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leaving the path, sticking to the roads of grace | pilgrimage



In which the pilgrim eats a roadside breakfast, finds a spoon, reflects on grace and kindness, receives a ride, and forges a new path.

"I will lead the blind by a way they do not know,
In paths they do not know I will guide them.
I will make darkness into light before them
And rugged places into plains.
These are the things I will do,
And I will not leave them undone."
--Isaiah 42:16
I awoke Monday to the sound of the thunder and the hints of dawn, which got me quickly to my feet. Mother Nature wasn't quite ready to drop down rain, but it was enough to get me moving along the highway keeping an eye out for shelter if I needed it, now easily seen in the early morning light.

This particular highway was the only continuously four-lane divided highway I walked during the entire trip (sometimes the state highways would become four lane, especially when approaching an intersection with another highway, but they never stayed four-lanes), and I'm glad that it was the only such road. I felt constrained to the right-side of the road, there was a lot of traffic that whizzed by, with little to encounter in terms of sights or places I felt comfortable stopping to rest. It also completely lacked the peace of the back roads, which are really an extension of a person's home that links with another part of home; even the country highways felt more a part of the community than the four-lane highways which are arteries for traffic, little more. However, there was a lot of stuff on the side of this highway, and that morning I found breakfast and a spoon.

The highway breakfast was of corn. When I would take long walks around the farmland at the monastery, I would frequently find piles and piles of dried up corn kernels. We were in Iowa after all, with corn waving to the peaks of the mountain, so corn was the main crop of the abbey's farm land. After harvest, the corn is deposted into enormous corn driers, then transferred to even larger grain bins, before eventually being loaded onto trucks and hauled off to whatever food company the farmer sold his crop. But the dried corn frequently is caught by the wind between any of these stages, and little piles found around the monastery. One day, curious, I picked up one of these kernels, rubbed a little of the dirt off of it and cautious bit it. ... It was delicious and obviously packed with starchy carbohydrate goodness. I stored away the knowledge as interesting, as I was well fed at the abbey, and walked on my merry way.

Now on the road, though not yet terribly hungry, I came across a decent sized pile of these same dried kernels. "Be thankful for what you receive." So picking up a handful, I made my way down the highway cleaning and munching corn. I came to think of it as my bowl of grits, and I remember feeling well fed well until midday on that self-milled hominy. So that was breakfast. Ideal? No, but tasty and packed full of energy, so it did me better good than not or naught.

Then I found the spoon. Actually, one of several solid, stainless-steel spoons that I found that morning, though I only kept the first. Why people throw away perfectly good spoons on the highway is beyond my reckoning, but there it was. A spoon was one of the items I wished I had, but couldn't bring myself to take from the monastery. I planned that if necessary, I would dumpster dive grocers for bread and possibly canned goods that had dents or whatnot to cause them to be tossed. And while my grandfather's pocketknife had a can opener, I didn't relish the idea of trying to "drink" the contents of a can, or scoop it out with my fingers. Not that I wouldn't have if that's what it came to, but a spoon just seemed a rather practical dumpster diner's tool. But a little civilization came to David's plan as there in his hands lay the spoon! Huzzah!

Not long after the discovery of cutlery, my directions took me off the four-lane highway and back onto the country roads that I expected to become quite familiar with. This particular set took me through nice hilly farm pasture, by creeks, and even through a small wood along gravel roads. It was nice. Then it started to rain. At first it was pitter-patter, and I walked through it. But it started to pick up; thankfully, just up a nearby driveway was a small farm garage, and I ducked in. There, I made an attempt of capturing some of the rain water in my two empty water bottles, but rain was never going to be a source of drinking water. There was just too little of it; especially since the rain shortly stopped.

Gravel roads gave way to paved before the rain returned, this time much harder and for much longer. So I pulled out my poncho, sat down on my duffle bag and arranged the poncho so it covered me and the bag. This worked well with body and belongings staying dry and warm, patiently waiting out the rain and watching the traffic go by. Eventually the rain slackened to a drizzle, and I set off. It was then that my first ride pulled up. I got four rides those five days and was grateful for them all. Their only detriment was that after I got a ride, I would become guilty of wondering why no one else would stop. Once you get something, you come to expect it. But this first ride was totally unexpected, but accepted only after a brief hesitation.

Though I introduced myself, he never gave me his name, but he told me his son owned some land locally, but didn't farm it himself. He himself did farm-work, but the rain had ruined it for the day, so he was headed back home. And he told me about a long-distance trip he'd taken with some buddies years ago, when they first headed toward Alaska, and then part way into Canada, they decided that wasn't viable, so they turned the car around and headed to Key West, Florida! Of the rides received, I noticed this pattern: 1) male drivers 2) done for the day 3) they had done something similar to my journey in their youth (or were close to my age).

He told me he was headed into town. If I accepted the ride that far, that would essentially end following my backroads directions. Should I stick with those, and refuse the ride? Or accept the kindness of this man? I chose the latter, in no small part because a few years ago I realized accepting a kindness is not only kindness of the other toward myself, but kindness from myself to the other. When someone offers kindness, it is a sign that grace has been given them to open up their hearts a little wider to grow in virtue. Kindness is quite literally a gracious act, and to refuse kindness is to block that path of grace flowsing from God through that person and you and ideally back to God by thankful charity. So when I got in the truck, and a minute latter watched us pass the turn onto my next planned pathway, I prayed that I was being open to pathways of grace unseen and unfelt.

He dropped me off at the Hurstville Interpretive Center in Maquoketa, Iowa which served as a Nature Center/Visitors' Center/Wetlands Preserve just off the four-lane highway I'd left (but much farther along it's way). This was a pretty cool place. Inside was a GIANT wooden snake skeleton that you could walk through and held an exhibit about snakes. Brilliant! Then I noticed the giant county map on the way; off my original directions, I figured it was worth a look. As I considered the possible southernly or easterly routes, one of the curators, very much a librarian type, asked if I needed help.  I told her a bit of what I was up to and that I was picking my path. She wisely asked if I might want one of the free Iowa state maps they had in a brochure rack I'd over looked. And how!

She helped me pick my next path toward Clinton, IA, a city I'd notice along my original direction's suggested route and then trotted off to get me three cookies and an orange so I'd have something to eat. Two incredible acts of gracious kindness in but a few hours! (The cookies were quite delicious, but they did make me quite thirsty!--and the orange was perfect). I was feeling quite good about my venture at this point, and truly but for one small patch of road on the third day, I never felt like this was a dangerous or dreary road I was taking; especially as I encountered such generous people most of the way I made, in one way or another.

So I started to make my way through Maquoketa according to her directions fully realizing that basically at this point the directions I had were to be put aside and dismissed. I had my map and I had friendly advice. It seemed it was by those two things, part of the continual guidance of Providence, that I would be making at least the next leg of my trip--at least as far as Clinton, IA, which I faintly hoped that I would reach that night.

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