Five summers back, my daughter Joan and I walked to Michigan.
It’s not as spectacular as it sounds – we live on the south side of South Bend, and Michigan is only ten miles away – but it was still quite the urban hike and, now, a happy memory.
The whole thing was a lark that had its genesis at a family dinner when somebody mentioned how close Michigan really was. “It’s so close, we could probably walk there,” I remember Joan commenting. “We should do that!”
I took her at her word (to her chagrin, it turns out), and we planned the trek. A few weeks later, we slathered on sunscreen and hit the road in the early morning, arriving at the Dairy Queen just north of the state line about eight hours later.
No earth-shattering revelations or extraordinary encounters along the way; no epiphanies or profound father-daughter exchanges. Just slogging along in the heat, mile after mile. A McDonald’s here, a library visit there, a couple photo ops, and gyros for lunch. The conversation was intermittent, and almost nonexistent in the final stretch. It was an exercise in endurance, you see, and to succeed required only stubbornness: We will walk to Michigan, just to say we’d done it – and we did!
The first step is undertaken lightly, pleasantly, and with your soul in the sky; it is the five-hundredth that counts (Hilaire Belloc).
Recently, Joan and I put in another ten miles, but this time the setting was quite different. We were in New York City for Joan to receive special honors at the Scholastic Art Awards ceremony in Carnegie Hall. Thankfully, Marian High School helped underwrite our travel expenses, but funds were still a bit tight, so we had no budget for taxi rides. Instead, we took subways and buses mainly, and hoofed it in between.
And hoof it we did. From the Port Authority near Times Square to the lions at the Public Library, and then zigzagging uptown: First Fifth Avenue for about eight blocks, then over; Madison Avenue for a while, then over, finally, Park Avenue up to the Armory at 67th Street – at least a couple miles on foot, and we’d only been in the city a couple hours.
So went the entire weekend: Subway rides to neighborhood centers, and then walking block after block to our various destinations. From Yonkers and the Bronx down to Washington Park, we experienced New York the best way possible – that is, at eye level and on the street. Like when we walked west on 112th through Spanish Harlem to come up behind St. John the Divine. The gargantuan Cathedral loomed before us, growing bigger and bigger with every step, and we, smaller and smaller. It was as if our march allowed us to become pilgrims and penitents; much better than showing up in a cab or disembarking from a tour bus.
Our cuisine was street-bound as well: Hot dogs and pizza slices, chicken kebabs and blintzes, all mixed up with secondhand smoke, vehicle exhaust, and that unmistakable pungent scent of the city. I think we sat down for a single restaurant meal, and even then we rushed to grab a table outside. Sitting inside seemed too far removed from the exotic world we’d come to see and hear and assimilate.
Given all the time we devoted to just getting around, we didn’t get to see everything we’d hoped to – no Empire State Building, no MOMA or Cloisters, and nothing downtown at all. That wasn’t a big deal to me since I’d already soaked up quite a bit of New York some years ago, but I had high hopes of getting Joan around to many more sights and landmarks. Turns out, it wasn’t a big deal to her either, and for the best of reasons. “I’m glad we’ve been getting around like we have,” Joan said at one point. “It seems like it has given us more freedom to do as we please and to really take things in.”
On a walking-tour you are absolutely detached. You stop where you like and go on when you like. As long as it lasts you need consider no one and consult no one but yourself (C.S. Lewis).
So what’s next? Compostela maybe? Or the Appalachian Trail? Either of those would be way more than ten miles.
No, I’m thinking Chaucer, and retracing the route of the Canterbury pilgrims. It would be more manageable (about 60 miles or so), and more Joan’s style anyway.
But if it was totally up to me, I’d have us in Rome, and we’d do a walking-tour of the Holy City’s seven pilgrim churches – a tradition of visiting the four major and three minor basilicas that was popularized by St. Philip Neri. Pope John Paul II altered it a bit in 2000 by substituting a more contemporary church for the ancient church of St. Sebastian. However, if you visit all seven of the original churches, plus the one John Paul added for the Jubilee Year indulgence, you’ll end up covering just about…ten miles! Coincidence? I think not!
So, whether it’s ten miles in Rome, three score in England, or hundreds somewhere else – I’m ready, come what may. Of course, I know it’s pretty iffy that I’d even have the privilege of ever again joining my daughter on a trekking journey, regardless of the mileage involved or destination. Heck, it’s a wonder and a total gift I got to go along this time – I get that.
Yet, for us dads, that’s just part of the deal. It’s assumed in the “come-what-may” part of dadhood that if we’re doing our job, we’re working ourselves out of a job. God willing, sooner or later, our kids will merrily leave us behind, trekking and journeying with abandon to places we can’t even pronounce.
In other words, we have to be ready to weather the transition from parenting youngsters to accompanying young adults – and as I’m easing into that transition, it seems that the accompanying is truly intermittent, and largely up to their discretion.
Bittersweet, for sure, and no doubt I’ll miss out on plenty of ten-milers. But, come what may, I’ll be here for the homecoming. I’ll be here for the welcome home.
Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
~ Bilbo Baggins
A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.