying the animated tranquility.  I stopped by another monastery, high in a gorge, though like all the others, never fully able to hide from the medieval Turks.  Tea with the monks there and a discussion of the footpath that continued through the mountains to get to the next monastery on the opposite side.  Discussions like these are all quite vague with monks and nuns, attached as they are to their monastery, they don't seem to get out and go for long walks, and don't care to know where they fit in geographically.  Vague compounds poorly with fog and snowfall... maybe it was a tad foolish of me to head off into the mountains without a proper map and without a firsthand account of the way.  I loved every minute of it: breaking trail on a wide forester's track; the abundance of deer tracks was amazing, either a few of them were running in circles around me or there were dozens of them; I heard the sickening screech of wild pigs startlingly close and then one darted out from under a pine tree a stone's throw away, blood gushing from a wound in it's flank, a rank stench left hanging in the billowing fog; surprising for the depth of winter, a duo of black squirrels leapt through the fresh snow deeper than their own height, like cartoon animals... never stopping, I was captivated for hours with the imprecise sense that I was gaining elevation and heading west-ish.  The fun had to end eventually - before dark, always the objective - and somewhere safe.  I reached what seemed to be the top, walked along a ridge for a few hours hoping for a break in the inquiet fog to get a view, and then found a wide white carpet that headed down, the snow being just above my hemline, instead of no footprints in the snow, I now left a strangely adorned set that would likely perplex someone, if someone were there to notice.

Downward and moving fast to reach somewhere before dark, I followed a babbling brook, which fed a stream, which became a small river, then one too large to cross, and hoped I was on the appropriate bank.  A hut, abandoned... a cluster of farm buildings set back, maybe occupied, maybe not... a few roofs visible ahead... domestic debris littering the river... a footbridge, creaky and unstable, but sufficient for purpose... and out onto a paved road into a village of sorts.  Whew, and all without foreknowledge.  The greatest surprise, atypical for the Serbian villages I had already visited, a tavern, with lights on in the full dusk the crept in as the fog lifted, and a view that nearly burst through the window into my yearning eyes - a roaring fire in a great stone hearth.  I couldn't have planned it better.  Okay, so no one inside spoke any of my five good languages, so we relied on my squishy Russian/Ukrainian/generic Slavic/conjugate-as-you-will, gestures, and a few letters of introduction handwritten by some of the good folks who had offered me hospitality.  Hot tea, soup being prepared, a stranger among us, call all villagers, we're having a party.  Who wouldn't love to be a pilgrim?  Scrutinizing a detailed topo map, the myriad of forest roads appeared like spaghetti thrown on paper; I swung too far south and having walked about 30 kilometers, was still about 25 kilometers away from the monastery I targeted for the day.  Ah well.  Off the Schengen clock, I'm in no particular hurry and know full well I can't visit all the monasteries Serbia has tucked in the beautiful nooks and crannies of its mountains.  The proprietor was as gracious as could be, though had no idea of what a pilgrim is in his own language - hodochasnitza, was delighted to have hosted a wayward American woman.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Day 67 Sun, rain, mud

Passing through the flat lands of Hungary has been relatively easy, sure, but back on the Schengen clock has prodded me along quickly again, and the weather has not been conducive to blogging.  Shameful of me not to check in in such a long time...

I tumbled out of the mountains and out of the snow, into mud.  With my western trajectory, I shifted the payload of chocolate to the starboard side; the sun came out.  (Mr. Murphy's class: why would this be a good idea?)  In the few days it took my face and hands to get good and sunburnt, the clouds came back and dropped abundant flower-encouraging rain.  I walked a lot along the soggy levees of the Tisa River, stopping in farmhouses for tea, and being handed from one group to the next, each host taking on the responsibility for contacting an acquaintance in a village a day's walk away.

With the passage through Hungary moving swiftly along, the larger cities of Debrecen and Szeged offered their amber shops in the old city centers, reassuring me that I'm still on the right ancient route.  Hungary spills out of its borders, which are evidently political rather than cultural.  I continued to bungle through Hungarian for several days after crossing into Serbia, where I am now... the capital city of Belgrade, such a cultural crossroad that, I read, it has been a battleground something like 150 times in its history.

The Serbs are gentle with their language, equally presented in the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets.  With the similarities with Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian, my vocabulary is bigger than I managed in Hungary, though I spend a lot of time in jovial confusion.  People are good, of course, and I've met many wonderful people, young and old.  Funny thing, passing through Hungary, I was silently hopeful for some of the famed goulash, and finally had some only after passing through the transition zone in Serbia... delicious, and made with venison.

Even after all of this silence, I'm quite limited on the computer this evening and have to devote some time to figuring out a route for my non-Schengen leisure - Serbia is overflowing with old Orthodox monasteries, most of which seem to be nestled in high mountain valleys, how to choose??? I could spend a lot of time touring around, but Rome awaits, so though I have no need to rush, I mustn't dawdle.  I'm staying with a trio of retired French missionary nuns who have plenty of experience in the region but none afoot... I hope to make it at least well into Kosovo, but if my wanderings take so much time, I may have to sacrifice a visit to Macedonia before swinging into Albania and balancing the sunburn with a northern bearing for a while.
   the world needs more pilgrims! gotta run...!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Day 5Ö How cold is cold?

There are many reasons I prefer to do my pilgriming in winter, but that is not to say the colder the better.  I climbed into the mountains in glorious snow - exhilarating, wonderful, picturesque, etc... but on the final day of my push over the Transcarpathians, the snow took a respite from falling, the sky cleared up, and it turned cold.  The little thermometer that hangs from my pack, close enough to my body to capture a smitten of heat, was red only in the bulb.  I don't think I ever saw that before.  No registration at all.  Minus 2Ö C and minus 25 F are the lowest markings on the scales.  The slight headwind made my eyes water, an unfortunate occurrence since, I learned right then, in the blink of an eye, upper and lower lashes freeze together.  Conveniently, so pretty did I find the valley that the unfortunate discomfort was not much of a distraction.  I hope not to lose the mercury into the bulb again on this pilgrimage, or any other.

Over the top in the cold, but down the subsequent slope in the knee-deep fresh snow that fell overnight.  Then the temperature rose to a slushy few degrees above freezing, and everything is cold deep and sopping wet.  Everyone is commenting that it's the whitest Christmas they've seen in a generation.  What luck for me.  At the border with Hungary, having a wide transition zone for the switch from Cyrillic to Latin writing and from Eastern to Central European time, I poised to re-enter the EU in the morning and take two days to walk to the biggest pilgrim shrine in Hungary.

I've got to hand it to the Greco-Catholic priests and sisters of Ukraine, who have taken exceptional care of me, passing me along from one parish to another, from one monastery to another, like no where else I've been.  The world, of course, needs more pilgrims, and I enthusiastically encourage pilgrims to come to Ukraine.  I've struggled somewhat with the language - it's a complicated one grammatically, but breaking the Cyrillic code opens vocabulary pretty quickly.  Nonetheless, English is not widely spoken, despite what people may think, but my other languages have come into play regularly, doh! all except Spanish, which is now my strongest foreign language.  Every evening has been something new - okay, say it all again, but this time in German, now in French, back to Italian... arghh, my head!  Next time, Hungarian...

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Day 45 Merry Second Christmas

Ukraine is a wonderful place to be a pilgrim - well, where isn't? My eye is adjusting to the Cyrillic fonts and Slavic sounds.  The richness of languages is clear in a basic and frequent question I hear nearly every day: Mozhe chai?  It's more than the simple inquiry it would be in English, where we would ask - would you like some tea? - here, the question is Could you do with some tea?  Da, mozhne! is the eager response, yes, I sure could.

Western Ukraine is completely different from the eastern part of the county I pilgrimed through five years ago.  The part that is now sadly torn in an unnecessary dispute, I could not walk through these days - I'd be prevented from entering Crimea entirely, where I spent a wonderful extended holiday season.  Because of the current conflict, the bright blue and yellow of the national flag is present everywhere, freshly painted and raised.  Flags generally fly low on their staffs in deference to those who have been lost in the fighting.  New Year's Eve was subdued.  It's not quite a time of celebration in a nation with internal strife.

What I experienced in the eastern part of the country five years ago was a throw-back to a former time where indoor plumbing, even in grammar schools, is absent, heat comes only from the central woodstove with its ubiquitous cauldron of bottomless borshcht, topped off daily, and the household generally sleep together in one room on mattresses on the floor.  People dress simply, and the kerchiefed babuskas in peasantry garb look exactly like those in century-old photos... but the west of Ukraine - it's clean and tidy Europe, as modern as anywhere.  Young people, even in farming villages, are downright chic in their dress, smart phones, and shopping bags.  Houses are big and richly styled with architectural adornments, and cars are generally late-model, though the occasional Lata beater plugs away.  By my own eyewitness, east and west meet somewhere in the middle of Ukraine where two centuries mingle.   Of course, I found wonderful people when I traveled in the east, but I like it here in the west very much.

I've walked south, staying relatively close to the border with the European Union.  The number of cars with Polish, Czech, and Slovakian license plates reflects the open communication among neighboring countries.  Most villages have a European look and layout about them, with the church prominent in the main square.  For my daily walks, I've been staying largely in the forests and between farm fields, stopping for tea once or twice a day, and seeking hospitality at churches.  One night, Evangelical Christians offered a warm place to sleep, and one night I was taken in by an elderly Orthodox priest and his wife, who frantically scolded me (for my pilgrim efforts) in Russian far beyond my capacity to understand, but who treated me otherwise like a lost kitten, putting some milk in the saucer of potato and rice soup.  For the balance of my days here in Ukraine, I've been coddled by Greco-Catholic nuns and priests, who have all taken such exceptional care of me, I feel like a regular pampered pilgrim.  Though I'm still carrying a shameful surplus of chocolate bars and bonbons, they've been understanding about loading me down with too much food - those kielbasa and butter sandwiches freeze within an hour, I plead, please don't expect me to lug ice around all day, and the giant cans of tuna and sardines...please, I can't even open them, much less eat them in one sitting in their slushy congealed oil.  A hearty breakfast and an evening meal is more than sufficient nourishment.

Validation that I'm still on the Amber Road came in L'viv - a gorgeous gem of a city - when I passed an amber shop in the old part of the city.  A reproduction of an old map hangs prominently in a gilded frame in the window caught my eye as I walked by, so I stopped to look for a moment.  Across the street, at a tony cafe specializing in roasting coffee beans, a barista spied the scallop shell hanging on my backpack.  He tapped on the window and waved me in - the first to recognize the pilgrim symbol - offering me a cup of the finest roast on the house.  One day, he said, if he can get a visa, he'd like to walk to Santiago de Compostela.

A slight westward turn after L'viv, the Transcarpathians rolled in under my feet like a foamy incoming tide.  Every day in Ukraine has greeted me with snow flurries, but my approach to the mountains have coincided with a weather front bearing heavier snows.  The blustering swirls are glorious, the winter wonderland, out of a postcard.  It's Christmas Eve (again) and much more fitting to be standing boot-high in fluffy dry snow than in the dreary mud and rain.  I left some worrying priests in a hilltop monastery shrine as I tramped up through a narrow valley to a small village, then turned to cross a pair of long logs lashed together across a nearly frozen river.  Several hours later, after a peaceful afternoon listening to a pine forest fill with snow, I popped out into another valley where nuns and orphans awaited with hot tea.  Winter pilgriming is great!  I'm rather committed now, up yet another high and snowy valley, spending Christmas Eve with a family this time, delighted to serve the delicacies - 12 by tradition - to the otherwise empty placesetting left at the end of the table.  One more day up the valley - to another awaiting priest - and then the final push over the pass, to come down at the border with Hungary.  Ironically, more heavy snow is in the forecast... with the mountain paths unmarked, I'm a pilgrim with a few winter challenges.