Two of my children were in Europe for World Youth Day last summer, and in thanksgiving for them having made it safely, and in prayer for their safe return, I decided I would do my own pilgrimage—a walking pilgrimage.
I’m not much for the long walks anymore, though I managed twenty miles a couple years back with my son’s Boy Scout troop. My knowledge of long walks and walking pilgrimages was confined to Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines and those favorites of J.D. Salinger, The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way.
But what started as a bit of an internal whim grew to more of a sense of commitment. Though she worked close to my area of Denver, and I’ve always had a sense of historical interest in her and the Italians in Colorado, I’ve never had much of a devotion to Mother Cabrini, (though the “Steak Cabrini” at “My Brother’s Bar” is very good), but when you think of a pilgrimage in our area, you are generally thinking the Mother Cabrini Shrine near Golden on Lookout Mountain. You will sometimes see walkers near there along with the usual mountain bikers. And once I ran into a group of people, priests and a brother, mothers and fathers with children, and a rather attractive outré, Gothic girl, walking together along Zuni, and when I asked, one of the men told me they were headed to the Shrine. They were from the St. Pius X Society church out in Watkins, St. Isidore’s. Regarding the outré girl, you’ll see artsy types at times attracted to the Tridentine Mass. Which reminds me of the famous letter signed by a number of British artists and writers in the sixties, Catholic and non-Catholic, including my favorite writer, Rumer Godden, protesting the loss of the Latin Mass. Now doing an ancient thing brings contradictions in these modern times; it isn’t like we have a clear Walsingham Way marked in the dirt at our feet and in the hearts of ourselves and our neighbors. So on to the Internet seeking a map.
I did a Mapquest that I wasn’t sure I trusted, and lo and behold I then found the Watkins church’s pilgrimage route. It turns out that they do the pilgrimage once a year, this year late August, and they, children, nursing moms, outré girls, et al, walk all the way from Watkins, over twice as far as I.
Of course, being a McGrail, I did little other advance prep and got started on a Friday morning, two hours later than I had intended. Nonetheless, myself and my student backpack crammed with enough for two days as I intended to walk there and back again (call me a Hobbit) did get started, map and sketchbook in hand.
As my backpack was crammed with stuff, my mind (as always) was crammed with romantic notions. I’d meet interesting people along the way, I’d stop in quaint little places and quaff an ale or two, I’d do brilliant little pencil sketches, and I’d gain a sense of the profundity of it all. “It all”: the Universe, the whole shebang. Plus I would spend that night at a luxury hotel in downtown Golden and eat at their very nice Southwestern restaurant. Such is man, a mixture of the divine and profane.
But then, two blocks from home, I had a bout of anxiety and doubt. I questioned the point of the thing and frankly felt a little silly. What was the connection, if any, between walking, or travelling in any way, from one point to another, and thankfulness for a gift from God and a request for another gift? Perhaps I should give the whole thing a pass and hit one of the Tennyson Street bars instead. Verbal prayer could suffice for both thankfulness and petition.
But it is only in our faithless age that we would question the efficacy of prayer in all its forms, and ponder how it works. Our age that sets up studies where one group of heart ailment patients are prayed for and one group is not, and then their outcomes are compared. I prefer, or hope I do, the behavior of Chatwin’s aboriginals or Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims where communication with God is as natural as breathing or putting one foot in front of another. By the way, there is a very cool Archer’s movie called A Canterbury Tale set in World War II England. I’ll be doing a review of it on the film page.
So I didn’t stop and head for the bar, instead I simply told myself “I’ve made a commitment, I’ve got to stick with it.” I also remembered one of my favorite philosophical problems, posed by Heidegger, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” with the twist I hope to give it, (hence this blog as well as the pilgrimage) “It is better to do something rather than nothing.” After I got near Crown Hill Cemetery, several miles later, it struck me that when you are on a pilgrimage there is no need to be praying with words or engaging in complex meditations, each step one after another is its own Ave. As the steps you take are their own prayer, you are free to engage in sightseeing, or thoughts on issues not specifically religious. In a while, those thoughts will center on blisters and whether or not you will actually make it.
Being near that cemetery brought up a number of thoughts. I thought of John Donne’s poem about the general resurrection beginning, “At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow…” I thought of the British artist Stanley Spencer’s odd shaped English churchyard resurrectees. I thought of my friend John Williams who is not buried there, but died right across the street at the Lutheran Hospital Hospice from a heart attack a couple of days after he and I and another friend had shared beers in his backyard. I thought of my older son’s conclusion that cemeteries should not provoke fear at all, for if there are ghosts they inhabit the places of meaning during a person’s life, not merely the spot where they are buried. And I thought with fondness, as always, of Mary Chase, the Denver writer of “Harvey,” who is buried there (coincidentally near someone with the last name of Harvey.)
But the cemetery passed and I walked pleasantly through the adjacent park and off into a suburban neighborhood. I fooled myself a little bit into thinking I was half way done, actually less than a third. Maybe the illusion, along with a cold Coke from the Lakewood Library, gave me a feeling of well-being and confidence. I stopped into Our Lady of Fatima’s adoration chapel to say “Sext”, one of the Hours from the Little Office, good medievalist that I am.
In walking through neighborhoods, I would spot the wildly unkempt yards. It was those yards I like the best, the catalpas and maples growing where no human had planted them, wagons missing wheels, playhouses and treehouses stained and decaying from age and weather, gardens started with hope in the Spring, now given over to weeds. There is something timeless about those places.
By now my feet were telling me which surfaces they liked the best and which the0y liked the worst. The best were the well-trod dirt paths, very few to be found. The worst was a toss-up between concrete sidewalks and the large sharp rocks you find buried in the dirt next to the highways. In the middle was the asphalt although that brings you a little too close to the cars.
As I walked, memories of other walks and hikes came to mind. I remembered, as I often do, how much fun it was being in the Outing Club at Parker Gray Middle School in Alexandria where we hiked and backpacked along the Appalachian Trail. Thank you Miss Badger, Miss Steece (I always had a crush on you) and Mr. McRae, the hippie teachers who coordinated the thing. And sorry Courtney Rohr (a fellow student), for being such a jerk. One of my provisions for this pilgrimage was a bag of “Gorp,” (unfortunately a commercial product), as we always brought the homemade stuff on those Parker Gray hikes.
Our modern landscape is certainly not suited for walking as a way to get from Point A to Point B. I think it was Malcolm Muggeridge who said that on a trip to Los Angeles he was told he would need to drive to cross the street in front of his hotel. But in most places, long walks are still possible, albeit not always pleasant. A modest proposal might be to reduce the width of the concrete sidewalks they now put in and use the extra space for a parallel dirt path.
I read a library book a couple of years back about a nineteenth and early twentieth century American long distance walker who tried to cross the United States at an incredible pace. It was quite interesting, though part of what the author said, “Such a walk today would be impossible,” rang a little bit false. I remember a college roommate who crossed the United States on foot and a fellow in the seventies who wrote a book and National Geographic article on the same feat (puns always intended), and we have the Crossroads walkers who do it each summer, though with help from a van and taking turns with the actual walking. So get out there and start walking.
Another thing I remembered while walking was that sights fly by in a car, amble by on a bike, and trudge by on foot, meaning that a walk allows you to see so much more. This revelation came to me while viewing a drainage ditch from a concrete bridge. There were some cottonwoods and willows on either side trying to establish themselves. The whole thing could have made more of an effort to be picturesque with frolicsome turtles and frogs being pursued by a blue heron, alas it was not to be.
At about that point I was running out of 20th Street, and starting to veer towards Colfax/Highway 40. There is a little shopping center there at 20th and Youngfield and being on foot I could see that it contained “The Wood Shop” where you could buy wooden toys and novelties; I might have checked it out if my children were still small.
I now came to a large office development called “Denver West”. People from this area should think “Denver Tech Center” except slightly more palatable architecturally. In any case, the area is still sterile, angular and ugly and provokes me to wonder why people choose to work in such places. The truth of course is that the average office worker doesn’t make much of a choice, doomed to where they sit by the hubris and greed of developers, architects, and urban planners. However, there are many wealthy people in my neighborhood buying and building houses in that similar modern/postmodern style. So even when there is a choice, wealth often goes with poor taste.
Proceeding west from the office complex, I came to the shopping center whose architecture may best be described as faux Tuscan, not entirely displeasing. There is a notable sculpture at the main entrance, which I paused to sketch, of a pioneer woman plowing a field. Across Colfax, on the shopping mall side, there is a Pieta-like sculpture of a fallen warrior in a woman’s lap, which is apparently by the same sculptor. Some day when I have more time, I will return for more detailed sketches of them both. At first I was struck by how fetching the pioneer woman looks, but a closer observation shows how effectively the artist portrayed the sheer weariness on her face.
It was time for a late lunch and I went into a “Mimi’s Café,” the chain version of a French country inn. It wasn’t terrible, but I would have preferred the real thing, or at least “Le Central,” the downtown Denver, independently owned version. Alas, “Le Central,” which was an excellent, comfortable place, is no more, having closed last year shortly after my younger son and I dined there.
And then the trudgery (to coin a word), of my pilgrimage began in earnest. I needed to continue on Colfax, in its Highway 40 version and start ascending the mountains. Other than the roads, there would be less of a man-made nature to break the monotony, and the roads and highways themselves destroyed the more pleasing aspects of nature that I might have enjoyed on a hiking trail or a true country road.
By then I had blisters on the soles of both feet and my calves, I had worn shorts, were rosy red with sunburn. But this was a pilgrimage, a sacrifice, and I just kept going. “Offer it up,” of course. I’m also motivated by inertia – “a body in motion tends to stay in motion.”
Walking along the western parts of Colfax, in places untouched by human feet other than those of the homeless and the St. Isidore’s pilgrims, and looking over into the fringe of trees and down into ditches, you start thinking you might see a dead body perhaps the flesh decaying from off the skull. I’d have to call the police, luckily I’d borrowed my son’s cell phone. They’d come and I’d have to explain what I was doing and how I’d found the body. I’d be stuck in an interview room for hours; it would put a crimp on things. The officer would say, “So, you were on a ‘pilgrimage’? And you just happened to ‘find,’ this body?” They would jump to the conclusion that I had killed Victim X, and I would appear too eager to help. “You didn’t move anything did you?” Of course I wouldn’t have, I’ve been too well trained by reading thousands of police reports as part of my old job, watching countless TV shows, and reading my Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and Erle Stanley Gardner. I don’t think you could have a better dead body finder than I am. Luckily, it didn’t happen and it is a hopeful sign for the culture that you can still walk along west Colfax and not find corpses amongst the weeds.
I wonder if the, “I’m going to find a dead body,” illusion is common on long walks. Something like the explorer’s reports of feeling like a second or third person was accompanying them along the way when they were walking alone or in pairs. That was an illusion I did not have. It was just me alone, foot after foot. An illusion I did have was the, “I’m much further along than this map says,” illusion. The same illusion we used to have as 7th and 8th graders in the Outing Club. When my St. Isidore map said I had seven miles to go, I figured it must actually have been four or five. It didn’t really matter, by that stage I was just going to keep walking until I was done.
There are trees and even an intermittent creek along that section of the highway until you get to the big intersection with U.S. 70 where there are the geological sites on either side. It is also where the huge park and ride for skiers is. After that it was more like a rocky desert all the way to the shrine. Steep cliffs on my right absorbed and transmitted the heat of the sun. I had been sweating for hours now, the temperature was in the nineties, and my backpack and clothes were soaked. I didn’t see any other pilgrims on that last stretch, just bikers.
Finally, long after I thought I should have been there, I reached the access road to the shrine. It was about four thirty and this road was even steeper and hotter than what I had just been on.
I came to a solar powered gate worthy of a James Bond movie with a prominent sign saying “Gate Closes at 6 P.M.” There was a bit of, “Why are they erecting such fancy gates when they could give that money to the poor?” feeling, along with the feeling that it was a shame that the shrine couldn’t be kept open all the time. I suppose they have a legitimate fear of theft and vandalism.
There are several long, hot, switchbacks leading from the gate to the shrine proper, a distance of two more miles and it was a little hard to keep myself going. But you rise in elevation quickly and it is gratifying to look backwards and see how far you have come. When I got almost to the top, I could look all the way back towards Denver.
I passed the stone house that had some connection with the camp for girls that Mother Cabrini had started there. An aside, I hate to say it Mother Cabrini, but a youth camp for girls is the last thing that property is suited for. It is on top of a treeless hill, the sun and wind are intense, there are no significant flat spots for camping, games or group campfires, and there are no creeks running through it. She’d have been much better off trading it for a spot closer to Golden or Eldorado Springs.
I have to say that when I got to the chapel, the stations and the gardens, the real shrine part, I felt quite a let-down. No one seemed engaged in intense prayer, more like tourists crossing off another site, there was a black mini-bus in the parking lot more suited for a gambling expedition to Blackhawk with its engine loudly and obnoxiously running and the chapel and gift shop (I’m not a gift shop kind of guy, but I had hoped to buy a bottle of cold water,) were closed. It turned out that the mini-bus was there and the chapel was closed as there was a wedding rehearsal going on inside. First reaction: “This sucks, I can’t go in and say my vespers because the shrine is renting itself out to make a buck from weddings? Where’s my scourge? This reeks a bit of turning the temple into a marketplace.” Calmer, second reaction: “Obviously this couple wants a Catholic wedding, well good for them. And obviously they have a bit of money, hence the mini-bus to bring them all up here. Well, what is wrong with that? Just because they are rich is no sign that they and/or their parents aren’t deeply devout and caring people. No one ever said the church has to be all poor and lower middle class.” So I sat out on the porch, enjoyed the shade and the breeze, and said my vespers.
The time to evaluate a pilgrimage is not at the moment when you have completed it. You are worn out and bound to be disappointed. So at the point I decided to put aside the question of, “Was this a success?” until later. Or maybe I wouldn’t try to answer it at all. Some things should just be done. (Certain readers at this point are wishing I hadn’t examined this pilgrimage at all.) I’m reminded also of my favorite Van Gogh quote, “We must work as hard and with as little hope for success as a peasant, if our work is to last.”
The road back: I decided to forego the luxury hotel as a silly extravagance that would also have taken me several miles out of my way and not walk back the whole way to my home. The way you get to your place of pilgrimage is after all the important thing, not the way you return. Instead I would walk down to Golden, still five to seven miles, and catch the light rail and then a bus, which I did, getting home about ten o’clock that night. By the way, to the woman in the brown S.U.V. with your son and the dog, who kept stopping on the access road near me as if you were going to offer me a ride, but were too timid or cautious to do so, thanks anyway for the thought.