Vox Peregrini Day Seven - White Hill

This morning, like every morning since day two, the wounded gather to have their feet, ankles, and sore knees tended. Blisters on heels, toes, and the bottom of feet. Already one hiker backed off the trail due to an open wound on a heel. I wondered each morning how others kept going. Today, though, I heard a few odd comments as they sleepily stumbled into the tiny hallway for bandages.

One voice said, "My blisters are getting better."

Another said, "I think mine are too."

Once blisters form, they don't get better as you walk a 100 mile hike. At best, they are managed and hopefully don't get worse. But better? No. Curiously, though, as I bandaged each blister and taped a few ankles, indeed, there was some healing. I began to wonder about that as I walked the day.

The sixteen mile hike over White Hill, the highest point in Western Ireland, taunted Vox like a playground bully. Dangerous enough to fear. But not enough to keep them from their destination.

A prayer was said each morning before the hike. This morning's words were a humble plea for Father Sky and Mother Earth to be gentle with us. I've hiked over White Hill three previous times. Twice in a bone soaking, wind whipping rain. Last year the group I hiked with was embraced by quick moving mist filled clouds. In all the times I have walked Ireland, I had yet to experience a cloudless day. Today would be the first.

After walking six miles to get to the base of White Hill, the cloud cover blew passed us and we were left, fully exposed to Brother Sun and the Irish wind as we climbed. A paradoxical pair, sun and wind. Unprotected by friendly clouds, the sun can bring a blistering sweltering summer heat in Ireland. The strong wind, however, on this day, kept the temperature bearable. We climbed to the point where we could see the water rippling across Guinness Lake far below. Indeed, the shape of the lake, its black surface and white beach looks exactly like a perfectly poured pint of the famous Irish beer. From our vantage point, we could see the huts left behind from the filming of the History Channel's "The Vikings." A reminder of some of the darker days of Ireland's history.

We pushed long past our normal lunch time in order to reach a perfect resting place at the peak of the Hill. There, hiding from the wind behind a quartz outcrop, we dropped our packs and weary bodies on the grass. The cloudless sky delivered a brilliant view far into the sea. I could see a ship floating on the horizon. I wondered if Vox would try to sing against the wind and their exhaustion.

Our Australian friends, Mark and Roz, wandered by as we ate lunch. They dropped their packs to join us. I took the opportunity to ask them about their walkabouts. England, Portugal, and of course their home land Australia. Retired teachers, they had enjoyed a lifetime filled with hiking. Amidst all their travels though, they were smitten with this singing group like no other experience.

Lunch came and went. No lunchtime song. John was planning a long rehearsal that night at the Knockree Hostel. We had many miles ahead of us. As we headed down the backside of White HIll, one our group suffered what I thought to be a serious knee injury. A sharp pain on the outside of her knee. At one point she appeared to have buckled and sat down a large stone. I was worried she might not be able to finish the hike. It was three miles to the bottom and six to any crossroad. There are only two ways off the Hill. Walk under your own power. Or call Mountain Rescue. It would take them as long to reach us as it did for us to climb to that point. Long ago, I had made peace with myself that if I had a heart attack or life threatening injury on that hill, I would most likely die there. There are posted warnings about the dangers of hill walking in Ireland and this could have been one of those moments I knew was a possibility.

Fortunately, one of our guys produced a knee brace he had been carrying. The brace fit her knee perfectly. Slowly, gingerly she moved down the hill. I called ahead to find some possible pick up points at the bottom. But, by the time we reached the bridge over Powerscourt waterfall, she was committed to finish the day's final five miles. Her will and the group's support carried her.

Just before reaching the Knocree Hostel is my favorite tree in all of Ireland. Not the tallest tree. Surely not the oldest. Maybe not the most unique in shape and form. But truly the most inviting. Over at least the last century, the tree has grown around a trapezoid shape stone six feet long, over three feet high. The rests at an angle inside the tree. Growing around the stone has created a womb like opening at the base of the tree. Standing on the stone, a person can almost disappear from view inside the tree. There I have left mementos as tributes to past lives. A few sat on the stone in the tree for a picture. But as I took a picture of our pilgrim with the wounded knee, I could feel the tree offering her some healing grace. She finished the day. Tomorrow she would re-evaluate the possibility for the final hike.

After dinner that night, Vox Peregrini would rehearse for the final time before their concert at Christ Church Cathedral in two days. John encouraged them, challenged them, pushed them, and thanked them. They responded each time to his subtle changes with a beautiful sound.

Our Australian friends, Mark and Roz, were also staying at the hostel. Other guests and employees of the hostel listened in for the 90 minute session. Some even hung around after to chat. Mark said the music felt like it was shaping his soul. Vox Peregrini is gaining confidence and with it, power of voice. They have been together only eight days, yet it sounds as if they have spent years together honing their sound. I wondered if the pilgrimage itself was adding her voice and refining them into gold? At the very least, it appears the pilgrimage trail is providing some healing for Vox.

-- The Rev. Dr. Gil Stafford Canon Theologian Episcopal Diocese of Arizona Assistant to the Rector, St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Litchfield Park, AZ 2wisdomsway.com 4peregriniblogspot.com

"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