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.