Chapter 5: Word Made Flesh

It is April 2008, and after months of planning I am on my first day of my sabbatical pilgrimage to walk from Washington D.C.  to Pittsburgh while learning the gospel of John by heart.  It will be about a seven week walk altogether and twenty-one chapters of John.  Today I finally get to take the first step.

The long-planned sabbatical walk starts off very unglamourously.  I have been waiting with my dog Chester at the campground all Monday morning for my husband who had spent a frazzled weekend finishing up work.  I, on the other hand, have gotten a head start unwinding from the demanding pace of  life as a pastor with a quiet weekend at a campground within easy driving distance of the beginning of the  C&O Canal trail along the Potomac in D.C.    

By the time my husband finally arrives, I have grown nervous waiting for him.  First, it is already noon and I don’t know how long it will take me to walk the first section of ten miles today.  Four hours?  Five hours? Six hours or more? And, second, I am unsure how my dog Chester will behave walking in the crowded city.  Like any overly punctual person, I have been packed and ready to go for hours.  The wait has made me impatient, and there is nothing very spiritual about my attitude as we load my day pack, the dog and the maps into the truck.  Since this is the first day of walking, we have no routine established yet, no pattern of what to put where in the truck as we pack up, so I am constantly wondering if I have forgotten something that I will need. 

It is such a relief to stop all of these preparations, to leave the camp behind for the afternoon and head for the beginning of the adventure.  We do not know exactly where the trail begins, although we have a G.P.S. and maps without much detail.  I drive while my husband does the technical navigating stuff, but we still have to circle and turn around, switch lanes across traffic, figure alternatives to one way streets, and twice drive down the main street of Georgetown.  Finally, where the road splits three ways in a mass of concrete going in different directions and levels, we discover, with the insistence of the G.P.S.,  a narrow pull-off leading to the parking area for a boat store.  The information guide that we have been relying upon says that this store is near the start of the old canal.  We feel surprised and lucky to find a parking space in the city on a weekday.

I slide out of the truck and open the back door to get my pack and pull it over my shoulders.  It is heavy, but I don’t have time to dwell on it.  Chester’s eagerness to jump out and size up these new surroundings adds a layer of urgency to the process of getting myself together.  I quickly fish in the pack for some of his treats to put in my pocket and let him jump out of the truck.  When his anxiety level rises (more than mine already is) and his social behavior is on the edge of acceptable, treats are a great distraction for him. With one treat, I can win a lot of cooperation.

We look around for the canal towpath.  There is a maze of construction fencing that blocks off sidewalks here and there, and no sign of the canal which is supposed to be restored, full of water and in working condition here in Georgetown.  We start off in one direction and end up on a quiet plaza overlooking the Potomac River, but there is no canal.  There are, however, a few bikers on the other side of the parking lot where most of the construction is.  Bikers like the canal’s towpath so we walk to  that end of the lot, veer off around dirt and drilling, cross a busy road at a pedestrian light, follow some arrows (to what we aren’t sure), and suddenly find a sign which announces the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park.  Stretching before us is a red brick path.  It gradually descends below street level to follow alongside a placid, dark ribbon of water hugging the base of what appears to have been old factory or warehouse buildings.  They now are probably expensive condominiums and shops, although I can’t tell from this back door, basement perspective.

My husband agrees to meet me about six miles out of town to see how I’m doing, and we say a hurried good-bye with little fanfare.  It seems like a strange, low-key beginning for what has become for me a momentous event. While he turns to rescue the truck from a parking time limit, I turn to face the bright afternoon sun and three hundred and thirty-five miles.  I am walking to Pittsburgh, I want to announce to anyone passing by.  Not driving.  Not riding the train.  Not even biking to Pittsburgh.  No, I am walking!  In this highly focused city of politics, education and persuasion, I doubt anyone would take much interest.  Actually, I am the one who needs to hear my announcement; I need to convince myself that the strange, compelling challenge is about to commence.

Then I remember the three dear friends who yesterday afternoon gathered with me in an apartment a few blocks from the Washington Monument to listen, laugh, sing, pray and bless my journey.  And I remember the many more friends back home and beyond, and the folks in the congregation, their prayers and Godspeed a week ago.  After months of planning, negotiating, and preparing, and with the encouragement of many, I am truly starting this pilgrimage.  This is the very first step.  So I announce, “Here we go, Chester.  To Pittsburgh.  Memorizing John.”   In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God….and the Word became flesh.

The sabbatical is made flesh today.  As my feet take these first steps, the gospel of John is taking flesh and moving from the ink in my little book with its plastic covered pages to the chemical storage places in my brain. Even though I am flawed and imperfect, Christ can take flesh within me with his words and being.  What is happening on this walk is truly a mystery.  But I am about to find out how messy this mystery can be!

To be continued…