Chapter 3; Walking Prayer

 The continued story from my journal of the walk from D.C. to Pittsburgh, learning the gospel of John by heart.  Here I am still in the preparation phase.  It is October 2007.

When I tell people about the coming walk, they frequently express concern.  Are you walking alone? they ask.  I assure them that I am walking with my dog Chester and that his trainer is certain he will be the protective canine when necessary.  I tell them that Rick will never be too far away: we have cell phones and walkie-talkies, and since the walk is on a bike trail, he can get to me quickly on his bicycle if necessary.  But they are silently unconvinced; I see concern in their eyes and hear doubt in their voices.  All pilgrimages have risks, I tell them, but their questions prod  me into acknowledging I will need to rely on God’s protection on the trail.

I am reminded of that again on this last Friday in October, my last free day to investigate one last campground near Pittsburgh before it closes for the season.   Rick and I have discovered the wisdom of checking out our planned stopping places beforehand, but he is in Seattle for the week, so I  have to do this final investigation on my own.  Early in the morning I load the dogs in the car and we head west for the day.  I anticipate it will be a glorious day: a beautiful drive across the Appalachians in their fall colors and a leisurely lunch rendevous with my son and daughter-in-law near a turnpike exit.  I have not seen them for several months, and conversations in person, especially over a meal, are so much better than email.

But I am mindful today of the need for God’s traveling protection, partly because of people’s persistent anxiety about the walk, and also because I have been reading Joyce Rupp’s Walking in a Relaxed Manner about her pilgrimage on the Camino in Spain.  She and her walking companion had written a prayer to begin their walk each day.  Their walking prayer had included a petition for God’s protection for their daily journey.  I have been pondering what prayer I will compose for my own walk and, because of my friends’ concern, have  determined that a petition asking God’s Spirit to surround and protect me will be part of it.  So while driving, I start working on the walking prayer in my head.

It is cloudy with fog nesting in the mountain crevices. The misty, monotonous gray light mutes the oranges, yellows, reds, browns and deepest greens that quilt the slopes.  More mellow in color than if the sun were shining, it is a beauty lovely in its subtle gentleness.  Several hours later, on the other side of many ridges, the possible campground is checked out (not a favorite, but adequate) and lunch is delightful.  As we leave the restaurant, the gray skies at last rip from the pressure of withholding rain for months of drought.  Their downpour drenches good-byes, and we run instead to our separate cars, little ships on a gray parking lot lake.  The dogs and I plow back home through turnpike waves, breakers and spray that trucks churn in passing us.

It is harder to notice autumn scenery in sheets of rain, and the driving is less than thrilling.  I am growing sleepy in the mid-afternoon, so I turn the car into one of the many pull-outs, give the dogs a treat, and dig into a bag for the iced tea and chocolate breakfast bar.  I don’t bother to turn off the ignition for this short pause.  Soon we are on our way again, and the chocolate-tea caffeine slowly takes effect.  Later I will take note and be mildly surprised that, even with drinking tea at lunch and on the road, I never stop at any of the rest areas we pass along the way.  Around 5:30 p.m. we pull into the gas station near home with the gas tank registering empty.  While I fill the car with gas, grateful for the station’s shelter overhead to keep off the steady rain, I plan a quick stop at the nearby grocery store for milk and then a quiet evening of reading. 

But the car will not start.  After stopping and starting at morning rest stops, at a campground, and at a Pittsburgh restaurant, my trusty vehicle has finally had enough. Gas stations are not service stations anymore, and so I must find my own help.  In looking for my cell phone, I now discover that I did not even remember to bring it with me on the trip today.  All sorts of scenarios start to play with my imagination.  What if this had happened? What if that? I chide myself; how could I be so forgetful and unprepared?  I now realize how fortunate I am not to have turned off the car the whole way home until here.

Meanwhile, with the aid of the store clerk’s phone, I call a few friends in the area who might possibly help.  No one is home except for one family entertaining guests for dinner, and rather than interrupt their meal, I tell them I’ll call back if I’m really stuck.  I phone the emergency road service which I have dutifully paid for every year and use about as often.  The early evening makes things difficult to see, and while waiting in the dark car I wonder how the number of our close neighborhood friends has dwindled.  Has it been because of our busyness?  Because my work and new friends are several towns away? Because our children have grown and left home?  Strangers keep pulling up to the gas pumps and leaving while  I miss the neighbors who have moved away and remember how we used to carry our sleepy children back home after an evening of games and conversation.   My thoughts turn bleaker.  If road service cannot start my car and it must be towed away, I imagine walking along the dark, slick Bumblebee Hollow Road for a mile with sixty pound Chester pulling on his leash while I carry the geriatric Elsie.  Impossible.  We all treasure the I-will-come-help-you-and your fur-shedding-dogs-be-safe-at-any-time-of-the-day-or-night friends.

After two hours of this melancholy thinking, road service arrives and does indeed jump the car battery, warning that it will die again as soon as I stop the car.  We are moving once more, and in two short minutes the familiar sound of crunching gravel signals to the dogs we are in our driveway.  I finally relax.  To be sitting in the car, rain pattering on its roof, dogs panting and fogging its windows, peering at the blackness of my house looming in the night, is much better than any of my anxious projections.  The car has died for good until it receives a new battery transplant, but all that can wait until Rick gets home from the airport with his truck.  The present silence from motored noise is a blessed benediction. I am home, dogs safe, no milk for cereal, but soon to have a book to read and a blanket to wrap around me.

So before opening the car door, I pause to be grateful and remember my morning prayer for God’s protection and recall  how my son at lunch had thanked God for traveling care in the day.  God’s care has met me where I have been unable and even unaware enough to protect myself.  Of the many places throughout the day where the car could have refused to start and where without a cell phone I would have had much more difficulty making connections and getting home, the local gas station stop has been a gift of grace.  The probing questions of my friends, and yes, I do have good friends, about the safety of this walk are valid, aren’t they?  Today’s travels simply ascertain with clarity a pilgrim’s constant need for God’s protection.  Even Jesus thought his Father’s protection was something he should ask for on our behalf. 

Elsie is balanced uncomfortably in my arms as I herd Chester up the porch steps and fumble with keys.  Never take for granted, I admonish myself, gathering the three of us through the door, the gift of good  friends and a heavenly Protector with us on the way in which we walk.
The beloved disciple remembers that Jesus prayed:  “All mine are yours and yours are mine…. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me….”  (John 17:11)

This pilgrim prays:                   

    My Walking Prayer

    Lord Jesus Christ, my savior and friend:
    You are the way.
    Walk with me in your way today.

    Let your life spring up in me,
    your love flow through me,
    your peace extend to those I meet,
    your surrounding Spirit protect me.

    Plant your word deep in my heart
    that I may know your voice and not wander.

    Give me strength and courage
    for the challenges of this day,
    and joy noticing your grace upon grace. Amen