Winter Walking

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I love a public road: few sights there are

That please me more – such object has had power

O’er my imagination since the dawn

Of childhood, when its disappearing line

Seen daily afar off, on one bare steep

Beyond the limits which my feet had trod,

Was like a guide into eternity,

At least to things unknown and without bound.

                                                                                                            Wordsworth

 

 

The snow is falling. Ice has formed on the sidewalks and walking is becoming, if not impossible, at least treacherous. My 4 km path from home to office has been transformed into an obstacle course. Not so much harder, I guess, than some of the summer’s more difficult wanderings, but requiring much sturdier dress. And even in its warmth, the city was harsher than Norway and Scotland’s hedgerows and mountain trails. There are no wild flowers along the way, no trout rising in any stream through Verdun, no herons kicking into the air to greet my passing. Now there are gusts of needle-sharp air around the frozen concrete corners of walk-ups. There is the way the wind plays a winter song on the wires, calling the pigeons out to find the bread crumbs someone left on the snow. And there is N-, the homeless man on the bench he stubbornly, nonsensically prefers to a warm bed, his nose dripping even as he speaks to me in the most reasonable, cultured, and educated of tones about his degree in English literature. “I can’t leave,” he tells me, “they asked me to be here in this place when they come, which should be any day now.” He shifts his legs and adjusts the plastic bags around him. I look at his boots. Such is mental illness. But then, it was a kind of rootlessness I aspired to not many months ago. I buy him snow pants and worry about him on nights like last night, when it drops to 28 below. I think of my sons and know he is someone’s. Calling the police is an option.

There is garbage in the gutter, the smell of oil and tomato sauce unexpectedly tinging the vacuum of air behind the pizzeria, the hiss of the plastic Frosty the Snowman who lifts out of his inner tube once every thirty seconds as the air pump builds him again and again to greet a street that is empty except for me. Later a car rolls slowly by, a foreign creature, windows shadowed, the sound of its tires compressing the snow loud in my ears, muffled bass beating like a heart buried deep within.

Peregrination seems far away from this winter world. Against the cold and dark of the city, life has settled into whatever warm niches it can find, leaving little above the surface. But there is life nevertheless. Different eyes are needed for walking this way, different rhythms to keep from falling on this pilgrim route. There is a different loneliness and a different cost.  In my doorway I take off my gloves and the back of my hands is red and raw, the skin threatening to break open from dryness. The only hand cream I can find stings.

 A Verdun Christmas 2012

 

 

 

The Likes of You Walking

Singing Donkeys Hostel Kirk Yetholm

As I leave the village of Kirk Yetholm, striding up toward the bare yellow hills of the Scottish Borders, I walk past a sign announcing The Singing Donkeys Hostel and Soup Kitchen for the Soul. It is hand-drawn. I stop despite myself, and think about singing donkeys, trying to remember if I’ve heard anything overnight that might be a braying animal. All I can visualize are the Bremen Town musicians, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t mean that. The sign, and the motley collection of boots underneath, conjure other images between memory and imagination, that I realize are probably not accurate even as they keep floating to mind: a young man in Rasta hat and beard, stirring soup in a communal kitchen, long and lazy afternoons in the sunlight with indistinct plans, someone playing guitar in another room and the sweet-sour tang of pot drifting in an open window, the feel of sex in the air, dream-catchers and crystals and Buddha prayer corners. A part of me wants to knock on the door, tempted by whatever “soup kitchen for the soul” might mean. But it’s too early in the day to begin detours, real or metaphysical. I wasn’t a hippy even when there were hippies. Although my bed at the Borders Hotel was too soft and the beer too tempting, it felt more like home. I take a photo and move on.

Months later, back in Canada, I read in a book about the St. Cuthbert trail that the hostel in Kirk Yetholm was, centuries ago, built as a schoolhouse for gypsy children.

As I’ve discovered on pilgrimage, morning inevitably means climbing. It’s 8 am and the sun is already feeling just a touch too warm for what I had only ten minutes before decided would be perfect wear. Upset with myself, I strip off a layer of merino wool and add it to the weight in my sack. This portion of the trail coincides with the Pennine Way. Probably because I’ve read accounts from those who’ve walked the Pennines, and every story stresses how difficult the path is, I keep expecting to be overtaken by long-legged, weathered, grim-eyed hikers, a different, hardier species, even though I’ve been averaging 25 km a day myself. There is a Pennine Hikers’ Inn, to my surprise looking much more luxurious than my Borders Hotel, and then a corner marked, mysteriously, Halfwayhouse. Half-way to where, I wonder? And where is the house? There are sheep everywhere, unfenced and curious, but no sign of human life. And oddly enough, no walkers, even though this is supposed to be one of the busier parts of the route.

Something happens in the mornings when you’ve been walking day after day: you begin to get eager – almost impatient – for the rhythm that sets itself up in your body after a kilometer or so on the trail. It’s something that stays on, most evenings, even when you’ve dropped your pack for the night and had your solitary meal, when you’re lying in bed trying to remember what day it is and why you were so stressed back home. Maybe it’s a rhythm of breath, or of the feet, or of both. There’s something in it of feeling your lungs tighten under the pressure of taking ever-larger breaths to handle the climb, or noticing the increase in heart-rate, knowing without any doubt that it will drop again as soon as you’ve taken a moment to rest. I’ve read that happiness is doing what you’re designed to do. Humans are designed to walk.

It’s probably that happiness that leads me up the first big hill of the morning, an imposing bare challenge of a knoll planted right in front of the road. The hill is called Green Humbleton on the map, had I been smart enough to look at my map. It’s only 268 meters, but when what I’d thought was the trail becomes indecisive and finally peters out about three-quarters of the way up, I assume that the cairn of stones I can sort-of see is my next marker. The way goes neither left nor right, and so neither do I. The top quarter of the hill is steep, so steep that at times I’m forced to scramble on all fours, burrs and seed spears digging into my soft palms. Bottle flies sit in black swirling columns of air that I pass through, forcing myself to breathe in through my nose so as not to inhale too many insects at one go. Horseflies discover the exposed flesh of my arms and legs, wet with sweat and red with exertion; I swat as best I can, but each swivel, because of the weight on my back, threatens to tip me over. When finally I stand at the summit of the hill, the warm gusts of wind are a blessing.

But there is no trail down. I sit for a second to catch my breath and scan the hills for the trail from which so clearly I’ve strayed, but sitting is just an invitation for more horseflies, and I’m bitten twice. So I stand again, and begin the descent. I’m a bit jittery, the way the weight of the pack jolts with each footfall, and with a mild curse at myself for almost making a mistake even worse, I slow down. This would be the way to lock a knee, or step in a hole. Eventually, I spot a sign to my right. The path has wisely sidestepped the hill. I’m happy to be on it again, even though it rewards my happiness by leading, honestly this time, straight up yet another rise.

In the morning, setting out, I’d asked an older woman where the path out of the village began. She’d looked at me in silence for a second, as if debating whether to answer, and then stretched out one arm, almost like a curse, to point at the hills. “That’ll be for the likes of you, walking,” she’d said. Then she smiled.

I remembered that when I reached a gate in a stone fence. There’s a sign. It reads, on one side “Welcome to Scotland” and on the other “Welcome to England”. I open the latch, and step through to another country.
heather and wall
the border

Kindness

the Tweed day one

“We’re here on this earth to be kind to others. What the others are here for I don’t know” (Auden)

Tuesday turns out much hotter than I’d thought: by midmorning I’m already out of water. The path has been one long riverbank meander, common sandpipers calling and flitting through the low branches, a lone grey heron loosing itself awkwardly from its perch as I passed, and a series of wooden steps with wire mesh tread, forever up and down, up and down over eroding dirt banks and muddy tributary creeks and cuts. Finally the path turns right. It climbs steeply uphill through tall grass and buzzing wildflowers that make me dizzy.

Sweating and out of breath, I follow the way-markings into the village of St. Boswell’s. At first I’m relieved. But no stores are open and the doors are shuttered against the day. There’s a Scottish flag on a pole in the middle of a field of overgrown weeds. My feet immediately dislike the sidewalk. They yearn for a return to the shade and the cushion of the forest floor, but I know this may be my one chance to replenish water. When I dig it out, the guidebook says to be sure to stop and look at the stained glass in the parish kirk. The church door resists a pull; like everything else in this town, it seems permanently locked. For a while I peer at what I think may be the glass through the dark windows, but I can’t tell if the colours I see are real or my imagination. This is my one chance to see the work of Liz Rowley, an artist I cared nothing for nor knew anything about until I’d opened my guide. Traveling is about glimpsing what we have just missed. For a while I sit on the low stone fence outside the church until a tall, slim man with a pack approaches. He must have been behind me on the country trail. He’s walking fast.

I say hello. He seems reluctant to break stride, but does. A walker. He introduces himself as Chris. We talk for a moment and for a few blocks I join him and try unsuccessfully to match the speed of his long legs. We come to a junction where the path turns left and back out of the village. There’s an historic municipal water pump here, with a Bible verse in stone: “Jesus said whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again, but whosoever drinketh of the water I give him shall never thirst.” “Alleluia,” I respond, reading it aloud. I give the handle a tentative pump, and when that doesn’t work, a firmer go. Nothing. The well is dry. I’m not quite sure what that does to the verse, but my mouth is parched and I’m disappointed in more than a spiritual way. And, although I don’t admit it to Chris, a little worried.

At that moment there’s a shout from across the street. A young woman, the first person we’ve seen in the village, is waving at us. “Are you thirsty?” she calls. We gratefully accept the two glasses of water she offers, and she takes my plastic backpack bladder into the house to replenish it. I notice that she closes the gate, leaving us on the outside, before going in. In a few seconds she’s back. Chris nods his thanks and bids farewell. Before he leaves he tells me that his wife meets him at points along the trail and perhaps we can all have tea together sometime and I can interview him then. I say sure, thinking it’s the last I will ever see him.

As I hand back the glass, the woman begins an incredibly long and convoluted story of angelic visitation and mystical paralysis in answer to what I thought was a quick question about whether she has ever helped other pilgrims. Eventually, despite her initial kindness, I become edgy. When she appears to be beginning to talk herself into joining me on a spiritual pilgrimage I repeat my thanks, say a hasty goodbye and turn my back to the town.

Hours pass. After the manner of distance walking, all thoughts of St Boswells, the woman, Chris, and the well – all thoughts of everything, in fact – elide into the rhythm of my steps and the vague pains -  left big toe, right heel – where sensations, like blisters, are growing. I traverse golden forests of beech and oak, and rejoin the river, still there, waiting like an old friend who has decided after a lovely morning to take the afternoon off as well.

Eventually the path turns up a country lane-way. It runs along a stone fence bordered by purple strife and daisies. At the top of the gravel way I see two figures outlined against the sky, the first human beings since St Boswells. A woman is talking to a man, gesturing. He shakes his head and walks out of my sight to the right. I wonder if it’s a dispute of some sort. She remains standing at the head of the path, hands on her hips. What happens next is like something out of a dream.

She looks at me as I reach the top of the rise. “Are you Matthew?”

I’m startled to hear my own name. “Yes.” “Oh good,” the woman says. She introduces herself as Clare. “I have tea for you. Follow me.” On a patch of grass between roads are two blankets. There’s a thermos bottle and a padded lunch bag. Two cups are set out.

As I settle, not quite believing, she pours me tea and informs me that her husband told her to expect me, but that I’d taken longer than either of them had imagined. The tea is delicious, the sun is warm, there’s a light breeze. I sit on a blanket, in Scotland, with someone I have never met. After a while I realize that the grass looks cool and inviting. “Would you mind if I took my boots and socks off?” I ask.

“Not at all,” she answers, smiling. “Would you like a scone? I have some of those, too.”

tea and cake first day

Leaving Kongsvold

alpine pond near Dovre

For most of the morning, despite the signs saying otherwise, there really is no trail, just the steep side of the mountain. The grass is thick and slippery with overnight rain. The going is difficult: two of our group fall, one badly, somersaulting down the slope and rising painfully with an egg-sized bruise on her shin. We struggle along, unusually quiet. There are two more falls before lunch. No one says anything but I’m sure I’m not the only one worrying there will be an even more serious accident if the trail doesn’t soon improve. We’ve only gone two kilometers out of 25 planned for the day. Later, we find out that many pilgrims just skip this section of marked trail because their German or Norse guidebooks suggest going by the highway. We have no book.

“The best maps are conveyed orally and by gestures, occasionally with a pen and a scrap of paper…just where the road makes that imperceptible fork, that difficult turn” (Tomas Espedal, Tramp). But there was no informal guide to show us the secret, safe path. We are alone, six Canadians under a Norwegian sky. We manage in the only way, the old way, step by step.

When it’s safe to lift our heads, there’s a beautiful pass stretching before us. The trail, such as it is, perches us high above the highway, which is itself above a train track, all three thin parallel lines etched like afterthoughts into a narrow notch between steep granite. On breaks to catch our breath or adjust our boots, we scan the rock-face across from us, and especially the meadows between rockslides. If you want to see muskoxen look for boulders, said one of the Norwegians. Boulders that move.

It’s the end of June and there are still banks of snow on the upper flanks. Every hundred meters or so we meet another rushing mountain stream. Is there a bridge? Someone calls out from behind. There is? Thank God. Pilgrim prayers are increasingly simple. Thank God for goretex boots. Here there’s a larger stream, jumping and frothing and swollen with spring run-off. No bridge, but fortunately there are flat rocks and A moves a few into place to stand on. Two of our group take position, mid-current, to help support the others across, water coursing and spraying around our ankles. Crossing water has become routine. No one thinks much more about it until we round a switchback and come face to face with the fact that the gushing current we just traversed flies out the side of a cliff and drops fifty feet through empty space, only yards after our fording. Later that day a Norwegian pilgrim falls and manages to get out, but loses items from her backpack over the precipice.

There’s animal dung of every variety on the path. At first it’s a game to try to imagine the various creatures who have passed. But at one point just before a steep ascent it’s so thick we have to make a detour. The sheep and reindeer are smart, smiles G grimly, as she pushes up the incline; they know how to drop weight when a hill is coming. Yet climbing is easier than a descent. Your heart hammers and the moisture pools at the base of your back where most of the backpack weight sits. But there is none of the shock to your knees, the chance of slipping. And anyway, climbing is hopeful; it means going somewhere.

Eventually we emerge onto a huge flat table-plateau, where we’re rewarded by the high Norwegian landscape: moss-covered rocks and grey-green lichen stretching out in all directions to a treeless horizon. Without a mid-range, distances are deceiving. We see a cabin in the distance, perched on a giant, solitary rock. It takes forever to walk there. In front of the door is a grey mass that turns out to be a waist-high pile of reindeer antlers. We look around but there is no sign of human life, no one to explain the carnage. A flock of sheep approach and retreat, wheel around us in a spiral and disperse, alternating between curiosity and fear. For a few seconds we are two groups completely still, examining each other across the divide of species, before one of us makes a sound and they bolt away again.

After another hour or so under the huge vault of sky, someone calls for a stop. We find spots in the lee of boulders, sheltering from the increasingly cold wind. K pulls her hood up around her ears and falls back into the pillow of lichen. S, who was busy picking greenery in the lower altitudes now adds garnish from the wilderness to our bare sandwiches: leaves and flowers and herbs, edible evidence of where we’ve been. It’s late and there are still many kilometers to go before we sleep. But we pull our hats over our ears and pass the sandwiches and the tea. How long have we been walking? Four days now? Five? No one seems to remember. We lean back into the lichen, and enjoy a view we cannot name, looking out over this strange world like house-guests who are lost but can’t yet admit it.
Hjerkinn Fjellstue to Kongsvold Inn

Under the North Star

sauna

Taala Pohjan tahden alla, on nyt kotomaame.

Under the North Star is your homeland.
Not mine, but yours. Your homeland. Kotomaamme.
A rich word, a rich world you share:
granite and birch, heavy rye porridge and Jukka’s freshly-smoked whitefish,
oil on our fingers.
This homeland a rich dish,
bedrock rolling to the sea.
Marja-Leena and Tuula doing yoga, the long day stretching with them into gold-red evening,
Matti’s quiet sauna wisdom and Liisa’s raiki helping
set tables settled stomachs, well-fed for bed
heavy snacks, bone-tired to the bone,
16 CDs, say Anneli and Mirja.
But there must have been a hundred hugs:
old friends, neighbors, family coming from miles.
This land, a reunion, like the smiles,
dense as the egg on our Karjalan Piirakka.

Mo mo mi mo mi mo ma.
You Finns. You sing, you sauna, you laugh (more than Swedes!) you dance,
Summer’s chance, a precious balance,
Each bringing something: smile like Tuulikki, sing like Tanya,
Niilo listening with tears, Paul’s quiet humour, Helen tracing our journey,
Eila hugs, Kristiina quietly joining in, Dianne so happy to speak French,
Hans’s shoes. We lose inhibitions, learn our tunes.
Dominic, Suomi-fanni, plays spoons
while Erkki jumps from magnificent aria,
to tux-free, bare-bellied accordion prance.
And down the bus aisle Marja and I dance as Markku answers his phone,
finding our next home, the women tapping their sternums.

Times taught tight as the chords of Siipeni Murtuneet.
From the piano our director’s outstretched arm directing, resurrecting, confecting harmony,
the one “we” Terhi brings from so many individuals,
the details, schedules, worries forgotten.
Heal our broken wings, we sing.
And don’t forget, she adds, bending at the waist to show us,
fingers plucking her hair as she straightens: Sing from your heart.
And up from the top of your head.

In two months this bay will be ice all the way to Sweden.
But for now it’s the sea, and the rock, the lingon-berries Ismo and Eeva-Liisa, Seija and Marjatta
bend to pick.
Three miles to the Russian border, says Pirkko. This is my home.
And we, these late summer sunshine days, happy pilgrims under Leo’s care across the land of the north star.
Taala Pohjan tahden alla, on nyt kotomaame.
The same North Star, Vaasudbury, Alskat Hemmontreal, Turkkubellingham.
Our home both here and there. Split citizens. Homeward bound, but which direction?
Meren tuolla puolen toisen kodon saamme. This is also true.

Taala on kuin kukkasella
aika lyhyt meilla.
Then comes the day. The final chords, the binders closed, the last programs handed out.
No more dressing in washrooms. We make our way. Away.
But wasn’t it just yesterday
we shook hands in Vaasa?
Now hugs, hands held, a tear, a sigh.
Sometimes if you can’t say what you feel,
You can still sing it.
Sama taivas sama maa. The same north star, wherever you roam.
This is your land. Not mine.
But I almost felt at home.

gathering
with Liisa

The Phantom Bomber

starting out

Where the long, hot, dusty path finally drops out of the Cheviot Hills into the town of Wooler, Northumberland , every B&B and hotel room is booked. Eventually I manage to get hold of someone at the Youth Hostel. A voice on the other end of the phone answers my by-then desperate plea: “Sure, we have a place.” As if it were a silly question to ask. My room is spartan but fine, and there’s a shower at the end of the hall.

Being a youth hostel, I expected youth. But in the morning I find myself at table with an English man and a Scottish woman of at least my age. Although separated by the length of the table, they are already deep in conversation when I sit, perhaps not wisely, in the middle.

There is a small map on the table between them. The Pennine Way starts here, declares the man, pointing to it. I know; I’ve walked it. You’ve walked some path, corrects the woman. But it wasn’t the Pennine Way. That starts here. She jabs her finger on another spot. I try to find a place for my tea that is not on the disputed piece of paper. Well, I know what I walked says the Englishman. You’re wrong, answers the Scot, and they both lapse into what to me would be charged, but seems to them to be a comfortable, silence. I wonder if they’re a couple.

Edinburgh is a lovely city I volunteer. I was there in 2006. Loved the old town. The Scot answers back crisply. It’s nice to look at. But I grew up there and I’d never move back. They all ask what schools you’ve been to. As if that’s what’s important. First thing they want to know. It’s not a pretty place. She shakes her head as if to rid her mind of some memory. Dark local sandstone, pipes up the English man from his end of the table. That’s what makes Scottish buildings ugly. Northumberland too, he adds after a pause, with a nod to her.

When the Englishman finds out I’m walking the St. Cuthbert Way to study walking pilgrimages, a discussion ensues on the decline of long-distance trail-walking in England. Foot and mouth disease, he pronounces. That’s what killed it. Ever since then the trails are less busy. And the hostel movement has suffered too. The Scot nods. Yes, foot and mouth. It’s a pity. We need the social movement of hostels more than ever in this world.

This world, the Englishman repeats, with feeling. As if that says it all.

I tell them about the World War II vintage bomber that surprised me in the hills, coming up out of nowhere and then gone again as I struggled to pull out my camera. Was that the ghost bomber, asks the Scot? There’s silence for about 30 seconds while I try to digest the question. Umm. It was real enough, I say finally. Loud and low. Just not what I was expecting, you know, in a long day of walking by myself. Oh yes, those low flying fighters, says the Englishman, looking up from his book. They’re over you before you even hear the sound. Scares the hell out of the wildlife. No, I heard this one, I insist. The fighters – I’ve seen those too, the last couple days. RAF. This was different. Some hobby pilot I guess. It was an old prop plane. It came around the hill and banked right above me. By the time I got my camera it had flown over the next hill. It was beautiful.

The ghost bomber repeats the Scot. I was in the Cheviots, the summer before last, and I saw it then. Passed right over me, low. I never heard a thing. Just saw it. That’s when I knew it was a ghost.

The Englishman looks down at his tea and says nothing. I start thinking about the trail ahead. Can you pass the marmalade, I ask?

east hill

Speed Dating Riga

Freedom

monumental monuments
Trying to see a city in four hours feels a bit like speed-dating: you’ll hear a story, you’ll get an impression, but it’s not enough on which to build a relationship. The cheapest ticket north from Frankfurt to Stockholm is an Air Baltic flight that sticks me in Latvia’s capital for a layover too long to sit and do nothing and too short for a real, proper visit. Where some might find that annoying, I’ve never been to Riga. A quick run in seems the least I can do.

Fortunately, the airport is small. The pretty woman in blue at the city information desk is incredibly friendly and helpful. Yes, I can take a taxi, it’s right over there. But why do that when the city bus is almost as fast and costs one-thirtieth the amount? I don’t want to change money for four hours, so I charge the equivalent of one euro for two bus tickets. It leaves over there, from the other side of the parking lot, she points, handing me a card. In two minutes. You’ll have to hurry. I run out the door and into cool straw-yellow Baltic sunshine, me and my backpack bouncing the 100 meters or so to the waiting bus.

I’m in my seat, still breathing heavy, when I hear someone calling me. “Sir? Sir?” Coming down the bus aisle is the same woman in the blue uniform. Sir, she says, smiling, I forgot to give you your second pass. Here it is. She has run the whole distance behind me, in stilettos, to give me a ticket worth 50 cents.

Bus #22 is half-full. Young men in sunglasses, clearly airport workers off-shift, polished leather shoes and pressed shirts, lean against the windows of the bus with their eyes closed and ear buds in. Small old men sit in suits that seemed as grey as their skin, while several elderly women in shapeless but colourful shift dresses peer into each other’s huge paper bags and chortle in a language impossible to understand. Hipster couples, the men in shorts with deck shoes, the women in red pants with v-necked sweaters, hold swaying baby-carriages in place. Beside me sits a pair that look for all the world like some younger, Baltic version of Brangelina. He a rougher Brad Pitt in a white tee-shirt, and behind her sunglasses, high heels and fur-lined vest, hers an adolescent Angelina smile. We pass by gaunt old concrete apartment buildings, interspersed with modern concrete homes. Occasionally there is an old framed cottage, the wood grey with age, fading paint and single-pane glass, old flowerboxes gone to colourful riot.

At the next stop three men who appear to be in their late twenties step on to my section. They move together, a unit of something that seems, from the reactions of the other passengers, foreign. One of them, bare-chested under an open Adidas jacket, turns on music as soon as they sit down. 60s style Russian, or maybe Ukrainian or one of the Republics, the singer’s voice floating over the seats. The old women stop talking and turn to stare. The three men seem oblivious, talking loudly, looking only at each other. When the Brangelina couple leave the bus, the woman gets caught in the doorway a second, her one high-heeled leg stuck for a second on the inside of the bus the occasion for great hilarity from the Russians.

Where the bus drops me it’s only a few steps to the old town. A group of pre-schoolers, all dressed in bright tee-shirts, straggle at the hip level of their monitor as they pass under a giant statue of two officers in greatcoats and caps, back to back, looking out over the river. The squares are full of people. A Mexican ship is in port: small clean-cut men, their skin olive against the bleached white of impeccable uniforms, carry cameras on their belts and examine the wares of the street sellers. The products are typically Baltic: carved wood, bright, intricate knitted goods, and amber in every possible shape and setting. I’m trapped at one of the tables in front of a statue of the Bremen town musicians. The woman managing the stall seems as excited for a chance to practice her English as to show off the wares, which are beautiful, but exactly the same as at the next table. Further down I notice traditional wooden Russian dolls painted with European soccer players. In one of the shops I come across unique and exquisite ceramic houses like some that I saw coming into town. I’d like one, but where would I put it?

The churches are quiet and simple. I take photos of some of the art deco ornamentation that graces the buildings. The statues and monumental reliefs are…. well, monumental. These are twentieth century work. Big-shouldered men in army uniforms and helmets, carrying rifles. Big shouldered, bare-breasted women, carrying heavy loads. There is another giant statue at the opposite edge of the old city, titled “Freedom”. On top of a granite column high above the street, the two-storey, stylized figure of a woman in a robe thrusts three golden stars up to the heavens. Perhaps it was called “Progress”, I think. Later on I walk by a small triangular shrine, quite different from the monuments, simply titled “1991 Barikades”. There are fresh flowers on it. Here and there I see testimonies of struggle, pocketed between coffee shops and western fast-food franchises. But I’m like a half-deaf man trying to hear a conversation about a subject I don’t recognize.

A tram passes. I think that its compact size, clean lines and wrap-around windows make it look retro, like something from the 1950s, and then realize that it probably is a piece of equipment still in use from then. On the street nearby, a group of women laugh and talk to each other in Latvian as they take turns releasing arrows at an archery range.

I’ve just enough time for something to eat before going back to the airport. There’s an old convent across from the street sellers, converted to a restaurant called “Domini Canes”. I take that as a sign and sit down. The waitress brings me a bowl of ginger-lamb-lentil soup. The presentation looks like something from a flight magazine: trickles of balsamic reduction on the four corners of a large white bowl, traced with herbs and flowers. For a second I could be in Paris or London, Toronto or New York or Hong Kong. Then I take a bite of the bread. It’s thick and brown and heavy, tasting of molasses, spread thick with butter and garlic, and says only one thing: there’s nowhere quite like Riga.

archery

barikades

Following the Saint

following the Dun Cow
Kate Tristram is not the type to be doing nothing on a Saturday afternoon. But when the kind woman at the Museum in Lindisfarne – the vicar’s wife, as it turned out – rang up the former curate, former professor and very present historian to say that there was a man from Canada who had walked St Cuthbert’s Way, had just come across the sands and was interested in talking to her about her book, within a few minutes the 82 year-old was there. She looked at me like a person who decides very quickly if they like you or not. When she took off her jacket and sat down, I took it to be a good sign. But she perched forward, like the points she was making might at any moment lift her off her chair.
Most modern Celtic spirituality is rubbish. Pure rubbish. When I turned 70 I started studying Gaelic up in Edinburgh and they said: the English want our spirituality now, but they can’t even be bothered to learn the language. Those are Celts up there too, just as much as the Irish. One morning I sat in the Dept of Languages office for two hours and five people came in to ask questions and not a word of English was spoken. Devilishly hard.
Had I started my pilgrimage in Old Melrose, she wanted to know? The real location of Cuthbert’s Abbey? No? Too bad…did I know the difference? Did I know about the connections between Lindisfarne and Iona? We talked about theology, and land, and the inner and the outer journeys and how like the paths on the Cheviots the two parts of pilgrimage meet and loop back on themselves and sometimes overlap, sometimes diverge, but always intersect. I thought of the interweaving of the Celtic manuscript borders, or the Anglo-Saxon designs of dogs and eagles biting their tails, or the Viking rope circles, their similarities proof that ideas across the North Sea peoples interwove as much as the pens and paths they inspired.
St. Cuthbert was an Anglo-Saxon, trained by Irish monks in the Irish tradition of Aidan, whose sainted (and probably jewel-encrusted) coffin was then chased all over northern England by the fear of Viking swords, although eventually given a home by a converted Danish-English king. His remains now lie in a magnificent Norman abbey, although the story is that William the Conqueror fled on horseback from the wrath of the dead saint when he came north to open the coffin and see the uncorrupted body for himself.
I’m not sure if I would have liked Cuthbert that much. Aidan seems a more forgiving sort. All the same, after leaving Lindisfarne I followed the path of the wandering monks, down to Durham, arriving just in time for the sung Eucharist in the Cathedral. It must have been a real perigrination – not knowing where they would land – and it was a dun cow that showed them the way to the final resting place for their saint. I sat quite a while in Dun Cow lane, for that and other reasons.
The ending of this pilgrimage surprised me with emotions. Walking across the golden sands to Lindisfarne, the sea warm under my bare feet. Listening to the seals singing to the sunset on the southern banks. Hearing the choir sing the words of Isaiah in the Cathedral. Lighting a solitary candle in the St. Cuthbert chapel, realising that this time I was lighting it not for anyone else, but for myself.
And then, surprisingly, coming across the tomb of the Venerable Bede, and the incredible prayer that someone has stitched for the kneeler before the tomb. Bede the Historian, I discovered, was really Bede the biblical scholar. Like me, he was someone for whom the richness of the Bible was a gift, an ever-surprising treasure to be explored again and again, a rich soil from which perennial growth comes in incredible variety. And he was a chronicler of others, including Cuthbert.
One of the surprises of this pilgrimage was that it started as an exploratory trip and turned into a real pilgrimage. Another was that I was never entirely sure where it ended.
Kate Tristram teased me a bit in that time before she was off again and I was left on my own on Lindisfarne. She looked at my feet impishly. How long did you walk? Four days? You could have come by boat in an afternoon, you know. She has an infectious laugh. That’s probably how Cuthbert really did it…waited for the tide to go out and then just floated down. You could have saved yourself the trouble. But I suppose the trouble’s the point in pilgrimage, isn’t it? She laughed again, a laugh that included me, kindly, in the Holy Island she loves so well, and the saints with whom she seems to have more than a passing acquaintance.

Bede's Prayer

London with the Girls

To walk the sidewalks with two fifteen year old girls, my daughter and her friend, is to see a London I hadn’t experienced: endlessly interesting in its outdoor life, spread out, shimmering hot, bustling and attractive, a city through sunglasses, an endlessly sunny asphalt summer of tube stops and clothes-shopping, gelato and south Asian hawkers selling tee-shirts saying “keep calm and carry on and mind the zombies”.  The girls look older than they are. They fit in well, even better than I thought they would. “I could live here,” says my daughter, looking around as if appraising an apartment. “It would be easy”. I realize I’m taking what she says seriously.

 

London has become cosmopolitan. With their blond hair and leggings the two girls could be British Poles out after work, or French shoppers, or the North American tourists we are. Famished, we stop at a restaurant in Soho. I’m feeling poor and was thinking something simple and therefore cheap. Once we’re seated I have a good view of the two chefs behind the counter of the open kitchen, joking with their sous-chefs as they hack at lobsters or lay out oysters, their casual chic and the line-up that gathers on the sidewalk both guarantees the bill won’t be what I had hoped. “How about fish and chips?” I ask the girls. The waiter, a dark-eyed, powerfully-chested Brazilian in fitted white dress shirt and black pants, is hanging by our table, chatting them up while I peruse the menu. I have a brother who moved to Calgary, he tells them. Your country is paradise. He kept phoning to tell me in the first few months to tell me that. Then winter arrived, he came home to Brazil. Canadians are wonderful, the waiter concludes, spreading his arms wide as if welcoming us in. The weather, not so much. There is a warm glow surrounding the girls that extends somehow to me. Londoners think they are sisters, perhaps fraternal twins. I catch passers-by smiling at me, the dad, hovering behind or more often forging ahead, wrinkled brow, studying the map on a streetcorner, finding our way through the city where there are no parallel ways and the names change by whim.

 

We go to St Paul’s Cathedral. On entering the narthex I feel myself relax; I’m on familiar ground. But after a few minutes admiring Christopher Wren’s dome, I’m already annoyed at the awkward theology and evangelicalism of the Dean’s comments on the iPhone guide we’ve been provided. He sounds like a tour guide who’s being surreptitious in trying to get a few words in about faith. A full flow of tourists shuffle by as I listen and look. I’m poked in the back. The girls, sitting behind me, have negotiated the full menu of the device and are ready to go. I realise I’d prefer to see the living congregation. Maybe Quebec has made me more Catholic; I miss the banks of candles and the side altars of Notre Dame Paris, and look in vain on the edges of the huge space for a black-albed sexton or a deacon or anyone churchy with whom to identify. The girls fidget. We join the crowds again, and finally, in the sparkling gold and blue mosaics of birds, high above the quire, I feel something of whatever it was I was looking for.

 

Then, in the crypt, there is another bonus: a memorial to William Blake. I wonder what fantastical images he might have produced, looking at us now, with our cameras, lined up at the gift shop, calling out to each other in every language under the sun. Making sacred the commonplace is a mystic’s art, but all it takes is a lack of attention, it seems, to make the sacred commonplace.

 

We exit the church into more of the brilliant sunlight the Londoners are calling “a summer to remember”.  A man in a shirt and tie, jacket in hand, slows slightly to step off the sidewalk around us. He catches my eye and smiles. “Brilliant isn’t it?” he says and I don’t know if he’s talking about the day or being a dad walking the streets with two such teenage girls.Image

The birthing of a pilgrimage

Allen ponderingThis hostel is accredited, begins the promotional blurb for Meso Gård , and recommended by the National Pilgrim Centre. It has met the same requirements, and holds the same standard, as the pilgrim accommodation along Camino de Santiago. But a Spanish pilgrim who comes to Norway will find themselves, not in a bunk room in barren and dusty Castrojeriz, but in a typical sod-roofed, log-cabin style Norwegian hostel in the Rennesbund district along the St-Olaf’s Way, where a river rushes by, birds are singing, mountain flowers bloom around you and everything is green. Meso is a world away from a Spanish albergue. And the differences aren’t just in the lack of Rioja and dust (the first to better deal with the second).

Those who planned the St-Olav Weg have tried to make it familiar. The elements are as standardized as the boarding procedure at airports. There is a passport, obtained from an official pilgrim centre and sized appropriately for tucking into a backpack, local business stamps validating one’s walk along the trail, trail markers along paths and roads and paint slashes on rocks to guide the way, ‘pilgrim meals’ offered at some local restaurants, and several revitalized ancient routes (traceable on a smart-phone app) toward a cathedral city celebrating a medieval saint.

Yet the similarities between the two pilgrimage routes are overshadowed by differences as high as Norway’s mountains. The mountains, in fact, may be the most obvious initial difference, at least from the Camino Frances part of the Spanish trail. It’s been less than two weeks since I walked with five other Canadians from Dovre, in the Dovrefjell district of Norway, 250 or so kilometres to Trondheim. As far as I know, we were the first group of Canadians ever to walk this way as pilgrims. Unlike my experiences on the crowded Camino Frances, there were very few others we met. Those we did echoed our experience of a satisfying but extremely tough walk through conditions more like the high Rockies than the Meseta. In part because of an unusually late, cold and wet spring, we forded swollen mountain streams, jumped from hillock to hillock through kilometres of bog, and in sections of the trail found ourselves going days without seeing other human beings, much less a store to purchase supplies. We fell down, we froze, we saw incredible beauty, one of our group broke her ankle among the endless tree roots. It may be ancient, but it was not an urban walk. Café con leche? Forget it, unless you have a thermos, some farm experience and can catch one of the abundant sheep or goats.

Because it is still early in the redevelopment of the St-Olaf Way, one of the most fascinating parts of the walk, for me, was how we met those still trying to put their mark on how the trail will develop. I felt like we were there at the beginnings of something important. We met chapel builders who want to make sure there will be a spiritual component to the walk, officials who seek the ‘new spirituality’, walkers interested primarily in ecology and environment, and others who are developing their businesses in hopes of increasing numbers of high-tech backpackers showing up at their doorsteps.

All of which raises some interesting questions. What gives a particular pilgrimage its unique character? Is there such a thing as a more or less authentic pilgrimage? It seems to me that the inevitable conflict of values in this birthing of a European pilgrimage route is useful, because it helps bring about something that, however it borrows from the past, is new. As my friend Allen Jorgenson noted, the role of land, and of landscape, is more important than some of us have realized. Maybe we should be talking about pilgrimscapes, and how the outer journey influences the shape of the inner one.

Whatever the medieval St-Olaf route once was, there is now a struggle for its modern identity. It is definitely not the Camino. What it will be remains to be seen.
Alpine shelter