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Waters Less Traveled
The Vision Keepers
Ghost Orchid Ghost
New Dawn for the
Through Time and
Ghostly Ghost Tour
The Vision Keepers European Segment
From Stonehenge to Canterbury
The walk across the United States had been everything I had envisioned and more. A vision is just a glimpse. It takes an actual experience to complete it. The experience of that walk had helped me to understand what it means to be part of a community, to take leadership when necessary, and to step back at other times so that others could have a turn. In the process, we touched many people along the way, through either one-on-one contact, small community gatherings, or local and regional media outlets. Would our messages of peace, ecological sanity, and Native American rights prompt any real social change? That was anyone's guess, but I had faith that it would, at least on a small scale. The alternative was never to have acted on my vision.
The next journey - the one across Europe - came about not through a vision of my own but rather as an idea shared with others during the United States walk. Soon after having embarked from Point Reyes, in fact, many of us felt that the walk wouldn't end in Washington D.C. We were certain we should continue it in Europe the following summer. We felt it appropriate to begin at Britain 's famous Neolithic monument of Stonehenge and end in the ancient city of Delphi, Greece.
Our public goal was to promote the same ideals we had supported in the United States, including the plight of Native Americans. After all, it had been the European invasion five centuries ago that prompted the downfall of several hundred tribes.
More inwardly, and since most of us were of European ancestry, we sought to delve into our earth roots on European soil. We hoped that, through walking and visiting ancient ceremonial sites, maybe the land and our ancestors would speak to us and we would come to know that the early Europeans were not so different from the Native Americans. Perhaps, indeed, we were all children of the earth.
Later, in planning the walk in more detail, I intuitively chose the date of l June 1985 to embark from Stonehenge. It turned out to be an important date in modern affairs concerning that ancient site, as we would discover.
By late spring, ten others had saved enough money for the three-month walk in Europe. Eight were veterans of the last walk - Hal, Irineo, Marie, Mikel, Mindi, Rosie, Susi, and Victoria. Besides Cyndi, two others were new to the group - Dabney and Debbie. Two veterans, Indigo and Matt, planned to join for shorter stints. As with the United States walk, we were a diverse group made up of teachers, students, a caterer, a contract business manager, a nurse, a chef, a counselor, an outdoor educator, a landscaper, and a painter. Most were self-employed, leaving jobs, or taking time off. No one, to my knowledge, was wealthy or had inherited a trust fund. We were on a shoestring budget and planned to backpack and camp most of the way. It helped that none of us had children to support, or serious mortgages or debts. Otherwise, it would have been especially difficult to pull up and leave for several months, just as many of us had done less than a year before for the United States walk.
Soon before the group embarked for Europe, we gathered for a planning session in West Virginia at the home of Alice Massie, the eldest member of our previous walk. Part of our discussion centered on a dilemma we faced about a sacred staff a Native American spiritual leader in California had given us to carry through Europe. At the bottom of the two-foot staff hung a deer tail to ensure graceful and sure-footed steps. Just above the staff's beaded center was a carving of a Native American face behind bars. This was to remind us of a message we were to take to the Europeans: Native people in North and South America were suffering; they needed prayers of support. Hanging from the carved eagle at the top of the staff were two striking eagle feathers. It was these feathers that were at the heart of our dilemma.
According to United States law, only members of federally recognized tribes can possess eagle feathers. None of the twelve walkers had enough Indian blood to qualify as a member of a federally recognized tribe. We wanted to return the staff intact to the elder after the walk. European customs had no such laws regarding eagle feathers at the time, but we knew we would have to pass the staff through United States customs on our way back. If discovered, it could be confiscated, and we could face imprisonment and a fine of several thousand dollars. None of us wished to go through the entire three-month walk worrying about being arrested, so we decided to leave the feathers with Alice. We would carry the staff without the sacred eagle feathers, even though we were unsure of the effect on its power.
In contemplating England 's mystical Stonehenge, our chosen starting point, we imagined it to be an appropriate and safe site wholly compatible with the walk's purpose. Archeologists believe Stonehenge was a type of astronomical observatory and calendar, with the alignment of certain stones marking the summer solstice. It reminded me of stone medicine wheels built by early Native Americans. Mystery still shrouds many of its aspects, including how ancient builders could have moved and lifted the huge stones - some weighing an estimated twenty-five tons.
But on l June 1985, the date I had intuitively chosen to begin the walk, we had little leisure to ponder four-thousand-year-old riddles. To our shock, a few other walkers and I arrived at Stonehenge just before our appointed departure time of one p.m. to find it encircled with razor-edged barbed wire, sand bags, and hundreds of riot police in full combat gear. Only a small number of nervous tourists mingled about. Somewhat nervously ourselves, we joined them. What was going on?
Some members of our group still had not yet arrived; we were missing four out of twelve. Nonetheless, given the scene, we formed a circle for a quick focus session and then readied our backpacks to embark. On this journey, we would carry all of our gear on our backs - there would be no support vehicles.
Suddenly, a security officer holding a radio rushed past. "The hippies are coming! The hippies are coming!" he shouted. Politely but firmly, the police asked everyone to leave the area.
"We heard they're armed with crossbows," said one officer, nearly breathless from excitement.
The "hippies," we were told, were hundreds of young people traveling in a convoy of vehicles who wanted to continue holding their annual pop music festival at Stonehenge. The festival, which had begun in 1974, was a type of Woodstock mixed with druidic, pagan, and New Age ceremonialism centering around the summer solstice. Many of the participants called themselves "New Age Travelers." Their festival had grown larger each year, and authorities were worried about nudity, open drug use, and archeological and ecological damage. Finally, just before the 1985 festival, English courts banned the gathering from being held at Stonehenge. Since the ruling had come late, some people were arriving because they had not received the news; others were showing up in mass numbers in defiance. Instead of seeking a compromise, the authorities had summoned riot squads and vowed to prevent the youth from reaching Stonehenge .
To stop the advance of a large caravan of festival goers, the police had erected a road barricade seven miles away on the Wiltshire border, and the crowd tried to skirt the barricade by going through a farm field. In the subsequent conflict, called the Battle of the Beanfield, an estimated thirteen hundred police arrested more than five hundred unarmed people and injured several with truncheons, including a woman in the late stage of pregnancy. The police also used truncheons to smash windshields and windows of most of the vehicles, many of which were mobile living quarters for the young people.
Nick Davies, a reporter with the British newspaper The Observer, was an eyewitness. He wrote: "There was glass breaking, people screaming, black smoke towering out of burning caravans, and everywhere there seemed to be people being bashed and flattened and pulled by the hair.. .. Men, women, and children were led away, shivering, swearing, crying, bleeding, and leaving their homes in pieces.. .. Over the years I had seen all kinds of horrible and frightening things and always managed to grin and write it. But as I left the Beanfield, for the first time, I felt sick enough to cry."
The Earl of Cardigan, another eyewitness, described the police violence as "unspeakable." Detainees filled jail cells across southern England in perhaps the largest mass civil arrest in British history.
Stonehenge remained closed for the entire month of June. If we had arrived a day or even an hour later, we would not have been able to see the incredible stone monoliths that preceded the Industrial Revolution by several thousand years. It was as if we had reserved Stonehenge for just a few minutes before two polarized forces clashed in an archetypal appointment with destiny. Historians would later describe the Battle of the Beanfield as the inauguration of a government crackdown on gypsies and New Age travelers who moved about in large vehicular caravans.
Despite our excitement at being able to visit Stonehenge, the conflict was upsetting. Some of us were familiar with annual Rainbow Gatherings in the United States, free-spirited events that promoted the oneness of humanity and often included nudity, drug use, and New Age ceremonialism. Government land managers had often tried to halt or regulate the large gatherings on national forest lands, but organizers argued that the right to peaceful assembly was fundamental, something that organizers of the Stonehenge festival also maintained. On the other hand, in talking with authorities and others, it seemed apparent that the annual solstice gathering at Stonehenge differed from a focused Native American sun dance or vision quest, and it also differed from ceremonies that included psychotropic plants, such as those conducted by the Native American Church. If the "Stonehenge Free Festival," as it was called, had been held at a site other than an historic treasure, it may have avoided the officials' ire.
So what was the proper behavior at an ancient European ceremonial site, especially one at which the original ceremonies have largely been lost to time? We weren't sure. If Stonehenge had been a sacred Native American site in North America, the lines would be more clearly drawn. But regarding Stonehenge, there were no clear racial or hereditary distinctions. Many of the thousands who sought access might very well be descendants of the original Stonehenge worshippers, but who could know? Nevertheless, the dilemma remained: Should Stonehenge only be accessible to scholars, tourists, and serious-minded druids, or could it also accommodate festival goers and self-proclaimed pagans who claimed admission to the site as a basic right?
For the next fifteen years, access to the summer solstice at Stonehenge would be tightly regulated. Finally, in 2001, thousands of visitors were allowed to participate in the "Stonehenge Managed Open Access Experiment." This was not a "free festival," but one with rules and more self-regulation among attendees. Music primarily consisted of all-night drumming and singing, accompanied by writhing dancers. The eighteen-hour event allowed people to watch the rising solstice sun fill the great chamber of stones with light.
Author and participant Andy Worthington described the event: "What I found humbling was the realization that, after nearly 4,500 years, the temple still fulfills its promise. Regardless of whether or not anybody is there to watch it, the midsummer sun still shines into the circle and horseshoe of vast standing stones as it did two hundred generations ago, renewing an otherwise long-forgotten relationship between humanity and nature."
Miraculously, considering the chaos surrounding Stonehenge, the missing four members of our group somehow found us that day or the next as we were walking down a combination of old roads and footpaths. Part of our route would incorporate the Pilgrim's Way, a centuries-old path to Canterbury used by Christian pilgrims in the Middle Ages. Early pilgrims, seeking to purify themselves and prove their worth, sometimes walked the trail barefoot or even naked, staying in abbeys, churches, and people's homes as the opportunity arose. We, however, planned to keep our shoes and clothes profanely on. The strain of carrying heavy backpacks was sacrifice enough.
Winchester, England, was the traditional beginning of the over one-hundred-mile pilgrimage to Canterbury. When we toured the gargantuan Winchester Cathedral there, it seemed more of a monument to man than to God. Countless stone statues and tablets honored bishops and other historic figures, including those who had crusaded to holy lands in the Middle East to kill non-Christians. It seemed clammy and dusty, and we were relieved to walk outside again into fresh air, with green grass beneath our feet. I felt a sudden gratitude in having the freedom to worship as I choose and not be tortured or killed for my beliefs.
At a nearby hostel, we met Susi, a friend of an elder we had met in Glastonbury prior to the walk. Susi had been instrumental in starting full-moon meditation groups in the area. "There is a hill nearby where we found an earthen maze, and we are reviving and nurturing the energy there," she said in a bubbly, beaming manner. She believed the hill was spiritually connected to other "energy centers" in England, such as the famous Tor in Glastonbury, thought to be part of the mystical Avalon.
Of the Pilgrim's Way, Susi commented, "Clairvoyant people can see a fine mist along the trail. It is called the dragon's breath."
In hiking along the ancient footpath the next day, the entire countryside resembled a dragon's breath of rain and mist. It was surprisingly cold, and Cyndi and I were fortunate to have purchased a wool blanket at a thrift store. We camped that night on the property of Anna and Ken Nash, who lived at an old rookery. To the English, a rookery is where rooks nest in mass numbers, a rook being a small dark bird. "There's a saying that, if the rooks leave a place, something bad will happen," said Anna. "But plenty of rooks are still around." She shared hot tea and sweet biscuits in the drizzling rain, while her puppy Winston presented us with rubber toys. Some walkers accepted her offer to go inside the house and watch English "telly" (television).
The Nashs were the first of many private landowners who allowed us to camp on their property. Our European pilgrimage was proving to be very different from the walk across the United States. Without a vehicle, there was no way to scout ahead for where to sleep; at the end of each day, when we grew weary, we simply searched for a place to camp wherever we happened to be. Local residents were extremely friendly and hospitable. We stayed in fields, sheds, and barns, depending on weather. Our hosts often provided hot tea, and one college headmaster picked up fish and chips for us on a cold rainy night. Most of the people we met were surprised to see Americans walking. We seemed to be dispelling the stereotypical image of arrogant, heavy-set American tourists who indiscriminately snap photographs.
The colorful Native American staff drew a great deal of interest. We dutifully shared the message it represented about the suffering of the native people in relation to the losses and abuse of their land, and we sometimes allowed a friendly person to carry or hold the staff, trusting our intuition about his or her appropriateness. We were learning that the staff had an uncanny ability to magnify what one was feeling in a way that affected the entire group. If someone felt centered, for instance, he or she would feel even more grounded and clear when carrying the staff, thus benefiting the rest of us. If one were off kilter, on the other hand, that feeling, too, would be amplified. Through personal experience, most of us realized that carrying the staff was a serious responsibility.
On a night when many of us slept in a hay barn, I slept with the staff at my head and dreamt of eagles - several species of eagles - circling and flying. At one point, I flew across the world as an eagle.
Hal, one of the walkers, had heard of a zoo nearby; they might house an eagle or two, he said. Perhaps we could get a feather for the staff. While the group continued down the trail, Hal and I stuck out our thumbs and quickly caught a ride to the zoo.
Upon arriving, we learned that the zoo harbored an African harpy eagle. We convinced the curator to open the cage for us to gather feathers off the floor. All were frayed and worn looking; Hal and I had trouble choosing the two best ones.
Once outside the cage, we gave our thanks to the eagle, who had been keenly watching us from a distance. Just as we were leaving, the bird flew to a perch directly in front of us, lifted a wing, and used its beak to pull out an absolutely perfect-looking white, gray, and black feather. The eagle held the feather perpendicularly in its mouth for a long moment while looking at us - and then dropped it!
It was an incredible moment. Never had I witnessed an animal that seemed so acutely aware of a spiritual need. Now the walk's staff would have a feather again, offered to us by this African harpy eagle - East and West joined together. Months later, when two walkers told this story to the Native American elder who had loaned us the staff, he simply laughed and nodded. Some types of cosmic magic are universal.
One night on Pilgrim's Way, we stayed in the wood shop of a cabinetmaker named Fred. Sharing hot tea with us while rain splattered on the wooden shake roof, Fred described the recent evolution of his trade. "When I was young, if you wanted to learn a trade, you apprenticed with someone and were taught kindness and how to deal with people as well as the technical aspects. Now, most young people go to a technical school, and they don't always learn the people skills."
Fred also cultivated trees, being a member of a tree conservation organization. Many of the trees, such as beeches and oaks, were centuries old. Harvesting was done selectively and with much care. No large swaths of trees were cut. Fred saw it as a tie-in to his craft, a way of giving back to the earth and to future woodworkers.
In camping beside a beautiful lake the next night, we learned that freshwater fishing is perhaps the most tightly regulated outdoor pursuit in England. "There's a club that owns the fishing rights," said a nearby resident. "If I registered my newborn son on their waiting list, he might get a chance to fish the lake by the time he's fifty. Fishing is very specialized here." Hunting, the man added, was mostly reserved for club members and noblemen as well, a situation that has persisted for centuries. No wonder the wide-open spaces and vast waters and resources of North America were so appealing to Europeans.
That evening, the headmaster of a nearby boarding school invited us to give a presentation about our walks. Rosie had brought a box of slides from the United States walk, and using a borrowed projector, she flashed photographs of North American canyons, mountains, deserts, and plains to a captivated audience of sixteen-year-old girls. They asked questions about our homeland, while we asked questions about theirs. It was a warm exchange.
Through all of our good times, there was an internal conflict over tent space. It seemed that one walker had promised to share a tent with another before the walk began; but then, unsure if that person was coming, he gave the spot in his two-person tent to someone else. When the first prospective tent-mate eventually showed up, she felt left out in the cold. No one else volunteered to share his or her tent space right away. "We talk of peace and human rights," the ousted walker complained, "but no one's willing to help someone with the basic need of shelter."
We resolved the conflict when another group member agreed to share tent space, albeit somewhat begrudgingly. Backpacking tents aren't known for their roominess.
Near Kemsing, we came upon ancient boulders placed in a circle atop an earthen mound. A sign said it was a communal grave from around 3,000 B.C. A small pile of rocks in the center was left open to the East, perhaps representing a gateway to the rising sun. I thought of Muskogee Creek Indians in my area who were participating in their annual summer Green Corn Ceremony, and I wondered what rituals early Europeans had held, perhaps at the very site we were visiting. I had a sudden feeling of déjà vu, as if I had been to that spot before. Perhaps it was an ingrained ancestral memory or a past life flashback. It was not the first time on the European walk that I had felt that way.
As a rare show of sunlight streaked through gaping holes in the clouds, we trudged up a hill to a massive twelfth-century stone priory in Aylesford, simply known as The Friars. The priory was a religious house for the Order of Carmelites dating back to the thirteenth century. A sister greeted us and we explained the nature of our walk; she touched the staff we carried and smiled sweetly. She gladly showed us to a third-story room that wrapped around an open area overlooking the library and dining room.
"This is where pilgrims have been staying for over seven hundred years," the sister said. "You can put your sleeping bags right alongside the balcony." Even though modern pilgrims visit the friary daily, most arrive by car or coach, and those who spend the night have more private quarters. We felt privileged at being allowed to stay where early walking pilgrims slept.
It was not unusual to see large stone churches, friaries, or abbeys along our route, but one such religious establishment just past Aylesford seemed out of place. It stood alone amidst fields and farms. A large village had once encircled it, but after the black plague during the Middle Ages had killed most of the townspeople, the surrounding houses were burned. Only the church remained.
The Canterbury Cathedral marked the end of the Pilgrim's Way, and we walked into the monolithic church just as a choral service was beginning, as if by design. With our somewhat ragtag clothes, we stood out, perhaps looking indeed like early pilgrims - with the exception of the naked ones. We sat quietly and listened to the sweet voices of young boys as their songs echoed through the chambers, followed by deeper male voices. It was an appropriate ending to our journey along the fabled trail, although our longer pilgrimage was still in its infancy. Many of us felt we had internalized the ideals of spiritual pilgrims. It was part of the power of our group, perhaps what separated us from the average sightseer. We would continue in that vein beyond England for the rest of our European journey.
England had been a good place to begin the walk because we knew the language. Given the many physical challenges of breaking in, we were relieved not to have the added stress of a language barrier. Now, however, we walked past dormant bunkers and pillboxes along the French/German border, having taken a train across a long stretch of French farm country that had few camping opportunities. In order to communicate, we supplemented our words with hand signals, pantomime, writing, and drawing.
"When I walked alone through Strasburg today," Hal said, returning to the group from a short side trip, "I felt I was watching a travelogue because I couldn't speak the language. It's important to connect with people more than superficially. I met a guy in a health food store who spoke English and talked with him for an hour! I realized how much we depend on each other for deep communication."
The fact that we were Americans walking long distances - not a common sight in Europe - opened many doors, just as it had in the United States. We were willing to experience the different European countries and cultures at a slow pace, a pace more attuned to people and families who worked in fields and orchards, who baked bread and managed small shops, and who walked or bicycled from place to place. We enjoyed the same scenery they did - the same sunrises and sunsets - and drew strength from places that held deep beauty.
In many ways, the biggest challenge of our journey was within our group. As had occurred on the United States walk, the long hours of walking and camping without creature comforts created conflicts and inner distress; one saw oneself clearer, in both good and bad aspects. This was especially true regarding relationships. Cyndi and I, for example, were working out issues with each other while also seeking to live in harmony with the group. It wasn't always easy, especially since we shared almost every moment together and our tent was seven feet long and five feet wide. When things got tough, I felt like running, but instead, I kept walking and talking. Many in our group shared the belief that you have to find your own healing and peace first, in order to effectively share it with others. As the Lakota prophet Black Elk said, "There can never be peace between nations until there is first known that true peace which, as I have often said, is within the souls of men."
On the eve of Cyndi's birthday, having just crossed into Germany, we separated from the group to find a hotel as a way to celebrate. We hitchhiked in the direction of a small town and were surprised when a late-model Mercedes Benz pulled over. Klaus, the driver, was a middle-aged German millionaire who owned a chain of food markets and a large hotel. "During the war, my father stashed a million dollars in a Swiss bank and helped to rebuild the German factories afterward," he said, explaining his initial source of wealth. Learning of Cyndi's birthday, he insisted on taking us to dinner.
"We're not exactly dressed for the occasion," I said. We each had one pair of pants and two shirts, and we hadn't seen a Laundromat in weeks. We often washed clothes in rivers or streams and hung them on trees or our packs to dry. The system wasn't completely effective.
"Oh, that doesn't matter," said Klaus, waving his hand.
The restaurant was situated in an old stone castle high atop a bluff along the Rhine River. Waiters in crisp tuxedoes took our orders and offered wine. Klaus selected an expensive bottle and recommended the trout. "Some of the wine here is one hundred dollars a liter," he said. "It is the finest in all of Europe. There is a wine university nearby." The night before, we had been camping along the Rhine and cooking a noodle concoction over our small stove; now we were dining on trout in an elegant restaurant high above the sparkling waters. The contrast was startling, and we were still wearing the same clothes!
Klaus lit a cigar and leaned back, seeming to enjoy our company. Most of his family had passed away, and so, despite his riches, he was rather lonely. We told him about the walk, and he relayed his opposition to the arms race and expounded upon mistakes made in Vietnam and Nicaragua. Politically, he seemed genuinely conscientious, and, for me, he broke the stereotype of wealthy people.
After dinner, Klaus arranged for us to stay at a pleasant family-run motel. Then we bid him goodbye, promising to write when we finished the walk.
Germany 's Black Forest was marked by highlands, fir trees, gurgling streams, and quaint villages. It was difficult to grasp the size of the forest until I realized that a week's time would pass before we traversed its width. We encountered numerous other hikers, but most were out for only a few hours. Many were elderly people who lived on nearby farms and in small towns; walking was a favorite pastime. I wondered how we appeared to them - being mostly young, American, and carrying heavy backpacks.
On July 4, our country's birthday, we hiked through an incredible river valley sheltered by huge spruce trees and open-faced cliffs. Numerous waterfalls sang their ever-present mantras. Falcons soared and landed in high treetops. I felt I could have been in any wild place in the world, the feelings of purity and inspiration were so like those I had experienced anywhere else. "This is the German equivalent of the Grand Canyon ," said one German day-hiker.
The next day, we felt our timing was perfect when we walked into Blumberg to find a free "Forest Festival" in progress that included live music and food. It reminded us of small-town festivals in the United States. We talked with several people who spoke English and met a retired American professor, Dr. James Paul Wesley, who was living there. He and his family invited us to breakfast in the morning.
Dr. Wesley had once worked in the Livermore Nuclear Laboratory before being fired for peace activism. He had written a paper in the early 1960s maintaining that there was no physical defense against nuclear war; bomb shelters would only be minimally effective in the long run, with the result being a near total annihilation of large populations. He was respected in the physics theory field and was also an accomplished artist - a good balance. We especially enjoyed talking with his two children, swapping English and German phrases and showing them where we have come from and where we were going on Hal's plastic blow-up earth globe.
Later that day, we reentered the Black Forest to a chorus of pattering rain. The woods took on darker hues. The farther one peered in, the gloomier it seemed. This was a fabled mythological landscape of werewolves, witches, and demons, but helpful dwarves were said to be trying to balance the scales. We sought the dwarves' help now. With such a steady, hard rain, we were becoming waterlogged.
Amazingly, in the hazy mist, we found an abandoned log cabin near the trail. The windows were long gone, but the roof was intact. And inside lay dry wood for a campfire beneath the porch overhang. The dwarves had come through! It was amazing how such basic comforts were sorely missed at times like these - fire, hot food, dry shelter, good company. The Black Forest suddenly seemed less spooky.
From the cabin, between rain showers, I was better able to observe how surrounding trees were of all ages, with occasional clumps of young trees filling the space of fallen giants. Sounds of songbirds and owls were prolific, making music from every direction. It was a scene that had changed little over time, and our small cabin with wood smoke billowing forth and clothes draped over beams to dry seemed to fit right in. It saddened me that acid rain was killing and damaging trees in the Black Forest. If this forest disappeared, what would be the totality of the loss?
In the days that followed, we hiked through rural German villages that the forest seemed to wrap around. Houses were often attached to barns, with horses sticking heads out of stalls, seeking attention. Chickens clucked about, and people waved and often asked in German what we were doing. Near Singer, one German man talked with us in English and then gave us a supply of k-rations from the German army. Military duty is mandatory for young men, although conscientious objectors can do hospital work or some other type of service. We met other army men wearing party hats and T-shirts that bore funny slogans as they were nearing the end of their term of duty.
Camping atop a hill above Singer, we had a full view of the immense Lake Constance and the distant sunset-hued peaks of Switzerland. It was an appropriate setting to reflect upon the halfway point of our walk and on the close camaraderie developing within our group, the result of sharing intense physical and emotional experiences. In my normal home life - if you can call my home life normal - I wouldn't have necessarily befriended all of these people. And yet, there I was, sharing meals, swims, mountain climbs, and campfires with them. The walk brought us together and expanded our horizons as to who our friends were and who could be our friends.
Through the walks, I was feeling my spiritual network expanding. Bear Heart had said he visualized rings of light around the world that were helping to heal the planet. Could the spiritual circles and positive thoughts of many people, including those on our walk, strengthen those rings?
A new walker joined us for a spell. Nilam was nineteen, four feet and ten inches tall, and spoke with a wonderful British accent. She had been raised as a Sikh in England, but because of the strict Sikh rules regarding women, she had left her family a year before. She was having a difficult time with her decision, and many walkers offered emotional support.
One issue we were working out was that of individual freedom versus the best interest of the group. Personal side trips would sometimes diminish the group numbers to about half, affecting our strength and cohesiveness. Another issue centered around one walker who had difficulty keeping up because her pack weighed more than anyone else's, sometimes exceeding sixty pounds. Yet, she had difficulty paring down her belongings. That left the group in a quandary: Should we wait for her at every turn, or simply agree to meet at a designated point at the end of the day? What if we weren't sure of our destination?
We discussed the issues as a group, and people offered give-and-take solutions. We tried to make decisions with truth and compassion, in what one walker described as "the two sides of love." It could be a difficult balance to achieve, and we were sometimes left wondering if our group process had a label. Were we a democracy, a socialist body, or a consensus body? At times, it felt more like an organism that was still evolving, stretching and contorting with each new stimulus and the comings and goings of different people. Did tribal people sometimes feel the same way?
A constant issue was that of personal space: where, how, and when? Do you lag behind the group while walking and so risk being lost? Do you take a couple of days off and try to find the group later? Or, do you gain some space by simply ignoring others? It was also difficult for people in relationships who wanted space as a couple. The dance of keeping in harmony with oneself, one's surroundings, the group, a lover, and the goals of the walk was a challenging and sometimes humorous learning process.
Camping by an Austrian lake, we concluded that unfortunately European drunks were little different from those in the United States. Both are obnoxious and loud. Our camp was visited by a group of young men riding motorcycles. For most of the night, they guzzled beer and other libations, yelled at us, sang off key, and scratched at tents seeking women for sex. Our peaceful requests for them to stop went unheeded, so I clutched my walking stick and a pocketknife for most of the night. In the end, the youth had been more like an annoying cloud of mosquitoes; they never threatened us in a violent way.
A welcome contrast was an Austrian highlander family who allowed us to stay in their yard. They lived simply and had several grazing animals and bountiful cherry trees. They offered us a rejuvenating drink for warm weather made from mineral water mixed with elderberry blossom juice. The family seemed attuned to their land; I think we all sensed it. As we basked in their sunny yard, we could glimpse the snow-capped peaks of the Alps. Many in the group wondered if they could make the upcoming climbs. Some had sore knees and ankles, and one person admitted to acrophobia. Plus, the one woman still carried the back-breaking pack. Most people hike the Alps from hut to hut wearing daypacks, not full backpacks. The heated huts provided food and shelter and were reasonably priced.
At the foot of the high Alps near Sontofen, Germany, we met a man named Hans who invited us to visit his small summer community of friends near the trail. Their camp was marked by a large garden, a Native American style teepee, and a wooden gypsy wagon. Called the Sonnen Garten, meaning " Sun Garden ," the community of fifteen or so people was inspired by the Findhorn community in Scotland .
Findhorn was begun in 1962 by Peter and Eileen Caddy and Dorothy Maclean. Following spiritual guidance received by Dorothy, who claimed to have communicated with plant spirits or devas, they planted a garden in barren, sandy soil and achieved amazing results. The size of their vegetables, herbs, and flowers became legendary and confounded horticultural experts. The publicity helped to attract other full-time residents, and a community press was begun. Today, Findhorn is a diverse community of several hundred people that serves as a major spiritual and holistic education center.
In touring the Sun Garden community, which was about an acre in size and laid out in a natural cross according to the cardinal direction points, we didn't see any forty-pound cabbages, but the mosaic of vegetables, flowers, and herbs was colorful and healthy-looking. "When a plant is taken, something is given in return, either compost or an offering," said Hans. "Something of each plant is left growing after harvest time, so its energy remains in the garden."
After being introduced to other community members, and playing tug-of-war with three young bright-eyed children, we gathered in their teepee for a sharing session with drumming and chanting. "This teepee makes us homesick," said Cyndi, "since we live in a teepee in Tallahassee ."
"But you are home," said Hans, smiling. In a way, he was right. Anywhere that you find love and support, it feels a bit like home. Perhaps it was what the Lakota prophet Black Elk meant when he said, "Anywhere is the center of the world."
At the Sun Garden community's insistence, we staked out our nomadic nylon tents in its uncultivated grassy spaces and stayed for two days. When our main body of walkers then left for the Alps, four members stayed behind, feeling they were not physically up for the challenge. They agreed to meet us in two weeks in Bolzano, Italy, at the Alps ' southern end. It was a difficult decision, but one made easier by the kind members of the German community. Despite the temporary split in our group, we left feeling more spiritually cohesive.
Climbing the Alps, we found the scenery increasingly spectacular. Raging rivers cut beneath vast glaciers. Snow-covered peaks stood motionless before racing clouds. We didn't exactly race up the mountain slopes, though; our eagle staff moved more like a turtle. Yet our spirits flew, especially at the summit of the first pass.
With each passing mile, the trail we followed, called the E-5, became more challenging. Stream crossings generally consisted of one or two logs spanning a raging torrent of water, and some had no logs at all, requiring one to leapfrog from boulder to boulder while shouldering a fully loaded backpack.
Descending one pass, Hal and I enjoyed skiing down snowfields in our boots. Cyndi, on the other hand, had begun aggravating an old knee injury. After a few days of Alps hiking, with her knee increasingly sore, Cyndi and I returned to "Little Findhorn," our other name for the Sun Garden. It was a sweet reunion, and we enjoyed learning more about the community's lifestyle and gardening methods.
Community members would gather around seven o'clock each morning for a meditation session in the teepee. Similar sessions occurred at different times during the day and night, sometimes spontaneously and often in the garden. Meals were usually communal, with no particular order as to who cooked or cleaned. The various duties were considered honors, shared equally by both men and women - the realization of a Utopian dream, indeed. Fresh water was drawn from a well with a hand pump. A giant wooden barrel served as a community bathtub. The garden was watered with hand sprinklers during dry periods. The outhouse was in the trees and relocated when necessary. The only modern appliance was a small gas stove in a cook shed. Hot water for cleaning or showering was achieved by filling a black bucket and hose on the cook-shed roof and waiting for the sun to do its job. During cloudy weather, a big black kettle was heated over a fire. A nearby cold creek served as a refrigerator.
The main effort it took to stay in the community was to be ourselves and allow our loving, considerate, and spiritual natures to blossom. Staying there touched something deep inside, something old, and yet it filled us with hope for the future. We felt free of the material, societal, and religious hang-ups and addictions that often cause confusion. The garden was where we could sort out and filter; we could deprogram the Western industrial dream of constant material acquisition and visualize long-term alternatives.
When Debbie, one of our walkers, became ill for several days, I understood the community's depth of compassion and became aware of their network of local friends. Many unfamiliar faces came to visit the "sick American" to offer remedies and advice. A candle was lit every night for Debbie in the teepee where she slept. When she recovered, a genuine feeling of joy pervaded the camp, as if a drooping plant had come back to life. The caring attitude touched us.
In a spirit of appreciation for these generous people, I built a simple sweat lodge out of saplings and branches. I thought the symbolism of the sweat lodge - the womb of Mother Earth - would be well received. Our first sweat was filled with prayers and songs in many languages. Besides tobacco, sage, and cedar, the Germans sprinkled kernels of wheat on the hot rocks as offerings of thanksgiving in the sweat, wheat having long been used for that purpose in the region.
In many ways, the community and the communal sweat lodge experience represented a nurturing complement to being alone in the wilderness, as I had been when I hiked the Appalachian Trail. We hunted, roamed, marveled, gathered herbs and plants, and often tended gardens. We would pause in an untrammeled forest grove or stream only for a little while, mostly to seek spiritual direction as to how we could best help the people of the community. The garden and day-to-day living required our greatest attention, and this attention was in tune to the natural elements and rhythms. We were alive in instinctual and communal ways, and we were also closer to one of life's greatest mysteries - mortality. Where else but in a garden and in observing nature can you learn more about the cycle of life and death?
We also came to know rebirth. When strawberries are picked and then covered over in winter with mulch and snow, time-tested knowledge tells us that they will sprout again in the spring. Apply that knowledge to our collective, earth-oriented, family nature that seems buried under buildings and social ills, and there emerges hope for humanity and the rest of life that shares this planet.
Perhaps the Sun Garden community drew us closest to our ancient European roots. Far from being a pre-industrial enclave of ruins, though, it was a contemporary community of loving people who focused on communal sharing, a belief in a Higher Power, and harmony with the earth and all its life forms. The knowledge of its existence helped us move forward on the walk.
With Cyndi's knee rested, she and I rejoined the walkers in Bolzano, Italy, just below the Austrian border, along with others. It seemed miraculous, through notes left at train stations and American Express offices, how separated walkers could easily find the group again.
While we had been away, the walkers had had many adventures - setting up camp in a raging thunderstorm, walking along a mountain glacier for several miles, and ever more challenging climbs. In the evening, we ventured out of our Bolzano hostel and tried out a new drum and hand shakers the Sun Garden community had given us. We soon had an audience of children, which inspired us to reach deeper into our collective songbook. We found singing to be a wonderful way to express love.
Unable to reach all the places we wanted to see in Italy by foot, we took trains to select cities such as Venice and Florence. In Verona, a small group of us walked off the beaten path to find a quaint African museum. A Catholic nun working there talked with us for a long while about her African experiences. "The Africans have so much to share with us," she said. "For example, I found that they spend a lot of time with their greetings to establish a good rapport with you before talking about a problem or issue. Hospitality is sacred to them. We are often in such a hurry."
We laughed as, a moment later, a priest and another man suddenly rushed past us, barely saying hello. The sister gave us a "see-what-I-mean" expression.
A Sudan native politely greeted us and told us more about his people. He showed us a large hollow wooden drum. "This is used to send messages," he explained in a soft-spoken voice. "On a quiet night, one can hear it from thirty kilometers away!"
The man let us try different types of drums, along with an African thumb harp. "This is used by many when walking to help the kilometers go by," he said, playing the harp. I recalled finding the magic in just such a harp on the United States walk.
All through the Verona valley were old buildings, ornamental cedars, and ruins of castles and other dwellings. I was aware of the age of the place, in a way similar to the feelings I had had in the Anasazi ruins of the American Southwest. The Italian land is filled with history, vision, and creativity. It is easy to breathe in the sense of life, inspiration, and deep-set roots.
Florence seemed to ooze with creative expression. Statues of mythological figures lined plazas and inside churches. Ceilings exploded with gold and biblical scenes. And, of course, there was Michelangelo's David, a giant in marble standing poised to kill a Goliath. The veins, navel, and face - everything spoke of mastery. The artistry of the work made us feel larger than life.
Most of the paintings were filled with angels and spirits that seemed to reach heavenward. When we gazed upon them they stirred us to look inside, not only because of the images, but because they were expressions of the God self, the creative self.
Upon the conclusion of our big-city tourist blitz, we decided to walk from Florence to Assisi, the home of St. Francis. Many of us identified with the simple, nature-loving ways of St. Francis and felt that walking that stretch was an appropriate way to acknowledge him and to better understand his message.
After the first few miles, we sat on a riverbank, waiting out the heat. Across the river in the hills, tall spires of ornamental cedars were interspersed among grapevines We felt ready to see the Italy not often visited by tourists and to let nature show us her ever-changing masterpieces again on 360-degree easels. The natural world inspires so many artists that it seemed strange for their work to be so often displayed in bustling cities, although perhaps that is where they are needed most. In nature is where the true Artist speaks most clearly. On the riverbank, I glimpsed the timelessness of the moment. I could visualize Roman carts rumbling down the ancient road as trees cast their shimmering reflections upon the water.
The next day, the moments did not feel so glorious in walking uphill in blistering heat along a roadside, the only breeze occurring when cars or trucks blew past. I felt as if I was purifying in a sweat lodge, but wondered why I was there. The temperature exceeded one hundred degrees, the climate resembling the dry Southwest of the United States. Taking a break under a shade tree, however, was almost like jumping into a cold river. From seemingly nowhere would come soothing, natural puffs of air. They could completely alter one's moods, which, while backpacking, I noticed can swing to extremes. Out of necessity, due to the heat, we began each walking day before dawn.
During one ten-mile morning walk, we entered a tiny village of tan-colored stone buildings; no cars were present. It reminded me of centuries-old Hopi villages. The town's narrow roads were dirt, and there was the strong odor of straw and animals. Gardens and grape vines grew between buildings. Beneath a stone archway, we asked a young boy if there was a store in town. We said simple Italian words, but he still didn't understand. He only looked at us as if we were from another world, and, in a sense, we were. We left feeling a bit mystified, but we also felt a strange kind of purity in the village, as if we had visited a town from long ago.
I had a strong feeling that St. Francis had roamed through these same villages and hills on foot. He and his order had very little materially and regarded all of creation as their relatives - God was in every person and in every place and thing. To the many earth and tribal peoples of the world, it wasn't a unique way of life; but to the Catholic Church, St. Francis's philosophy had been extremely threatening. Affluent young people had left lives of promise and wealth to wander with a lunatic who called plants, animals, and rocks his brothers and sisters! That the pope ultimately sanctified the Franciscan Order was nothing short of miraculous. It showed that, under the right circumstances, revolutionary ideas and lifestyles could be tolerated and even supported by those in power.
We camped that evening on a hill overlooking the old village, after receiving permission from caretakers of an adjacent school for emotionally disturbed young adults. We had difficulty distinguishing the staff members from the patients. Nevertheless, we accepted the invitation to join them for a hearty spaghetti lunch, served up to the sound of the Rolling Stones. What other unexpected surprises awaited us?
While walking, we enjoyed seeing fields of sunflowers. The flower heads followed the sun's movements like little faces. Alongside one farm field, a shirtless man picking melons called us over to him. Given the language barrier, we communicated with him the best we could, and he gave us a golden cantaloupe. Later, we helped a Frenchman push his stalled car off the road. It felt good to be of service, even in just a little way, after people had given us so much. While we were walking along the road, drivers of cars and vans would often stop and offer us rides, even though we couldn't all have fit in their vehicles. "Caldo, caldo!" they would call, meaning, "[It's] hot, hot!"
Dining in one small town, we ordered a pizza and tried in our best broken Italian to relay to the owner that we didn't want meat, as many in the group were vegetarian. The pizza came smothered with ham, along with vegetables. The way the owner smiled when she served it, I gathered that she thought we couldn't afford the meat and that this was a gift. Many of us smiled gratefully in return and ate our first red meat in a long while.
In many rural towns, we enjoyed the attention we received. For example, in one place, Hal was sharing photos of his mother and family with an elderly woman, while Rosie and Mikel handed out copies of our walk mission statement, translated into Italian, to some older men. At the same time, Mindi was showing a small group our route from the Walk for the Earth across the United States that was printed on the back of my T-shirt; and Susi was trying to convey the meaning of the Native American staff to an inquisitive fellow.
As we continued through the town, a woman leaned out of a balcony window and pointed to a church across the street. She reverently folded her hands together in prayer, indicating that she would pray for us. A man gave Mikel a cold drink. These spontaneous interactions all occurred within a few minutes; they were the types of connections one rarely makes in crowded tourist attractions and so part of the beauty of traveling off the beaten path. We believed that the positive feelings were shared by all involved - townspeople and walkers alike.
In Arrezo, near the town of Assisi, Cyndi and I treated ourselves to a penzionne, an Italian hotel, and enjoyed a relaxing evening in this old city. The next morning, we intuitively felt we had conceived a child. Fortunately, we were nearing the end of our journey, so Cyndi would not have to endure much morning sickness while living from a backpack.
Over the next few days, we followed a rhythm of early starts and long afternoon breaks, often by a river. And every night we gazed upon a wilderness of stars, some of the same stars that aborigines, Africans, and people in the United States gazed upon. It helped us feel connected.
Eventually, and in blazing heat, we walked up a long hill to the ancient city of Assisi. We were greeted by smoky tourist buses, a busy parking lot, and souvenir stands selling toy crossbows and plastic St. Francis figurines. Restaurants featured "American" food such as hamburgers, French fries, and soft drinks.
"St. Francis would roll over," I muttered. But Cyndi made a good point. "People are coming here for some reason, so despite all this tourism, they may be getting spiritual meaning out of it."
We stayed at a campground in the beautiful hills St. Francis loved. Before sunrise, a few of us hiked a steep two miles to the saint's forest retreat, the Eremo delle Carceri. We arrived before the crowds and explored the small stone grotto where he had often stayed. Feelings of peace and love pervaded the place. Doves were flitting and calling from all directions. "I haven't seen this many creatures moving about on the whole walk," said Hal. We also found another companion - a small black dog who followed us all of the way from the campground. It was as if he knew that St. Francis respected animals. We sat and meditated for a spell, while the affectionate dog crawled into different laps.
On our way out of the grotto, we met friendly monks and priests. One priest, however, swatted the dog harshly with the rope on his robe. The animal wasn't supposed to be there, he declared, even though no signs were posted. I surmised, to the contrary, that the dog was indeed supposed to be there - precisely in order to test that priest. St. Francis would have simply loved the mutt, as some of the monks did.
Later, Rosie asked me a curious question: "How can you identify with a Christian religious figure, since you don't profess to be a Christian?"
"St. Francis has an important message for the world, and his example is still inspiring," I answered. "Because he happened to be born in his particular culture and of his particular faith doesn't prevent me from learning from him. He was a revolutionary in his church and time."
From Assisi, we caught a train to Ancona and hopped on a ferry for Greece for the walk's last leg. The trip across the Adriatic Sea was a journey in itself. Amid the many passengers, bars, restaurants, and discos on the boat, I could still gaze into the blue void ahead and feel the pulse of the sea. Other members of the group bore a wind-blown, dreamy-eyed look.
Continuing our walk northeast of Patras, we encountered an inspiring example of peace in action in the form of several Germans who were helping the residents of a small Greek village with odd jobs. During World War II, Nazi soldiers had destroyed the town and killed most of the men. This German peace group, since the 1950s, had been trying to heal some of those wounds. It reminded me of our focus on Native American rights during the United States walk - mass karmic debts being paid through loving action.
We camped high on a hill overlooking the Corinthian Gulf. The waxing moon peered at us along with countless stars. This was the land of the Greek gods and myths, of great civilizations that have come and gone. What could we learn from those early people? How can we make better choices so we don't meet the same fate?
Along the coastal highway, the natural beauty was marred by heaps of trash. Household garbage, mounds of smashed beer bottles, and other assorted litter were strewn everywhere. We had noticed a litter problem in Italy, but this was worse. We even watched a man step out of a car, smiling and waving, and then dump bags of trash along the road. I assumed it was because there was not a reliable solid waste pickup service available. If the Garden of Eden existed today - and it seemingly did in some places - it would surely be strewn with empty beer bottles.
On a clear morning in Delphi, amidst ruins of Athena's temple, our group gathered in a circle for the last time. A few tourists mingled about, but basically we were alone with the stone columns and nearby ornamental cedars and olive trees. Given the richness of the mythology about the place, it seemed an appropriate setting for our walk's end. A Greek tale describes how Zeus sent an eagle to the east and another to the west, and they met in Delphi. The images in the tale resonated with our staff - created by North American Native Americans but adorned with a wing feather from an African Harpy eagle.
The city was also the site of the famous Delphic oracle. Considered to be the center of the earth, the oracle was the most important shrine in ancient Greece. From about 1400 B.C. to A.D. 381, different women there had filled the role of the Pythia, a medium through which the god Apollo allegedly spoke. The Pythia would first bathe in a sacred spring and breathe in intoxicating vapors arising from the earth. Then, after a goat was sacrificed, she would mount a tripod and give seekers the benefit of her prophesies. Empires would not declare war, and farmers would not plant crops, until the Pythia's advice had been sought.
Since in the early 1900s, modern scientists have debunked the traditional explanation that mystical vapors contributed to the Pythia's prophetic powers. But a more recent study reported in Geology magazine in 2001 found two faults intersecting directly below the Temple of Apollo, along with evidence of psychotropic gases. The early Greeks, like native people in North and South America, had obviously made use of certain plants that aided in spiritual insight. It was interesting to ponder if they had also used these gases, and if the gases had truly helped the Pythia see into the future.
Walking up the long hill to Delphi just hours before, we had attributed any light-headedness we felt to a lovely full moon, but who knows? Mystical vapors could have infiltrated our lungs, too. Anything seemed possible. We sat on dry, reddish earth, ants crawling, as various walkers lit candles in the center of our circle. One by one, we shared lessons learned, experiences gained, and hopes for the future. People presented small gifts to one another and to the earth - watercolors painted along the way and special rocks from England, the Black Forest, and the Alps. I glanced around the group. The faces I saw were leaner, glowing, and more confident than during the first days in England. Each person had filled some special niche and provided lessons for us all. The circle felt strong.
Not feeling a need for the Pythia's help, I announced plans for a Trail of Tears walk the following year, wanting to connect directly with Native American people again. I felt certain the walk would happen, it having come to me in a vision on the trek across the United States .
We closed the circle with songs, prayers, and hugs. Then we climbed a small hill, placed the staff's eagle feather in the ground, and gave our thanks for its assistance, sprinkling tobacco. Even as we did so, for the first time in Delphi that summer it began to rain. The shower was brief, but it affirmed to us once again that a Higher Power was in charge.
We realized that the European journey was distinctly different from the United States walk in terms of numbers, outreach, and publicity. We were new to the various countries and their respective languages, and the absence of a support vehicle for advance work had kept our focus more on daily happenings. The walk had resembled a backpacking journey of spiritual seekers more than it had a mission to promote specific causes. I recognized, however, that not all walks must be altruistic endeavors aimed at the masses. Perhaps our own spiritual growth and heartfelt connections with a few kind souls along the way had been enough.