In 2012, I walked the first-half of the Wicklow Way with a few companions. The second-half of the Way and then across Ireland, I walked about 300 miles by myself. This year I walked the Wicklow, about 100 miles, with a group of twelve fellow pilgrims. A walking pilgrimage by myself as opposed to walking with a group has some obvious differences, while some are more subtle.
Walking for eight hours in silence is wonderful and at the same time daunting. Sometimes it's good to have another person to talk to; especially to share thoughts about the magnificent scenery, the tough walking, the unexpected surfacing of emotions. I'm an introvert, so walking alone is easy. But making pilgrimage with this group touched my soul in ways in which being alone could never have happened.
I found it very helpful to have other eyes looking for the Way markers, "the yellow hiking man," particularly those times the marker was hiding in the overgrowth. Having someone else looking at the map with me was assuring we were indeed going in the right direction.
At the end of the day it was fantastic to hear each other process the walk. Reflecting on the day's hike while exhausted shed new light on my own experience. Everyone brings their own perspective.My story is incomplete without their story.
Each morning we gathered to tape up sore knees and bandage blistered feet. Fortunately, we had a nurse and a former athletic coach along to do a lot of the tending to injuries. Caring for the walking wounded builds a bond between pilgrims like few other experiences.
The last two times I've walked the Wicklow Way, I walked over White HIll with other people. Both times we walked in dense fog and a driving rain. We could barely see the path we were walking on. That experience built a camaraderie of shared misery. This time we walked across White Hill on a perfect day, billowy multicolored clouds, light breeze, cool temperatures for a steep climb. The view was heavenly. I saw things I could not see before. And I was able to share the experience, fresh and new, with fellow travelers. I am so happy I could be with others on that day. I couldn't imagine that my joy was so obvious except that several of them commented about the big smile on my face.
The thing that brought the most laughter to my heart was listening to two couples sing their own lyrics to familiar tunes about the Wicklow Way. God, they made me laugh. And that feels good when you've got three more hours of grueling hike ahead. Of course, watching them then walk on ahead holding hands brought a tear of joy to my eyes. Love is power in so many ways. Holding hands and singing songs. Sounds so simple and child like. I like it and plan on doing it more myself with my love.
This trip was the first time I have reached the end of the pilgrimage with other people. I had my own sense of completion. Yet, that personal feeling was nothing compared to the immense satisfaction I enjoyed in watching others accomplish a goal who many thought was not possible. Even if some of them never doubted they would finish, all of us had spent a tremendous amount of time and money in preparing to go on this journey together. In witnessing those folks realize their achievement of a rare feat, I felt a glow in my soul that was matched on their faces. I want to hold that moment in my mind's eye for the remainder of my life; it feels that good.
I'm glad I walked on pilgrimage in solitude. The experience gave me new perspective about myself. Still, I am overjoyed that I went on pilgrimage with this group. Their experiences enriched my walk, touched my soul, made me laugh, brought tears to my eyes, taught me much about life and myself, and stirred within me the continued desire to keep living life as a pilgrimage.
Walking with others in pilgrimage is a microcosm of community building. We shared an experience that we each must do alone. We must carry our own pack. But, there are times we need help. Those times, we need others to step forward and do more than feel sorry for us—we need someone to carry a part of our load. We need others to care that we are hurting and then do something about it—bandage our wounds and check in with us on a regular basis. There are times on the trail when you run out of water and food. At those times we count on someone else to share what they have with us. There are times on the trail you want to be left alone—we all must sensitive to those moments. And there are times we need someone to listen to our complaining—we pray others will listen. Walking a hundred miles through the Wicklow Mountains in eight days is the compressed experience of living in community. I know I learned a lot of during those 100 miles.
As the walking of the pilgrimage ended, there was another dramatic learning for me. Within hours we began to go our separate ways. Some went home to Phoenix. Others to Seattle. Cathy and I stayed in Ireland. The walking pilgrimage community came to an end. All communities come to an end. While that may be something we don't want to face or acknowledge—it is a fact of life. We each will continue to live with what we learned, cherish what we experienced, and will be better people for being with each other. Because this community existed and has ended, now, new opportunities for community will emerge. Those communities will also be better for what we learned while being in this pilgrimage community.
Currently I am planning on walking with another group in the summer of 2015. I pray my body holds up for years and more pilgrimages to come. There is so much more to experience and learn by being on pilgrimage. Keep walking.