God has a funny way of sending us exactly where we need to be when we least expect it. When I signed up in June for the 2018 Pilgrimage for Unity , a three day ecumenical journey through New Mexico, I was mostly focused on the 50 miles of walking, simultaneously feeling excited and hesitant about that long of a distance. However, at the time, it was far enough away that I gave it very little thought, except when my mom reminded me every so often that I should maybe at least think about training for it. For about two weeks, I was great at completing practice walks, and even recruited my dad to do a practice 20-mile day with me on Greenville’s Swamp Rabbit Trail (Thanks, Dad!)
However, as I moved to Albuquerque and began transitioning into being a YAV, all of that went out of the window. When the week of the Pilgrimage arrived, which also happened to be our first week of work, I was woefully unprepared and even had to be constantly reminded by my roommates that I was leaving for the weekend. Somehow, I made it with all my gear to the vans on Thursday, and the journey could begin.
We started our journey at Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian-owned retreat center and a favorite site of artist Georgia O’Keeffe. We began walking on Friday with each morning starting at 4:30 am with breakfast and an opening prayer. Though rising before the sun was not fun, it made for stunning views as it rose over the mountains and gave us a head start on the imminent heat.
On the first day, we walked from Christ in the Desert, a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery, and back to Ghost Ranch, about 15. 5 miles. Within the first few hours, I found myself falling into an easy rhythm. Despite the fact that I’d barely readied myself for this experience, among the 32 other pilgrims, the vast landscapes, and the prayers, silence, and singing, I felt all the stress leading up to this journey melt away. It no longer mattered that I was still not quite settled in to New Mexico life or that my job wasn’t exactly what I’d imagined. Instead, to the tune of synchronized steps in the gravel, we walked, we prayed, and we talked. Life as a pilgrim was simple, and I could finally catch my breath. This was where I was supposed to be, even if I hadn’t stopped long enough to realize it.
For the next two days, we kept moving in this rhythm. Each 2.5 miles/50 minutes, we would be met by our amazing support team with water, snacks, sunscreen, and the port-a-potty (yes, quite a luxurious trek!). After about 10 minutes, we continued on, sometimes with particular intentions for the next stretch; other times, purely focused on getting to know each other and being present in exactly where we were in our journey.
Day 2 of walking brought us from Ghost Ranch along Highway 94, on a path by the Chama River, past Georgia O’Keeffe’s house, and to the historic village of Abiquiu, where we stayed for our third night in an old boarding school; a total of 17.5 miles.
As I walked, I found myself constantly looking at the ground. The paths we traversed were often uneven, so in an effort not to trip, I watched my feet. However, I realized that by focusing on my feet, I was missing so much around me. The surrounding views were breath-taking, completely different from anything I’m used to, and I was missing it. I was walking right by, focused on keeping myself safe and getting to the end. I vowed the moment I noticed this to remind myself to look up. To take in the views and the people around me – even if that meant I might stumble.
This wasn’t an easy thing to remember, but I kept at, allowing myself to just soak it all in, remaining present and reflecting later. On our last day, Day 3, we walked from Hernandez, NM, through Española, and to our final destination, El Santuario de Chimayó, one of the most visited pilgrimage locations in the US and a significant site associated with healing – 14.5 miles. As we embarked on our last stretch, two miles from our lunch stop to the end in Chimayó, I was surprised that I wasn’t that excited to reach the end. I had enjoyed walking and the simplicity and focus that it had allowed me. I was surprised to recognize that (as cheesy as it sounds) it truly wasn’t about the destination but about the journey that brought us there. If I hadn’t made the intentional effort to look up and take it all in, I would have missed it. Perhaps because I was so unprepared, I had entered into this journey with no expectations, which allowed me to truly just be.
As I continue reflecting on the three days of the Pilgrimage for Unity, I am setting the challenge for myself during this next year to not forget to look up. If I’ve learned anything from this experience and my fellow Pilgrims, by cultivating a stronger awareness of the world outside of my own, I am sure to find more compassion, peace, and joy than I’ve ever known.
“When I lose my direction, I look up to the sky.”
– The Once and Future Carpenter by the Avett Brothers
I want to take a moment to express my gratitude for each person involved in the 2018 Pilgrimage for Unity. It was an experience and a community like no other and one that I will never forget. I felt welcomed, supported, and known. Thank you all for making New Mexico begin to feel like home.
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