Chapter 25-The finish or the beginning?

This journal entry is from Friday, July 4, 2009 as I reach the end point of my walk from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh.

The place where I stopped the previous walking day was in McKeesport in a hot, gravel lot next to the rail yard and steel mills.  Between that location and where we begin today, there is a long stretch where bikers must travel on busy roads with cars and trucks because the old trail has been taken over along the river’s edge by active industry and trains.  The hope of rail trail enthusiasts is that someday the trail will be finished all the way into the city.  But once again we decide the detour is too precarious for pedestrians and dogs.  It takes some investigation this morning to find a parking place in the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center where there is access to the reappearing trail that will lead into the city.  It is no longer marked as the Great Allegheny Passage trail.  One would never know that this city pavement is part of a path leading east over beautiful country, through fields of wildflowers, across mountains, through tunnels, along rivers and right into the nation’s capitol.  Instead it masquerades as an ordinary asphalt walkway along the Monongahela River, good for lunch break exercising, a daily stroll with the dog or an afternoon of rollerblading.

Since my niece Lauren came back from Cleveland with us yesterday, she is joining me for the walk today.  Under a mercifully cloudy and cooler sky, we pray the walking prayer and work on learning John’s gospel for a little bit, but soon abandon the endeavor. She is too full of stories about her summer internship working in a women’s shelter.

We only walk an hour before we get to the restaurant district where Rick finds us and coaxes us to join him for lunch.  I can’t say I mind eating something other than a peanut butter sandwich and apple.  But how strange it feels to leave the trail midday and have a choice of a dozen places to eat and be waited on.  Not only that, it is strange that Chester isn’t sharing lunch with me and thumping his tail for a carrot.  We have left him on his own in the truck with his hard-boiled egg.  After lunch Lauren and I fetch Chester again and head across the historic Hot Metal Bridge.  Years ago it used to carry carts of molten steel from one side of the river to another.  Now it has recently been restored for pedestrians and bikes.  On the other side of the Monongahela we find the pathway near the riverbank and head towards downtown. 

After Lauren has told of the shelter’s many dramas, we decide it would feel good to sit down again.  We notice a plaza one block off to our right with tables and chairs on marble pavement.  The buildings that surround this space are shiny steel structures with slick black windows and a  castle-like architecture.  It is a bit surreal, some medieval/ space-age combo,  but we are grateful for a seat.  The seat doesn’t last long.  Immediately a security guard appears out of nowhere and shoos us off.  No dogs allowed, he says.   I promptly tell him that this is no ordinary dog; Chester has walked all the way from Washington D.C.  He is totally uninterested, looks at me as if I’m crazy, and repeats again that no dogs are allowed.  Such is the life of a pilgrim; we get up and keep moving.

Crowds of people are in Point State Park when we arrive. This is the 4th of July, after all.  Very noisy speed boats are showing off on a race course on the Allegheny River side.  Loud speakers and amplifiers are blaring music.  At the point where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers converge to form the Ohio,  there is a huge fountain.  This, of all places, is where my prayerful pilgrimage ends.  In some way it seems fitting that, after miles of walking through remote forests and wilderness, after having my contemplative fill of nature, quiet and prayer, after wading through chapters of the Gospel of John, now I am suddenly immersed in the loudest noises of humanity.  The word made flesh again.  The point of the sabbatical walk in the end has been to send me back renewed into the heart of the world.  Well, here’s the world, and here in the middle of the world is water gushing up from the central fountain.  My second and third favorite sayings of Jesus in the gospel come to mind:       

        The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.  (John 4.14)

        Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.  As the scripture says, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’  (John 7.37-38)

The fountain spurts spray toward the clouds, and the two mighty rivers on either side are pushing into the larger Ohio River that flows before me to the west and the Mississippi.  Masses of people around me are yelling, eating, chasing children, holding hands, dropping things.  I pick up a baby’s sweater and try to find its owner.   When I was starting out in Washington, I remember how I wanted to shout to everyone that I was going  to walk to Pittsburgh.  Now that I’m here, I have no desire to announce my arrival.  I am content to sit quietly on this block of cement and let it sink in. 

It is, after all,  not the walking 335 miles that is the feat; it is what God has done in between.  And what exactly has God in between?  I know on this long walk I have experienced tiny moments of God’s grace upon grace that when added together are like the gushing fountain I am sitting beside. I do know I have changed.  How?  I can’t put that  into words yet either.   I have a few more chapters of John to learn by heart and a few more weeks before heading back to a pastor’s routine.  Maybe I’ll have things figured out by then.

Lauren, Chester and I sit on the edge of the fountain and wait for Rick to find us.  We have to yell at each other to be heard.  God once again has a great sense of humor.  Months ago when I looked at a map and picked this as a place to end up (since the trail simply disappears in the city), I knew nothing about the park, and I certainly didn’t plan that we would finish here on the crowded 4th of July.  But what better way for God to say: Elaine, the walk is over.  It is time to take what you have come to know back to the people.  It’s time to take the peace and words I have been planting within you back to the restless, thirsty mobs.  The finish here is just the beginning.