By Charlie Johnston
Ten years ago today, on the Feast Day of Our Lady of Lourdes, I took the first step on the 3,200 mile walk that was my great pilgrimage across this land. When I left, I didn’t know much about what I was doing, only that I would do it, figuring I would learn what I needed to along my way.
Glory! What an adventure! My night camps were visited by a constant stream of animals, almost all of which oddly treated me as if I belonged there. There were foxes, wolves, bears, cougars, deer, elk, a parade of wild turkeys, a bobcat and an endless procession of chattering squirrels. Many mornings I was awakened by songbirds chirping in the tangle of branches just above my head. About 30 miles north of Birmingham, early on, a little grey bird caught my eye. It hopped into an alcove under some bushes, looked at me, suddenly turned a brilliant, flashing gold, and then vanished. I wondered if I was hallucinating, then chose to
believe an angel was subtly offering me a little encouragement. In Ojai, California a three-inch hummingbird hovered about a foot and a half in front of my face, gazing at me for what seemed forever, but was probably two or three minutes. It was amazing, like looking into the face of some alien intelligence. Somewhere near Ft. Morgan, Colorado, near the end of my way, a little faun came bounding up to me in the woods where I had made camp, folded its front legs beneath itself, and just sat with me for a good chunk of my morning.
I got in a fair share of hairy situations. Two men threatened me with knives and one threatened me with a pistol. Yet the most dangerous moment came not from without, but from a bad decision I made. I decided to cross an 80-foot field of boulders rather than take a couple of miles to go around it. I was about 20 feet in when I realized how dangerously unstable it was. Going forward was dangerous, but going backwards would probably be more so. It took me several hours of very deliberate motion, making sure, with each movement, that I wasn’t causing a deadly shift in the rocks, before taking the next movement.
I spent little time along my way focusing on my ultimate end of the journey. Rather, I focused on the 12-15 miles I would usually make today. I was always glad to meet somebody and chat along my way – and I met a lot of people, some who remain friends. I discovered there is a great hunger for meaning and simplicity in this country, that most people are of profound good will. People hate to be played, but absolutely hunger to help and chat with their fellows. One morning, I got coffee very early at a little convenience store/café that was otherwise empty. The gal behind the counter was curious as I did not drive up in a car and had a heavy pack on my back, so I told her my story. She was completely charmed. A few minutes later, a fellow a few years older than me came in. He looked at me and my pack at a table, started talking animatedly with the woman behind the counter and then, with a cheery grin, came up and asked if he could sit with me. I was glad of the company. As he sat down he said, “Now before we begin, I have to tell you I’m an atheist.” I chuckled and said, “That’s all right. The way I see it, God reads hearts. If there is good will in your heart, God will correct the errors in your head in His good time. If there is malice in your heart, you can say ‘Jesus’ all you want and maybe fool yourself, but you won’t fool God.” He liked that and chuckled back. We talked for about an hour and a half about everything except God. It was wonderful. Finally, I needed to get up and make a little progress on the day. As we shook hands, he surprised me by telling me wistfully, “You know, if things are like you say, I hope there is a God.” I smiled and said, enthusiastically, “There is – and he’s going to take your kind wishes for me as a prayer.” He smiled and responded, “I’d like that.” And I was on my way. I thought to myself that that was a fine morning of conversation and evangelization as I continued on my way.
Unbeknownst to me, a dear friend had set aside some money to get me back and on my feet when the inevitable crash came and I realized that this was just too hard on an older fellow like me. We were chatting on the phone one morning when I was in Pearl, Mississippi (I had a phone which I would charge at a gas station or restaurant once every day or two while I sat and read). He noted that every time we chatted, I was just as cheery as ever, eager to tell him about the latest little adventure from the trail. He confessed then that he had set aside the money and said, with some surprise, “I think you might make it, Charlie.” I laughed, was profoundly grateful for his practical concern, and assured him that I was going to make it, God willing.
At one point, a fellow who had been a regional coordinator for me in a statewide campaign decided he wanted to do an outsider run for the city council in his medium-sized city…and asked if I could put together a radio campaign for him. I did – and advised him that he probably did not want to tell anyone that his ‘media consultant’ was currently a vagrant who slept in the woods each night. He won.
In Louisiana, I asked a constable for directions. About a mile and a half later, there was a bustling country café and I figured it was a good time for lunch. Inside, there was that constable by himself at a table. He asked me to join him. We chatted and he got very enthused about what I was doing. Caught up in the moment, he asked me at one point, “Where do you sleep at night?” Then he caught himself and said, “Ooo, maybe you better not tell me that.” I laughed and said, “Constable, I’ll tell you this: I don’t violate any ‘No Trespassing’ signs and I don’t climb any fences.” With a look of cheery satisfaction he said, “That’s good enough for me.”
I remember all the hardships, the fears, the times I was at the beginning of real hunger – and how the real thing takes over and dominates you (Go about 36 hours without eating and it becomes a gnawing, hammering, desperate need – not the sedate feeling of not being full we usually mean when we say we are hungry.) What stays with me most is the pure joy of freedom and discovery, the goodness of almost all the people I met, and the hunger for simplicity and meaning, the craving for simple fellowship and joy in the midst of this predatory, artificial culture of false gods we have mounted. I came away with the conviction that when real hard times come, not only will millions rise to the occasion, they will rejoice in the opportunity to work together in forming anew a culture of life, laughter and love.
Ten years later, the whole world is nervously preparing for a great journey into the unknown. Some of your fears will come to fruition. But you will be surprised by great joy in the midst of all the trials you undergo – and the depth of real fellowship with the people you help and that you accept help from. My journey was full of unexpected zigs, zags and a few interruptions. I knew from the start my ultimate destination was Mt. Meeker in Colorado, but only had a vague idea of exactly how I was going to get there. I focused on the day before me and put a priority on chatting and visiting with the people I met along my way. I didn’t know for sure how long it was going to take – just that I would keep going until I got there.
People are deeply worried about the trials and vicissitudes ahead. You have good reason to be so. But I tell you, you have the unfathomable joy of renewal and fellowship ahead you. I know. I began my dress rehearsal for these times ten years ago today. It was hard, but it was the most gloriously joyful time of my life, the time that renewed my faith in the simple goodness of most people. Prepare for trial and joy, firmly yoked together as we enter this time of great and complete renewal. Our destination is the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart. I don’t know exactly how we are going to get there, just that we are. Relish each step of the journey with the joy and anticipation of a child on Christmas Eve.
The video of my talk in Philadelphia (actually Cherry Hill, NJ – part of the Philadelphia metropolitan area) is now up on the CORAC website. I had just gotten over a cold, so I am a bit annoyed at how often I was sniffling. I was not as focused as I would have liked to have been, but I was deeply heartened by the seriousness and the generosity of spirit of this group of volunteers during the Q and A portion. We have a good group of people gearing up.