Saturday, November 15, 2014

Plotting My Pilgrimage

I was off in my car at sun-up this morning (6:30 EST), scouting the lower quarter of my 400-mile walking route to Montreal.

I had been resisting this. My romantic notion of a Christian pilgrimage was to “take nothing for the journey.” It’s right there in Mark 6:8 and Luke 9:3—doesn’t matter where you look, Our Lord is pretty clear about it. Set out with a walking stick (and debit card) and follow the North Star.

But I’m a by-the-numbers Catholic mostly. So the first thing I did in planning my May 2015 pilgrimage to St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal was to tell my pastor about it. I figured, if I’m doing this thing as a Catholic pilgrimage then I am doing it as a member of the Church, even if I walk alone. My pastor is the head of the church for me. Talk to him. It stands to reason.

Father liked the idea; he said he loves Montreal and has visited there often; he warned me to travel “safe”; and further he advised me to drive the road I will be walking to see what’s there ahead of time.

But— Wasn’t that cheating? Wouldn’t scouting my route make me a wuss, pilgrimage-wise?

This morning, fortified by Starbucks, I headed toward my first four stopovers, where I already know I have beds awaiting me: in Byfield, Salisbury, Amesbury, and Haverhill, Massachusetts—thanks to the kindness of friends. I wanted to see if the walking routes given by my GPS looked safe. I am not looking for scenic. I want to be where there are people, not bears.

But I don’t have that many friends, especially in New Hampshire and Vermont, so I am going to be begging the hospitality of strangers. My pastor is giving me a letter of reference, and I will be approaching active Catholic parishes found roughly on a line from Haverhill to Montreal.

For the lower quarter (to Concord, NH) I am debating whether to beat a fairly straight path from Haverhill to Manchester NH via the New Hampshire parish towns of Salem, Derry, and Merrimack (Plan A); or whether to follow history, aka the Merrimack River (Plan B).

Along the Merrimack is where the mill towns were in the 19th century, and a large plurality of the workers in those towns were French Canadian. This links them with Montreal and with the religious brother who inspired the Oratory of St. Joseph, St. André Bessette. In his travels, Brother André worked in and later raised money in many of the New England mill towns where he knew folks would appreciate his accent. There’s a certain logic to going through places where I suspect he must have been.

It’s also good Catholic country to this day. So Plan B is to run upriver from Haverhill through Methuen, Lawrence, Lowell, and Nashua NH—though this will involve a sharp southwestern deflection in my primarily northwesterly route. After Nashua, it’s a straight shot through Merrimack to Manchester and then on to Concord.

If you have any suggestions (Plan A or B or some other Plan C), I am all ears. You just have to expect me to scout it out in advance. Don’t expect heroics out of this pilgrim.

NOTE: In a future post, I will list the major towns along my proposed path and ask for any contacts or suggestions that readers might have to help me find the basics like beds and meals.

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