Life as pilgrimage

After a series of events in 1978 and 1979 changed the course of my life, I saw for the first time that life was actually a journey or pilgrimage, and ever since then I’ve thought of it that way. Maybe not consciously, but when I think deeply about where I’m going, and how I live each day, I realize that for me this is for me the best analogy.

The years 1983-1993 provide a vivid illustration of the ways in which my pilgrimage took all kinds of detours into unknown lands, sometimes deliverately, sometimes by fateful accident. During that decade, especially, I found myself making long, solo trips around the country almost every year, in a seemingly unceasing quest for a new life, for something better, some great reawakening by whatever means it took, to find the ideal place to live, the perfect job, and the community I could finally belong to.

It never hsppened during those years, and I continued my search, battling depression and rootlessness so severe I thought that particular part of my journey would never end.

But it’s only now, years later, that I realize this constant traveling and seeing new places was actually a pilgrimage, that the elation and awe I felt in so many settings of natural wonder, and the many escapes to places I had never seen before, and probably never would again, were where I was meant to be at that time and in those moments. There was no final destination, no utopian community up the road in which to settle down.

The place I did settle in and where I have lived for the past 25 years, is a place I’ve known and loved since childhood, and is where my maternal grandparents and ancestors long before them lived.

So, the long pilgrimage continues into old age, at whose gate I now stand. Here I will embark on many other adventures of mind and spirit, but they will be rooted in a place, from which all these other roads will lead. It’s all a journey, and every day I learn more about what the final destination will be.

To illustrate where this pilgrimage took me 30 years ago, I am recounting an episode that reveals both the perils and possibilities of setting out for the unknown with almost nothing: no job, no home, and very little money, nothing really but a few books.

What I describe here took place at the outset of my last cross-country car trip, which lasted about 12 days. I often think about that trip west to Seattle in late fall 1991, 30 years ago, but light-years in terms of the psychic distance behind me as the past has receded deeper into my memories.

I recall that trip especially in light of words written recently that seem to come from another state of being entirely. Whereas now I am retired and settled in fixed routines that have been hardened in place during this long pandemic, and live in a place that has become as familiar and comfortable, and as much “home” in this life as any physical setting has ever been, back then I was living through some rather dark and extremely unsettled years. If it were not for the fact that I did not lose my mind to drugs or other addictive substances, and had a supportive and loving family, I could have easily ended up homeless, something I’ve always feared since witnessing so much of it growing up in New Orleans. I was once again in a seemingly unending cycle of trying to find some place where I could settle down, some job to which I could at tether my energies and abilities, if not my hopes for the future.

I left New Orleans in early November 1991, leaving behind some very unpleasant and mystifying recent experiences, and fleeing then present realities, painful and disturbing to an extreme, which I will not go into here. I wondered if, at age 40, I would ever know something even resembling stability or security in my personal life or job situation.

I had planned a number of stops along the way at various towns, natural areas, parks, historic sites, and the like, as I had done on previous trips, but in the back of my mind as I contemplated the best way to make the most out of rather dire prospects of having nothing ahead of me in the future, I wondered if I should turn back to New Orleans immediately or continue on, hoping I was making the right decision.

So, for hundreds of miles through Louisiana and Texas, I thought of turning back. Never before had I felt this way on a trip. Finally, my rather raw emotions began to ease a bit as I came to the splendid and magnificent Hill Country of south central Texas. What a beguiling land of beauty and enchantment! I can’t even describe how that place made me feel.

I visited first Lost Maples State Natural Area, an unusual place where a big tooth maples reside out of their normal range and where Autumn colors along the small creek flowing through the area are said to rival New England’s annual blaze of color, very uncharacteristic for this part of the country. But the color had been scant that year, and when I visited, it was all but gone. The skies were gray and dismal. The place had a haunting beauty, nevertheless, even on that bleak and cold day. I walked a couple of trails and took pictures to try to get into the spirit of traveling and adventure, despite the grave doubts I was having about the wisdom of this whole trip and plan of action.

When I left the park, I had a couple of hundred miles to go before spending the night somewhere in those vast, empty spaces of Texas that would become sage and grassland, and eventually mountain and desert as I approached the towns of Fort Stockton and Van Horn. But that was later.

As I made my way toward the interstate about 40 miles to the north after leaving Lost Maples, I decided to take a farm road along what I thought would be a scenic and winding route beside the Frio River. I miscalculated, and soon realized the road did not follow the river, but instead veered off into some of the most mind-numbingly monotonous terrain and scenery I have ever encountered. I found myself on a winding and empty highway, undulating over hills, with nothing but clumps of Pinyon pine and little cedar trees for miles in every direction. And the strange thing was, this road seem to never end. I rarely misjudge the length of time it will take to get somewhere on a particular road, but I did on that occasion .

After about an hour, a sense of panic started to creep in, for there were no road signs, no landmarks, no houses, no nothing. Just range and grassland, and small, wavy hills speckled with junipers. I saw an occasional dirt or gravel road, but there were no houses, ranches, farms or anything that would indicate that people inhabited this area. I finally considered the possibility I had turned off on some back road not on my map, and thought I would be lost, night would fall, and I wouldn’t know where I was. It was a terrible feeling, and lasted for many miles until at last I came to the end of that road and found my bearings. What immediately followed was an indescribable feeling of relief.

However, by that time, a drizzling rain was further deepening the feeling of depression that was taking hold. I thought again about turning back, back over the past 800 miles I had come so far. But something kept me from doing so, and after several more hours of driving, I finally got to Fort Stockton, where I spent the night in a cheap motel and found a Burger King that brought waves of comfort and familiarity to me after my ordeal, and for some reason gave me the psychological lift I needed.

I returned with my takeout burger and fries and Coke to the motel, let the events of the day unfold in an attempt to understand what it happened, and then fell asleep knowing somewhere deep down that I would continue on with my plan.

And I did. The sky was clear the next day as I started out early that morning. The extraordinary secrets and beauty of Guadalupe Mountains National Park lay ahead over the next two days. I felt new hope and excitement as I continued on. The dark clouds had lifted.

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