By: Madonna Hamel
I’m in the pub section of a pizza place in Swift Current. I was here last year, when Matthew, Hugh, Harold and I, alumni from a pilgrimage of the previous year, sat drinking from tankards and getting caught up on our lives. We come from different backgrounds and are propelled by various dreams but one thing we do have in common is walking. For us, as for many, we make our way by walking. Matthew is a religious studies professor who teaches in Montreal at Concordia. Hugh is an artist and folklorist with the pragmatism of a farmer, Harold is a biologist who spent a great deal of his youth in the mountains of Colorado. Together, two summers ago, we walked from Wood Mountain to Fort Walsh, following the old trail posts marking the RCMP trail. Well, Matthew and Hugh did, Harold and I, and many others, joined in at various points along the way.
Two years ago I was with the pilgrims long enough to settle into a rhythm I’d lost to the strange jolts and jags of my brain’s susceptibility to man-made distractions and diversion. This year, due to various annoying physical exhaustions and bolts out of nowhere, I’ve not done the kind of walking I intended when I moved here. And sitting in the pub, with Hugh’s meticulously crafted itinerary before me, oh how I wish I was walking with them again.
“Pilgrimage,” begins Ervin, who good-naturedly let me drag him to this meet-and-greet on the eve of the first day of walking, which begins just outside the pub door and coincides with a Metis celebration the next morning. Having just been released from the hospital for blood poisoning I’m in now fit condition for seventeen days of twenty to thirty mile walks from Swift Current to North Battleford. “My understanding is that pilgrimage has a religious connotation,” he concludes.
I’d rather not even attempt to explain how these walks resemble pilgrimages when the man who teaches the subject and leads walks like these all over the world- and gets paid for it, is sitting three seats down from me. Despite having just arrived from England and having driven from Regina to Swift Current, I yank the poor fellow over to my seat next to Ervin to define what a pilgrimage looks like, in this day and this age.
There are ancient pilgrimages that still exist and attract millions, like the Camino of Santiago de Compostel in Spain or the Kumbha Mela in India, the largest one in the world. They usually lead to sites where a saint or holy person has been buried or spent enough time to leave a deep and lasting and significantly transformative impression, or had a revelation. There seems to be a surplus of ‘holiness’ or ‘sacred energy’ in these places and the pilgrim hopes to be somehow touched or changed by that intangible or ineffable essence; hopefully the surplus of holiness will rub off on us.
Today, we take similar walks all the time: they may just be to the mall or the movies or to the homes of the stars. Or they may be on the land, as this walk is doing. We also define what revelations bear meaning for us and in which ways do we become transformed. Our motives and intentions may be different than in the days of the early pilgrims or ,say, the Tibetan monks in the Himalayas or those confined to wheel chairs at Lourdes today, but the point of the walks I wish to take, especially these long ones with Matthew are to let many of my smaller quests for superficial gains and transformations just drop away. I hope to become less self-absorbed by being absorbed by the moving band of pilgrims who is itself more than the sum of its parts. I don’t walk to build my confidence, I walk to lose myself. And I lose it most easily to the land.
For Matthew, and I’m paraphrasing, it is the land itself that is honoured in the walk. ( I recall what is written at the old 76 ranch in the Grasslands Park, words of an early rancher: One way or another you learn to respect the land. If didn’t have respect when you got here, the land will extract it out of you.) It is the land that transforms us. And it’s Matthew’s intention to honour it, as well as the people who lived on it long before we arrived.
“We are all treaty people”, quotes Ervin, whose family goes back several generations. But they were not all colonizers when they came here. I know that’s the word used for the settlers these days: colonizers, he says. But many were running from a life of suffering, pograms, poverty. People whose labours were not their own, and who wanted to bond with the land in different but equally transformative ways as the original peoples.
Transformation is why we walk. I can be present for transformational moments on a walk, but I can’t dictate what those changes will be, and if I’m lucky I can take that presence of mind into daily life and hopefully be present to witness the everyday transformational moments.
Besides being bummed I can’t walk with my old friends, I like these new pilgrims sitting across from me,eating wings, drinking beers, telling us what got them here from Waterloo, Ottawa and Regina. I’m hungry for the kinds of conversations they inspire and questions they ask. I need to slip back into the slipstream of the solitary soul communing with sky and ground. Two years ago Matthew pronounced me, without knowing it was my purpose upon arriving in Saskatchewan, a desert mother. In my solitary and fumbling pursuit of simplicity, authenticity, and heart I was looking for a language in which to be fluent and honest. But over the last few years I’ve also come to realize: too much talking is not what spirit is about. It’s about doing what needs to be done, making your feet boss, telling your brain: thank you for sharing now go sit in the corner, because you’ve done enough trouble for one lifetime.
Walking is the one thing pilgrims have in common. And, contrary to the popular saying that the journey is the destination, journey plus destination equals more than the sum of its parts. If it’s the journey that matters most than we can tidily dispense of talk of transformation, transcendence, redemption. If it’s just about the journey then it doesn’t matter where we’re headed and there’s no need for poetry or hope because there is nothing at the end of the walk. In fact we can stop any time and go anywhere and it’s all good. Anything goes. And when anything goes, nothing matters. If we dispense of the poetic and the hopeful then I don’t know why we bother to even light out on the journey to begin with- the journey simply becomes another acquisition, a consumed experience, been there, done that, now what?
But if it’s just about the destination then why not just hail a cab? Like Harold Fry in the ‘Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’, about a man who never even intended to go on a pilgrimage to the bedside of a dying friend, but just kept walking past mail boxes until he hand-delivered his letter. He thought he could save her, but what he ended up saving the marriage to his wife back home. The destination does not guarantee salvation anymore than, according to Einstein,an unprepared mind will be able to ecognize the fortuitous accident when it occurs, an accident needed in order for a genius inspiration to occur. If all that counts is the destination then all we have to do is be at the right time, specified by an outside authority, when the rapture hits and the judgment falls. So just take a cab.
Walk on, goes the song. Walk your talk, says the elder. Think with your feet, says the sober man. Your feet will take you to a meeting. Your brain will take you to a bar. It really was your best thinking that got you into this mess. I have to get out of bed and walk into the great outdoors before my brain begins to list all the ways I could mess up today.
I used to wake eager at 5:30 to be out the door, catching the early morning sun on the butte or along the river or up the hill to the cemeteries: Catholics on the bottom, Protestants on the ridge, animals across the road. I’d go out again at night, the graveside lights with their angels, stars and globes twinkling up at the Milky Way twinkling back down on them. Only the cold could pull me back indoors. So what happened?
Driving home after the visit with my old walking pals, sitting beside Ervin who doesn’t worry about these things, but has definite views and opinions on them, I venture to say: If lived intentionally, and was open and prepared, would not every day finish with a transformation? Yep, he said.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.