Tuesday morning I went hiking.
I’m not sure I’ve ever written that sentence before because I’m not a hiker, particularly. But Bob, a fellow Pilgrim (as we, at our church, like to identify ourselves) asked me if I wanted to walk the trails along the Eno river, which he likes to do, and so I did – in order to get to hang out with Bob as much as anything.
He picked me up about eight and we drove to the entrance to the park. The Eno River Association is a local group that has intentionally bought up the land along the river over the years so there would be walking trails rather than McMansions along the banks. The trails are well kept, but nothing fancy: mostly the places where the ground has been kept clear by the footprints falling one after another. The river runs small, meandering through the trees and rocks, creating a thoughtful and inviting environment. Whatever they spent to buy up the land was well worth it.
I suppose to say I hiked might lean to the hyperbolic. We walked along the banks for an hour or more along the Bobbitt Hole Trail, wondering aloud as we walked who might have lived along the banks, or stacked the stones that looked as though they might once have been dams, or cut down trees, or planted them. In one place, we found what once must have been a clearing because the surrounding trees looked to have about a fifty-year head start on the ones growing closest to the river. Almost every step along the way provided a view of almost every aspect of the cycle of life, from new shoots to dead wood, decaying logs to thriving grasses. Autumn is still more anticipation than actuality here, so the leaves have not yet tipped their hands to warn us of winter. We walked on an October morning that was full of sunlight, with only a hint of chill in the shady spots. We walked down to the end of the trail and then walked back.
Our conversation meandered as much as the little river, moving from family memories to church to random thoughts on any number of subjects. Bob also told stories about hikes he and a dear friend have taken all over the country, the last being in Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. As cool as it was to hear about the landscape of places I’ve never been, what was more fascinating was to hear part of the over thirty year journey these two friends have been on together.
On Wednesday morning, I saw Bob again at our bi-weekly men’s breakfast at Elmo’s. The gathering was able to move beyond intention into actuality because of the persistence of another Pilgrim, Mark, who sends a reminder email message every other week asking how big a table he should reserve. Five of us made it yesterday and sat at the table about as long as Bob and I walked through the woods.
Almost a year has passed since we left Massachusetts and drove south. After almost two decades there, we knew the trails well and those who walked them with us. In a new place, global positioning systems aside, there is no way to learn the trails without walking them, and there’s no way to walk them without taking time, well, to walk them, over and over. Bob knew his way through the woods because he had been there before with his daughter, or a friend, or even by himself. When we go again, I, too, will be able recognize a few things, but I won’t know the trail until I’ve tramped it again and again. I’ve sat at breakfast now six or eight times with the guys who take time to eat together and am beginning to find some familiarity there. We have shared enough coffee and conversation to begin to wear a path to friendship, which also much be tramped again and again before the path is easily found.
The dictionary defines pilgrim as “a traveler or wanderer,” an “original settler,” and a “newcomer.” Both those of us who know the trails and those of us new to the landscape fit the definition. Across the centuries, what remains true is we travel better in bunches. Chaucer found his premise for The Canterbury Tales by having each of the pilgrims tell stories to help pass the time and distance. Our little band of Pilgrims is no different here, whether we are stepping over stones or passing the syrup. Those who have settled here have been gracious enough to include me, the newcomer, in their traveling band as we walk and talk (and eat) up and down the trail. Norman Maclean wrote:
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
Surely, the words underneath it all are, “Thank you.”
Milton, I am struck over and over by this paradox: You can learn the local trails and become a guru, or you can tramp around the world and see it all. I find beauty in both. I love hearing people who have seen many things. And I love hiking with someone who knows the local landscape like Thoreau did.
But you can’t do it all. You have to choose. I hate that.
I understand what you are saying. While I’m hiking around Durham, my brother is in India for the fifteenth time. After growing up in Africa, I never imagined living in America all of my adult life and — not but, and — I see an amazing world from my front porch and the trails not so far away.
And I wish I could go to India, too.
Good stuff. I liked the pilgrimage idea and how it’s playing out in your new story.
And Norman Maclean too. Thanks–