Day One - Clonegal to Shilalleagh

The day started out like most pilgrimages, a group picture at the starting point. For me, it felt odd. This was where I had taken pictures after finishing my previous walks across the Wicklow. Everyone is on their own pilgrimage—and mine is to lead a group while walking in the opposite direction.

This stretch of walk is 14 miles. The path has too many miles of paved roads and gravel covered farm roads. Too little walking down pristine wooded trails on the first day. With this having been the final day of the Way on previous walks, I honestly hadn't noticed how mundane the path had been. I kept telling the group that the deep dark forest lie ahead and that on each day we would be walking more in the forest and less down paved roads.

But, this is their pilgrimage. They are a spirited group. Lots of positive energy. Morgan's bag didn't arrive at the airport in time for him to have his hiking gear. So the group pitched in. Someone had an extra pair of hiking shoes that fit Morgan. Pants, shirt, rain jacket if needed (which we didn't), a Camelback water pack, and an extra hiking stick. He was ready to go. This group has never been together before. Some of us had met for the first time the night before. Community typically takes months if not years to build. Yet, these folks, drawn together by their relationship with the director, their powerful skills of singing, and their curiosity of such a unique opportunity of pilgrimage, are indeed, quickly being knit together.

At lunch, sitting a crossroads in some lush grass, they sang. Sacred music. Ancient music. When I asked a few about the experience, singing outside is not they're used to doing. The sound disperses into the air like smoke from a fire. They said they had trouble hearing one another. Yet, as an observer, their voice was strong, yet delicate against the terrain and the challenge ahead.

Near the end of our day, my part of walking in a new direction down a familiar trail came to meet me like an old acquaintance in an unexpected place. I walked right by our pick up point. I didn't even notice it. Then we came to a cross roads I recognized, but I talked myself into thinking that this should be a part of the first day, which felt like the 'last day'. I looked at the map. Shared it with two others. Something in me said to simply call right then for a pick up. I foolishly ignored my intuition. This wasn't the place I had in my mind. My thinking function convinced me to push on.

We walked a mile up the road to St. Fiinian's church. John, the director decided this would be good place to sing. The Catholic church was open and the sexton said the group was welcome to sing. Exhausted, sore backs, blisters already emerging, they sat in the pews and lifted their voices within the lovely, simple, Irish sanctuary. I was amazed at their ability to deliver such a divine sound after more than seven hours of hiking.

Soon we were back to walking. Up the road, now having missed the pick up point, one young singer told she's not an emotional person, but sitting in the vulnerability of pilgrimage, singing in this simple church, no audience, just the choir and their voices, those hidden emotions began to arise to the surface. She was imagining this would not be the first and only time her emotions would visit her during this journey.

Within a mile, I finally saw a place I recognized, triggering within me the realization we had gone too far. Last year, Erik spent the night camping at that location. Then I knew we had missed our pick up point. Fortunately, a few phone calls, backtracking only a mile, and the van was there to met us.

I wasn't lost but I had walked too far and caused 13 other people to endure my pushing forward. There is much to learn on pilgrimage. I continue to be humbled by the power of walking in my soul's shadows. Daylight is stirring our pilgrims this morning. We will be walking in a few hours. The teacher of the pilgrimage awaits us with another lesson for the day.

-- The Rev. Dr. Gil Stafford Canon Theologian Episcopal Diocese of Arizona Assistant to the Rector, St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Litchfield Park, AZ

"It is I who ask, was the pilgrimage I made to come to my own self, to learn that, in times like these, and for one like me, God will never be plain and not there, but dark rather, and inexplicable, as though God were in here?"

People need wild places.  Whether or not we think we do, we do.  We need to be able to taste grace and know again that we desire it.  We need to experience a landscape that is timeless, whose agenda moves at the pace of speciation and glaciers.  To be surrounded by a singing, mating, howling commotion of other species, all of which love their lives as much as we do ours, and none of which could possibly care less about us in our place.  It reminds us that our plans are small and somewhat absurd.        BARBARA KINGSOLVER, Small Wonder