Chapter 13: A Patch of Grass

From my journal dated Tuesday, April 29, 2008, as  I walked with my dog Chester from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh while learning the gospel of John by heart.

Today I am walking from Fort Frederick to Hancock, MD.  Dark clouds race overhead, and a biting wind confronts us as we start.  I am glad for my winter hat and layers of shirt, fleece and jacket, but I wish I had also brought gloves.  The canal on my right has stretched open into a beautiful lake, but now the wind whips across the open water, so I tuck my head deep into my jacket hood and don’t bother to look at our surroundings.  Instead Chester and I set a hurried pace and push through the cold gusts.

After a couple of miles the towpath leaves the lake and enters a wooded area where the trees provide some protection from the wind.  The clouds become more scattered, so the bright sun has a chance to break through and warm things up.  My head finally emerges from the hood and hat.  Our stride slows down. I begin to notice our surroundings again as we pass through a huge gathering of goldfinches.  Hundreds of yellow flashes flit, dart, sing, and whistle in the upper branches.  Never have I heard and seen so many in one place.  Are they celebrating a glimpse of sun after yesterday’s rain?  Or maybe this is courting season, and these winged creatures gather to see who’s who and unattached.  Whatever is going on, it is quite a commotion.

Ironic, since today I am learning John 6 about large crowds who followed Jesus and were apparently more persistent than the goldfinch crowds who basically ignore me passing under them.  Jesus climbed up a mountain with his disciples to avoid the mass of people, but the crowd followed him there too.  So Jesus asked Philip,

“Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”   He said this to test him, for he himself already knew what he was going to do.  Philip answered him, “Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”  One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they among so many people?”  Jesus said, “Tell the people to sit down.”  Now there was a great deal of grass in the place.  So they sat down, about five thousand in all. (John 6.5-10)

It is the comment about the “great deal of grass” that gets my interest.  I wonder why the writer bothers to mentions it.  Was it because finding enough grass for a crowd to sit on was so unusual in a dry climate?  If so, that is exactly my problem now and has been for the last fifty miles.  There is so little grass for a dog and a person to sit down on along the towpath!  I can’t stop whenever I feel like it.  Except for unusual places like the lake this morning, one side of the towpath has a short slope down to the boggy canal’s remnants with the possibility of lurking snapping turtles.  On the other side of the trail is the swollen river, sometimes separated from where I am walking by flooded wetland.  Along the towpath itself, the ground is muddy from the recent rains.  There are few dry places to sit down: no large stones because the nature of a canal towpath is that all the stones have been removed.  As for nearby tree trunks to lean against or logs to sit on,  they inevitably have poison ivy growing on or around them, and I am terribly allergic.  The primitive campsites along the trail, spaced every six to eight miles, have a guaranteed picnic table, but sometimes my body simply can’t wait that long for a rest.  I have therefore been desperate enough to plop right in the middle of the towpath–backpack,dog and all.  That’s rather dangerous; one must always be on guard for a bicyclist speeding into the picture.  So what I really hope for is to come upon  one of the old canal locks along the historic trail.  The park service keeps many of them cleared of weeds, and their old stonework and grassy patches are a delight for tired legs and a plodding dog.  Maybe there’s one around the next bend I keep telling my tired self, mile after mile.

Today, after an especially long stretch of walking, we reach a canal lock just in time, or close enough, to declare lunch.  This lock is not even labeled with the usual historical sign marker and is in more disrepair than others.  But a small patch of thick grass is mowed and free of the dreaded ivy.   I slip the pack off my shoulders to rest my aching back.  We both, dog and human, stretch out in the warm, sun-dried grass and, like the turtles on fallen logs in the canal nearby, let our bodies soak in the brightness from above.  The smell of  sweet, spring greenness rises from the ground.  Eventually I rummage through my pack and we eat: for me, the usual peanut butter sandwich, apple and chocolate snack bar; for Chester, a hard-boiled egg that disappears in three seconds.  We both share some crunchy carrots.

Meanwhile, I keep reading about the grassy mountainside near the Sea of Galilee where the people were seated, tired out from their successful search for Jesus.  Their hungry bodies were fed with a little boy’s lunch of bread and fish that, in the hands of Jesus, became enough for all of them.  Their meal was an unexpected gift after their long walk.  I carry my own lunch rather than rely on a trail-side miracle; but for me, it is these rare, grassy patches along the way that are the hoped-for gift.  When I turn aside to eat and rest, I also notice the particular crowd of growing things around.  Today it is a beetle, a woodpecker, tiny redbud blossoms, a robin, frog, fly, violet and dandelion.

I suddenly realize that my life has become much simpler if collapsing on a patch of mowed grass can feel like a generous gift, if lunch becomes a pause to delight in this abundant, crowded creation.  But, of course Jesus did say, I came that they may life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10.10-11)

And so this pilgrim prays:   I don’t just thank you for grass, but I thank you that I know the grass is a gift from you.  I don’t just thank you for my life, but that I know that my life is a gift from you.  I not only thank you for this pilgrimage walk, but that you yourself are on this walk with me, and with all of us everyday.