My wife and I first started talking about going on some kind of walking pilgrimage after seeing the movie, The Way, in which Martin Sheen’s character walks the El Camino de Santiago from the Pyrenees through the interior of northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela in honor of his son, who’d died making that pilgrimage. Reading about the 500 miles of the Camino, however, convinced us that it was nothing two people dancing around 70 were ready for, so we began looking at other pilgrimages, eventually finding St. Cuthbert’s Way, a 62-mile hike from Melrose on the Scottish Border, where one of the early English church’s most revered saints started his religious life in 650AD, to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the Northumberland Coast of England, where he served as both prior and bishop.
For the next six months, Mary Lee and I prepared. We booked our flights to and from Edinburgh. We researched travel companies who reserve B&B’s, transport luggage, provide information about where to stay each day and what to see, recommend where to eat in the evening. We watched every You Tube video there was on St. Cuthbert’s Way. I read ten books on pilgrimages, hiking trips, or St. Cuthbert. (Bibliography available upon request.) We increased our walking from one to four miles a day, with eight to fourteen mile walks on the weekends. Because the last two miles of St. Cuthbert’s Way are traditionally walked barefoot at low tide across to Holy Island, we walked Maine’s beaches carrying our shoes around our necks like amulets against injuries which I was afraid might keep us from going. ( I took out travel insurance, just in case.)
All of which led to multiple trips to L.L. Bean for walking sticks, backpacks, water bladders, a compass, a pedometer, two hiking skirts for Mary Lee, a fleece jacket for me, microfiber underwear and a half dozen pairs of socks for each of us. I went to a podiatrist, who looked at my high arches and prescribed custom orthotics. I had my annual physical, my annual eye-exam, and my semi-annual dentist visit to make sure I was prepared.
Prepared, yes, ready, no. Our first surprise came the night before we started hiking. Nothing I read told us that when Melrose Abbey closes, nobody checks to see if there’s anyone still on the grounds before locking the gates, so that in order to leave, Mary Lee and I had to clamber up a stone wall and hoist ourselves over a wrought iron fence designed by Vlad the Impaler.
And do you think we could find the beginning of St. Cuthbert’s Way? Not until we’d walked by it three times. No one tells you that the start of the Way, marked on a sign with words about the size of the bottom row of print on my eye exam chart, is through an alley, past two trash bins, and down a cement walk. It’s only after you make a left and walk a muddy path around a hill that you find the 133 wooden steps that mark the real beginning of the pilgrimage.
If 133 steps sounds like a lot, they were only the beginning of our climb up the Eildon Hills. Nothing I read, nothing I saw, prepared me for the up-and-down nature of St. Cuthbert’s Way. To be honest, there’s nothing really high (Wideopen Hill, at 1208 feet, is the highest point) or sheer, or steep, unless you’re from southern Maine, where we call a 485-foot pimple on the face of the landscape Bradbury Mountain. I would estimate that we spent about two-thirds of our walk either going up or coming down. Our legs were fine; our wind was not.
The guidebooks, the videos, don’t talk about shit. Many show bucolic photographs of sheep and cows dotting the countryside, but none show them standing and defecating on your path. Once we had to walk through a dozen young bulls, and while they all moved out of our way, what they deposited did not.
On the other hand, nothing I saw or read prepared me for the beauty of gorse bushes in the fog, their spiky branches laced with dew-covered spider webs, the huge oaks and sycamores and maple and beech trees whose gnarled roots and branches look like something out of J.R.R. Tolkien, a flock of white geese splashing in the River Teviot, the ruins of three lovely abbeys and a castle, the smell of wild garlic, the sight of feral goats, the views from Wideopen Hill and the Cheviots, acres of purple heather, the cool eeriness of St. Cuthbert’s Cave, our first glimpse of the ocean, the wild sound of seals as we walked across the sands to Lindisfarne.
I should have known that no matter how much you prepare, you’ll never be ready. I’d had plenty of time to prepare for the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter, but I sure as hell wasn’t ready for what came next. Three months after Laurie was diagnosed in March with Primitive Neuroectodermal Turmor (PNET), the doctors at Dana Farber were clear that her chances of survival were slim. When, after radiation and chemotherapy, cancer reappeared in her pelvis in September, those chances dropped to nothing. Her mother and I spent the next three months preparing for her death. The day after Laurie died, I recall telling one of the nurses that I’d already done my grieving, and now it was time to start living again.
Talk about bullshit. Nothing I had done, felt, or imagined made me ready for the next (as I write) twenty-seven years: the anger, the guilt, the tears, the terror, the demolition of everything I’d ever believed about life, the universe, and everything.
Even after all these years, I can feel my body chemistry change around Halloween and a weight lift off my shoulders after Christmas. And I can prepare for that. What I am never ready for is how I will react each year. Some years I try to sleep for two months; some years I write suicidal short stories; some years angry letters to the editor or to people who piss me off. This past year, after my cranky back’s being almost pain-free for a year or more, it throbbed and burned until December 24th, the day after the anniversary of Laurie’s death. After Christmas, the pain was gone.
At the same time, nothing in those months by Laurie’s side in the hospital prepared me for the way she entered, first, my dreams, then, my waking life. Her voice in my ear (“Look at that, Dad!) as the sun rose over the island of Lindisfarne. Her hand on my shoulder as Mary Lee and I sat on the side of Wideopen Hill eating our cheese and pickle sandwiches. The joy that I continue to get from her on-going presence. Since Laurie died, I have never felt so godforsaken and broken. I have also never been so grateful and joyous.
Of course, it’s important to prepare—who am I to argue with the Boy Scouts?—but as walking St. Cuthbert’s Way reminded me: the best way to prepare for any pilgrimage is to be ready for surprises.