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.