Reflections from the Trail

Author: Timothy Deenihan

The number of times I’ve been asleep on an airplane and woken up to find a fetching stream of drool down the left side of my shirt is greater than I care to admit. The more tired I am, the greater the likelihood of this happening. Also, I find, the more attractive the person sitting next to me, the more likely I am to experience said affliction.


I’ve got three hours to Seattle – about the length of time it typically takes me to write these posts. And as I am utterly exhausted and surrounded by folks who could very easily be the next cast of Grey’s Anatomy, you, dear reader, may very well be the only thing between me and abject humiliation.


The Trail is complete. Few things underscore this for me more than the screen on the back of the chair in front of me. For the last two weeks I’ve been moving with a groundspeed of about 3.8 miles per hour. Current groundspeed in mph is 467. For two weeks, I have barely been able to see over the miles of Indiana corn. Right now I’m 36,000 feet in the air, somewhere above the western suburbs of Minneapolis. The sun was kind. We had a few days when the temperature in our final hours on the trail was in the 90’s, and one or two days towards the end when we started out in the low 50’s, but otherwise the weather and winds were kinder than we could possibly have dared to hope. Now, though I am perfectly comfortable where I sit, twelve inches from my shoulder on the other side of this window the temperature is 60-below-zero.


This is re-entry.


In about two hours, I will most likely fly directly over my wife, somewhere around the Idaho panhandle or possibly even Spokane, as she makes the final leg of her journey west and new life begins.


I’ll wave. She probably won’t see me.


As we approach Seattle, if the weather is clear, I’ll get a great view of Mount Rainier, the great lady who watches over my new city in much the same way the Golden Dome and Our Lady watch over campus. She’s 70 miles south and east of Seattle and often enough she’s hidden by clouds or haze. But when the weather is clear and “the mountain’s out” as they say, she is at once awesome and majestic and humbling in her beauty.


I’m over North Dakota now. Gosh, there are a lot of little lakes and ponds down there...


The wonders of modern travel are one thing, but I’ll tell you what really lets me know my time on the Trail is over: I know nothing about anyone around me. They are perfect strangers, every one.


If I reposition the map on the seatback screen in front of me, and zoom in to Indiana, and mosey around looking for cities and towns whose name I never knew before, one that pops up is Tell City. Bill Borders is from there. So is Micki Kidder’s family. These are people I never knew before.


I know them now.


There is so much I’ve learned over the last two weeks. So much that will be impossible to describe. I’m not saying that as a confession of my shortcomings as a writer, but rather to say that there are, in fact, certain things which cannot be fully described. They can be implied, inferred. But to be fully understood, they must be experienced. Any parent who has ever spoken to any non-parent about parenting knows what I mean.


Still over North Dakota, a bit west of Bismarck, and there are strange, long, impossibly straight shadows on the earth outside. They catch my attention and I’m trying to figure out what they are – tree lines along railroad tracks, perhaps? – and then, it comes to me. Of course. They are the shadows of the contrails of the planes which have crossed these plains ahead of me.


This is how we live now. We live fast. We sit in chairs in the sky, shuttled city to city among strangers, with technology woven into the furniture, so that – with the world at our fingertips – we forget to touch what is right in front of us.


Montana, now. This state is enormous. When my daughter and I drove across it last year, it took a more than a day to get from one side to the other. Today, I’ll be across the western boundary in about an hour, flying over all those lives I’ll never meet.


Two weeks ago, it took five hours to drive from South Bend to Vincennes. In the two weeks it took to walk back, I met the chairman of a council of Native Americans and, with him, prayed to the Creator for guidance and safety. I met a young girl transferring from Purdue University to Notre Dame to begin her pre-medicine studies. I met her parents. I met a woman whose children had been to Notre Dame and who learned we would be passing and so who set up a small cooler of frozen popsicles. Her house was lovely – old fashioned white board with a wrap-around porch amid cornfields as far as the eye could see. Susanna (of course, Susanna – the one with indefatigable joy, offering blessings to every passerby we passed by) asked if we could keep her in our prayers, and the woman said we could, and we shared her prayer with Whoever it is that hears the requests of us humans.


We met young folks and old. Months ago, long before the Trail but directly in preparation for it, I found myself talking to a young girl at the register of an Office Depot. At a glance, she was any high school kid working the sort of tedious job high school kid’s work, one of the hundreds of faces you pass in a day assuming you know their story, assuming you are the hero in your own story and the people you pass are extras. Speaking to her, I learned that she was fighting leukemia. It was a good reminder, before this thing even began. There are no extras. Everyone has a story. Everyone is a hero, just in stories we don’t know.


Last night, with our journey freshly complete, I stood in line at the bookstore waiting to order a coffee for the road up to Chicago. An older gentleman saw my t-shirt and, with an immediately infectious grin, came up to me and asked if I had walked the Trail. I told him I had and he shook my hand and gushed “Wow! I thought about doing that, but then I thought, no, at my age that’s prob’ly not such a good idea.” He’s Harold Hoffman, ND ’49, ninety-one years old and spry as all get-out. He gets back to campus once a year, and he wanted to be there to see us come in.


I don’t consider myself someone addicted to the accoutrements of the 21st century, but I’ve certainly engaged in them enough to comment and I can tell you there is no technology which has given me anything like the simple joy of shaking the hand of a ninety-one year old man who timed his yearly pilgrimage to coincide with mine. To welcome me back to the place we both call home.


I’ve learned much over these past two weeks, and probably much more that has yet to bubble to the surface of my thoughts. I’ve had the time to reflect on some life decisions. I’ve had time to consider what it is that I call faith. I’ve had the time to speak to God (yes, I do believe that there is something which is very much greater than I will ever be able to comprehend and which, for simplicity, I will call God) and the space to ask Him questions (again, pronouns for ease of conversation) and the quiet to listen for answers however they may come.


And some have come.


And some are left for me to determine, like the arrows telling me only that I must choose a direction and make of it what I will.


The Rockies ripple along hundreds of miles of soft haze and wildfire smoke below and to my left.


What lessons I have gleaned are my own. They are pertinent to me. Some are what I came to consider. Others pushed themselves on me in the days before departure. Others still showed up unannounced on the Trail itself and took my breath away. They are mine. They are my treasures. What insights I can share with you, I have. But some are not for the public. Some are simple and personal – fundamental adjustments to my compass – subtle changes to the fabric of my person, and thus my perspective, which cannot be told, which can only be lived.


I will say this: Talk to people. And when you do – when you give voice, when you push out sound, when the communication you effect is outward – make it invitational. By which I mean, ask people to talk to you. Look people in the eye and hear their story. Don’t berate how divided we have become and then do nothing to bring us together. Hold open the door of conversation, and listen.


Over Idaho now, and maybe even a red Jeep packed to the zippers of its ragtop with the beginnings of a new life.


I miss the people I have got to know these last two weeks, these mushy titans whom you’d never expect to see cry. The giant bear of a cardiologist and the sharp CEO and the guy from the championship football team. Or the quiet, self-proclaimed proletariat architect or the rarely quiet activist or the woman who nearly backed out in self-doubt just days before we began. The priest, the brother. The two sisters who left us far too early for my liking in order to return to their ministries elsewhere. The other doctor and the surgeon. The seventy-something year old ironman proudly, and the joy of watching him cheering on his seventy-something year old missus when she joined us the final couple days. The administrators from the University whose feet carried their hearts home. The aviator and the student and the quiet firecracker. The husband and wife, never far apart. The writer. The husband, father, and volunteer arborist. The one who fought back. The one whose blessed life of highs has seen more than its fair share of lows and who meets every day with laughter and the powerful love of her family. The one whose heart bubbles genuine praise and blessings like Tinkerbell sprinkling fairy dust. The one who made it his mission to be a pain in my ass and who laughed at each and every one of my jokes. The little one, half my size, who out-walked and out-biked me every day; whose lightness of being is an astonishing tribute to the heaviness of missing.


All these lives.


We are better for each other. And, at the risk of turning this post into a tome, we are better for each of the pilgrims who grew our numbers over the last five and three days, and even the last day itself, reminding us that there was always someone new to meet, to hear, to introduce ourselves to, to offer encouragement to and draw encouragement from. 


The Cascade Mountains down there, and – there she is – Rainier, still blanketed white even at the end of August, towering over everything from horizon to horizon.


Yesterday morning we led the band out of South Bend toward campus, stepping off with the Victory March. But we did not arrive to fanfare or the proud sound of pounding drums. Instead, we slipped onto campus in silence. We paid our respects at Father Sorin’s grave and hoped somewhere, somehow, he understood that we understood his mission and had made it our own. We walked between the lakes to the Grotto and then to the Log Chapel, and there we placed stones as prayers and intentions, each rock in the growing pile proof that we are not alone. Neither in our sorrows nor in our joys and never in the wonder of living.


And then, suddenly, it was over. We didn’t parade to the Administration Building. We did not cheer under the Golden Dome. We ended our pilgrimage in the same way all great things come to an end: nearly unnoticed. As a writer, I often find that I don’t know I’m writing the last sentence until it’s already been written. This was a lot like that.


The Trail is over and now so is my flight west. I’m back on earth, sitting again (I kind of can’t believe how much I’m sitting today – it actually feels unnatural) on the light rail to Seattle, then north to the University District where my oldest daughter will meet me and take me home. We’ll try to finish getting the house ready for when my wife and her father finally arrive.


To go on this pilgrimage, I had to let go of who I was. The same can be said for returning from it. I’m not on the Trail anymore and it’s time to let the Trail go. I’m home. In the real world. Which is, of course, where faith and courage and character are called upon to meet the challenges of life. If you are one who believes that Jesus was the Son of God, it’s worth remembering that he was undeniably the Son of Man – that whatever the bliss of heaven, he lived and struggled and walked the earth, got dirt under his fingernails and drank tea made with questionable water.


We mustn’t spend our days, not even our hours, holding on to what we were. We have to let go, we have to choose a direction, left or right, so that we may become what we will be.


Peace. And Godspeed.