Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Pilgrimage: One Woman's Walkabout
by Rebekah Shardy

The longer and more arduous the trip, the more your heart has a chance to open up, until finally, in a moment of utter exhaustion, you realize that's all of you that is left - the heart part. Your mind has disappeared - the one that judges and gets mad and worries and thinks and fantasizes. Instead, you are in love with your life, whatever it is. And the whole world is your family with the earth playing the lead role as universal nest, one you are thrilled to share with all takers.
-Geri Larkin, First You Shave Your Head, (on her pilgrimage to Korean temples with Zen Masters)

Setting Out
Although I couldn't afford a trendy sabbatical from my marriage, I could afford to pull on my hiking boots and take off for parts unknown across town. I decided to go on a pilgrimage from my front door to the foot of Pikes Peak.

Pilgrimages have a rich history that marbles human history and all world religions. Perhaps traveling for sacred purpose is a metaphor for the human journey through life. As a child, I was entranced by Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, in which common yet diverse Catholic folk of the Middle Ages - lusty housewives, prim monks, na´ve knights - hope to gain the promise of heaven by suffering the privations of a long walk to a cathedral or blessed well.

Like many ideas elaborated upon in Christianity, pilgrimage is much older. For thousands of years, Buddhists made the trek through sheer mountain passes to the Potala in Tibet, some climbing its 1,000 steps on rock-bloodied knees. Muslims are still expected to make at least one pilgrimage in their lifetime to Mecca and orthodox Jews save for a trip to the Wailing Wall. At times of personal crisis, good fortune and near death, many Hindus travel to shrines or natural sites where gods or gurus are reputed to have walked or taught.

I wanted to make a pilgrimage not to escape my everyday life, but to broaden its meaning; to travel not only across geography, but the landscape of my heart. Thus I decided to meditate on the first 15 years of my life from my front door to the sacred site of Ute Park's sandstone; then ruminate on ages 16-30 from Ute Park to the ruddy paths of the Garden of the Gods; followed by contemplation of age 31 to my present 45 years on my way to Pikes Peak. A total of 18 miles by foot through the traffic of northwestern to central western Colorado Springs to the sites I considered divine: rock formations and mountains.

Midsummer was the perfect moment. It is the time of year that makes my soul itch with lust for the green earth. If I were a bonafide witch, I'd be tempted to dance naked around a bonfire. Instead, I celebrate the day by struggling with an inexplicable emotion that brings tears to my eyes - a mixture of helpless adoration and unfulfilled longing I can scarcely describe. Walking on the earth, but not yet one with it, I feel like a desperately unrequited lover, bedraggled and wild-eyed.

It also happened to be the New Moon, an auspicious time for setting goals, preparing for the future and stepping forward. I would take a journal with me to record any insight or messages from nature; the only other things I carried in my backpack were a bottle of water and collapsible umbrella.

My worried husband begged me not to go, perhaps thinking me so fat I'd simply topple over, gasping for breath. I thought it not a bad way to die, if that was the case, compared to meeting the Dark Reaper from a hospital bed or bathroom floor. My 17-year-old son was more encouraging, having been raised to think his eccentric mother (nearly) normal. He gave me a dollar to slip in my journal for making that inevitable phone call when I reached my destination. Or when I toppled over. Whichever came first.

First Holy Site (Ages 1-15)
From the moment I woke, the day felt special. I dressed in silence slivered by the insistent singing of a robin and wrote this haiku:
I rise in darkness
like a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer
a single bird stirs me to astonishment

Disappointingly, I could not find my fit-like-a-glove hiking boots, a tragedy that would affect me greatly. This lead to my second poem:
that which reassured
is gone and all I have:
sun rise silence

The first five miles were the most harrowing: weaving through an impossible interstate intersection complicated by six lanes of impatient mid-week drivers and construction crews. How appropriate since I grew up beside a 12-lane highway through years of physical and emotional danger. Walking through a field of mud and bulldozers, I remembered playing in the mountainous piles of excavated dirt near my house; the smell of cold earth had excited me. I was an androgynous, intensely sensual child; she remains as the earth-lover inside me.

Going to school in urban Ohio, I had to pass beneath the highway overpass, a dark place desecrated by graffiti, trash and the echo of invisible 18-wheelers above me. To distract myself, and muffle my fear, I would pretend that I was exploring a mysterious cave and its wild, underground river. I learned then that it is often necessary to make beauty where there is none, or face the dark alone.

In the lurid gloom of the overpass Among broken beer bottles and used condoms one luminous wildflower grows

I walk alone with amazing ease up a long incline. On each side of the sidewalk, chartreuse wild mustard flowers light my path with neon luminosity, a kind of yellow brick road for Dorothy's lonely travels through Oz.

It is a state I know too well. In numerology, both my name and birth date equal Number One - a personal destiny marked by creative independence and frequent loneliness, a propensity for nonconformity and being misunderstood, yet relied upon to lead, often without help or recognition. By my own effort, I had survived a childhood of irrationality, cruelty and despair. Without a father to protect me, a lover to teach me, or a boss to mentor me, I had made my own life. I may be eccentric, but I am not mad; I am often sad, but not incapable of joy; my individuality was made stronger by its scars.

My spirits are lifted by the overripe banana aroma of the flowering locust trees from neighborhood yards, the clowning antics of the harlequin-painted magpies, the freckle of wild morning glories on the earth's soft flesh, the gaudy wild thistle of which Alice Walker wrote, "I think it pisses God off when someone walks past the color purple and doesn't notice it." Others might say they're just weeds and pests, but I know it is all magic, plain and simple.

Similarly, I recall my childhood's cast of supporting characters: the beloved cats that permitted me to carry them about, legs akimbo, without a single claw-swipe; a mother who dared to love life and me without judgment; the boy in 3rd grade who gave me his heart, 11 quarters, and prize-winning mural of Washington crossing the Potomac River; the joy of jump-rope; the glee of riding a bike; standing in flooded ditches after rain; lovingly making mud pies I was tempted to eat; nights of fireflies and hide-and-seek; Halloween and Easter candy and the one gift you're allowed to open on Christmas Eve. Sigh.

Pikes Peak looms closer as I approach Ute Park. I am thinking of my early adolescence, surprised to realize that at age 15 I was the most ready I would ever be for love. I say this because the energy and optimism I had to give another had not yet been snuffed out. Sadly, being plain and shy, I was ignored by prospective suitors at that golden time. I am not advocating teen sex, and certainly not teen marriage, but that adolescent open-heartedness has gradually leaked through multiple injuries over time. I miss that only-once, ephemeral-as-a-Mayfly, hopefulness.

I reach Ute Park at about seven a.m. Perched on a rock overlooking a canyon, I practice the Taoist meditation of breathing in the energy of the sun. I thank Great Spirit for bringing me safely through childhood and ask mercy for the countless innocents still harmed today. I ask for a renewal of my own innocence lost to mistrust and cynicism. When I begin to pray, an oriole perches near me and sings exuberantly its own litany of thanksgiving. Life begins again.

Second Holy Site (Ages 16-30)
Heading down and out of Ute Park's highest point, I am struck with thoughts about my experience of age 16. My father, whose rather wispy and nebulous affection was frequently barbed with detachment, if not cruelty, decided to leave my mother and me, stating he wanted nothing to do with either of us. It began a key life theme for me: the belief that 'lack' or deprivation is normal.

My mother had never worked, could not drive or write a check at the time (she was sixty). We owned only the house we lived in, suddenly impoverished even by the blue-collar standards provided by my tire-making father. My older sister stepped in to the role of buying my clothing and paying for my school expenses while my mother grieved her lost way of life, cruelly taken after 40 years of devoted marriage.

This elder sister -- a lifelong mentor that shielded me from despair with laughter and unflagging faith in me -- rescued me from a house full of despair, enrolling me in a high school near her. I lived with her for the last years of adolescence, my mother now twice abandoned. I did not think of her, I am ashamed to say. I returned to her when I was going to college, but the years between are a blur of numbing depression and confusion.

As I walked through an elegant, upscale neighborhood, I recall the culture shock I had felt moving to a suburban lifestyle during my senior year of high school. The inner-city high school kids I grew up with were tough, but had genuine compassion and purpose: survival. As a group, we were discouraged from pursuing college and not expected to do well at academics. In contrast, the suburban kids were babied and groomed for greatness while toying with cars and expensive drug habits. Free of practical worries, but riddled by boredom, they often indulged in pointless vandalism or cavalier viciousness. It was a lesson in class differences and racist assumptions.

My pilgrimage takes me past mega-employers like Intel, MCI, and Cheap Tickets. Fittingly, as the first 15 years of my life ended any idealism about love (social rejection followed by a father's abandonment), the second 15 years wore away any illusions about the idealism of work.

Rather than hitting the bars in my early 20's, I worked. I organized busloads of women on welfare to testify before the Ohio State legislature, creating and guiding voluntary boards, and raising money to fight poverty and injustice. My agency director made the plans and spoke to the press; I did the work. At the annual dinner, hosted by the diocesan bishop, he stood and took all the credit, not even acknowledging my existence, although I was the only other employee.

Moving to Colorado to start a family, I was forced to take menial jobs: pregnant and filling out surveys from wintry parking lots, bussing tables at a cafeteria, the night watch at a group home. I had to start all over again in a new community proving my professional chops. I did. From feeding my son on food stamps, I would eventually rise to making nearly six figures as a health care consultant.

Climbing the ridge of earth that provides breath-taking vistas of the enigmatic rock formations of the Garden of the Gods, I think of my Chinese astrological sign: "Monkey Climbs A Mountain." As this sign indicates, I always take on the impossible thing, the thing no one else would try, persevering and daring beyond reason. Without encouragement, I decided to study the violin at age eight. Despite begging from my family and even my instructor to quit (I must have sounded like a meerkat having a nervous breakdown in a clothes dryer), I was determined to play. By age 20, I was performing on a professional stage -- not great, but good enough.

And so I have lived ever since, marrying without courtship, conceiving a baby without marriage, moving without job prospects, fighting corrupt institutions and speaking out publicly without a lawyer, taking on jobs without qualifications and succeeding anyway, to only give up financial security to write a book. Ah, if I had only been born with a sign like "Monkey Drifts Down the River in an Innertube" or "Monkey Sits in A Jacuzzi Sipping Margaritas" - -but no.

Work does not bring love. Productivity does not necessarily bring approval. Success often attracts resentment. These are the things I learned. When you work, do it for the love of work, and for no reward beyond wages and a happy conscience. The great secret is that American business feels safe only in the arms of mediocrity. Real 'movers and shakers' get shaken and moved to the perimeters of organizations, frequently targeted, discredited or dismissed.

My feet begin to ache now, like those years between 16 and 30 when I was cramped by economic necessity and struggle. There was no place for expression or freedom while ferreting out survival for my family. But I am reminded of waking to my infant son's laughter when I see the land dotted with buttery wild snapdragons, the lofty and lacy heads of Angelica and sweet wild roses. I approach a bush and take an offered petal into my mouth for breakfast. Like accidental love and motherhood, it was just too good to resist.

Third Holy Site (Ages 31-45)
I wander the Visitor Center at the Garden of the Gods, my sweat-drenched person politely ignored by bustling tourists purchasing overpriced dream-catchers. I am hoping someone can bring me band-aids, but those I know and love are not responding to my phone calls. The message seems clear: don't expect help to go where you need to be.

Past pain, there is a stiff numbness in both feet now. Strolling through the Martian landscape of the nearly-empty park, I consider how a great sense of purpose between ages 31 and 45 propelled me to move forward with little thought to my own feelings. Writing became my only connection to the wild and true in me.

I pass a single man hanging from a seeming thread high atop the rock formation known as the Tower of Babel - a visual metaphor for those isolated years. I pass an inviting trail that was once frequented by the Utes moving to high country in summer, their ghosts still focused on those tribal duties as we pass each other. Just ahead, Pikes Peak rises like an extremely vertical Chinese Taoist landscape, its lofty heights obscured by a smoke of clouds. There is a sudden coolness of promised rain in the air and I pick up my pace.

I am only three miles from the Peak when I leave the park for a squalid section of West Colorado Boulevard, dotted by motels that are home to day-laboring men, some supporting drug and alcohol habits. None of the motels' offices are open to me, and I desperately need a band-aid for my feet, poorly shod in decrepit sneakers.

Instead, I am welcomed into a curio shop that sells drug pipes and used leathers, peacock feathers and candles. Unable to walk on, I call a sister who will pick me up. While I wait, the owner and I stand on the store's porch as she smokes a cigarette and confides that a disabling accident took away her short-term memory and youthful hopes for a music career in Nashville. We talk about how little real meaning there is in measurements such as I.Q. or social status, but she is trembling with the loss or hope of them.

I lost such illusionary things between 30 and 45: the demand for my lucrative expertise dried up and forced me to take jobs for less money and respect. Perhaps we are to remember that we are not these things, I tell her; that we must be able to walk past them, and keep on towards a higher purpose, scaling the mountain in our hearts.

She confesses everything from a taste for marijuana to spanking children. Although she claims corporal punishment was good for her daughter, the grown girl resents her today, even accusing her of physically abusing a granddaughter. As a result, the storeowner hadn't talked to her daughter for years. "I don't care," she hisses defiantly, then has to leave to wipe the tears over-spilling her eyes. I encourage her to make peace, to be the first one to say she is sorry and reconcile. I think: maybe this is the real purpose for my pilgrimage. To bring one person together with another.

The irony is that between 30 and 45, my own sister and I became estranged, like this woman and her daughter. I disagreed with my sister's punishment of my niece, and the girl -- thrown out of her house -- was in such dire straits she came to live with me. For seven long years, my sister would not speak to me. After a period of prayer and meditation, I realized I must approach her, regardless of her response, and ask forgiveness, even though it was she who had spurned me. It is the same sister picking me up now, a sign I had made the right choice when I bravely chose mercy. The path of heart demands courage, not timidity. To be soft with others, one must practice toughness toward the ego.

Perhaps I did not make the last three miles to Pikes Peak not only because of my inappropriate shoes (my hiking boots would mysteriously reappear a month later), but because I had not yet reached the end of 45 years. I plan to make that last leg of the journey from the curio store to Sun Mountain Pikes when I turn 46 next spring.

Beyond that time, I cannot see, but there can be only one logical pilgrimage: the summit. But that's another story.
Rebekah Shardy is a professional trainer and writer who teaches creative writing to women recovering from prison and addiction through the nonprofit "Mighty Muse Writing Project for Women" in Colorado Springs, Colorado.