Jim Ross ~ Escaping into Pilgrimage

Nonfiction
For over a thou­sand years, peo­ple walked The Way of Saint James toward Santiago, stop­ping en route at oth­er sacred places.  By the mid-20th cen­tu­ry, pil­grim traf­fic slowed down to a trick­le.  Roughly fifty years ago it began boom­ing back, as part of a glob­al uptick in pil­grim­age in sev­er­al faith tra­di­tions.

Although the Way began as a reli­gious pil­grim­age, and con­tin­ues to be a means of spir­i­tu­al revi­tal­iza­tion and restored per­spec­tive, for many it has become any of sev­er­al oth­er things: an act of eco­tourism in com­mu­nion with nature; a com­pet­i­tive ath­let­ic event; and/or a means of gath­er­ing knowl­edge about the social, cul­tur­al, reli­gious and artis­tic sig­nif­i­cance of the vil­lages through which they pass.  And while a reli­gious net­work of inns exists to sup­port pil­grims, these accept any­one arriv­ing on foot.  Some even accept those arriv­ing with don­keys.

At a time when my anx­i­ety was going through the roof—I couldn’t eat, sleep, breathe—I heard about The Way from a friend. She told me her hus­band had been try­ing to con­vince her to go for years and she could no longer say no.  “We went for three weeks. Next sum­mer we’ll pick up where we left off.  I can’t imag­ine a bet­ter way to leave every­thing behind.”

Whether or not pil­grims have reli­gious moti­va­tions, they near­ly always seek heal­ing. That often includes shed­ding or learn­ing how to bet­ter man­age unfath­omable lev­els of anx­i­ety.

People start walk­ing on The Way from all over Europe. In Germany, peo­ple walk on Jakobsweg. In France, it’s le chemin St. Jacques. Four paths of le chemin cut across France.  No mat­ter where you are, even if you nev­er reach Santiago—purportedly, where the remains of the asos­tle St. James the Greater are buried—you’re on The Way.

I took the green­est and most wide­ly walked route, the GR65, also known as the via podi­en­sis, the route from Le Puy, which receives pil­grims from Geneva to the east. I viewed walk­ing on The Way as an act of pil­grim­age even though I had no imme­di­ate plans to reach Santiago. Many pil­grims do like my friends: throw them­selves into walk­ing a stretch, return to their lives, pick up next time where they left off, always focus­ing on The Way, hop­ing to some­day reach Santiago.

My anx­i­ety about the jour­ney shot up after friends I vis­it­ed in the midi-Pyrenees—not far from the GR65—insisted my walk­ing The Way was impru­dent: first, they said, I hadn’t pre­pared phys­i­cal­ly; sec­ond, my French was inad­e­quate; third, I had no lodg­ing reser­va­tions. I blew off the first: I’d been train­ing all my life. I refut­ed the sec­ond: English is the EU’s com­mon lan­guage and any two peo­ple who want to com­mu­ni­cate can get around lan­guage dif­fer­ences. On reser­va­tions, I said I couldn’t pre­dict how far I’d want or be able to walk from day to day. Millions before me made no reser­va­tions and accept­ed “come what may.” My friends insist­ed on mak­ing reser­va­tions at the Monastery, even though it was sev­er­al days in, so I had to arrive on a spe­cif­ic date.  The also equipped me with dried blue­ber­ries and hard Comte cheese to keep me “from the door of star­va­tion,” and saw me off.

After I refut­ed my friends’ three rea­sons why I shouldn’t go, I kept won­der­ing, were they right?  Would there be room at the inn? Or, for that mat­ter, would I even be able to find an inn when day was done?  Would I be able to find my way? Would I go with­out food and, more impor­tant, would I be able to find potable water?  Were the guide­books that warned of vicious dogs being over­ly dra­mat­ic?  Would I hold up walk­ing 15 or more miles per day when I’m accus­tomed to doing only five?

I had to stop ask­ing ques­tions.  I was walk­ing to restore bal­ance, not by rumi­nat­ing, not by over-plan­ning, but by sur­ren­der­ing to The Way itself and let­ting it work its won­ders. The moment my feet touched down, I felt lighter, freer.  I took in a gen­tle deep breath and let it go, slow­ly. It was an unusu­al­ly warm October.

An invit­ing met­al sculp­ture of St. Jacques at the Church of Saint-Pierre de Bessuéjouls

The Benefits of Getting Lost

I don’t know what I was expecting—perhaps the yel­low brick road—but once I got into a rhythm, it wasn’t read­i­ly appar­ent how to keep from stray­ing.  I knew that a white-over-red stripe paint­ed on a tree, rock, fence, or the broad side of a barn meant, “Go this way.”  It took me far too long to fig­ure out that a red-and-white X means “Not this way” and a hooked white-over-red sym­bol means turn right or left depend­ing on a hook’s direc­tion.

There were many times when a “Go this way” sym­bol wasn’t read­i­ly vis­i­ble or sug­gest­ed two or more dif­fer­ent cours­es of action.  The solu­tion was edu­cat­ing intu­ition through tri­al and error.  In the mean­time, my uncer­tain­ty, caused some anx­i­ety, espe­cial­ly as a day’s end approached, and I still need­ed to find din­ner and a bed. Other pil­grims edu­cat­ed me too but, because it was October, traf­fic was light, and I often went hours with­out see­ing a soul.

Even though get­ting lost means los­ing time and wast­ing foot­steps rel­a­tive to a goal, and the prospect of going off course caus­es anx­i­ety, get­ting lost also has ben­e­fits.  When I trav­el to a new city, I usu­al­ly get myself lost by design, claim­ing there’s no bet­ter way to become famil­iar with a new place.  After going miles out of my way a few times, I was forced to admit to myself that this didn’t apply to the GR65 because it was far more expan­sive than any city.

Still, get­ting lost leads to dis­cov­er­ies one oth­er­wise might not have made.  One day, long before I knew I was lost, I saw my first por­cu­pine in the wild.  A cou­ple of lost miles lat­er, I came upon the 11th cen­tu­ry chapel of St. Hiliarian, named after a local 8th cen­tu­ry saint. A ceme­tery abutted the chapel. Both were emp­ty except for a woman in her 30s who was med­i­ta­tive­ly re-arrang­ing flow­ers over and around a recent­ly-dis­turbed, above-ground tomb.

Had I not got­ten lost, I wouldn’t have come upon the mag­nif­i­cent part­ly Romanesque, part­ly Gothic chapel or learned that one of the best places to go when in need of safe drink­ing water (eau potable) is a ceme­tery abut­ting a church. Their water spig­ots were often worth the trip. One church’s water spig­ot, acces­si­ble to pil­grims with­out enter­ing the ceme­tery yard, was an ornate dragon’s head and the water shoot­ing from the dragon’s mouth was its fire.

The carv­ings came as part of an unex­pect­ed gift because I strayed from the path.

Where Will I Stay Tonight?

The prospect of being oblig­ed to fol­low­ing a pre-deter­mined itin­er­ary caused me anx­i­ety. I resist­ed cre­at­ing even a secret one.  It threat­ened the sense of mys­tery.  It vio­lat­ed the notion I was sur­ren­der­ing to The Way.  From a prac­ti­cal per­spec­tive, being unable to pre­dict how far I might want or be able to walk each day, I was uncom­fort­able mak­ing reser­va­tions. I could have called ahead and made same-day reser­va­tions for the town I planned to reach that night. However, I insist­ed that for over a thou­sand years pil­grims had no way of doing this and took their chances. The excep­tion: those pos­sessed of over­ween­ing wealth, who sent ahead couri­ers.  Why should I make reser­va­tions mere­ly because I could?  And since it was October, and the pil­grim traf­fic was slow, I’d have lit­tle com­pe­ti­tion in find­ing a bed.

One ear­ly day, as the sun crest­ed toward the hori­zon, I began doubt­ing I’d arrive before dark at the con­vent where I planned to spend the night. I came upon an old, stone-and-mason­ry shepherd’s shel­ter, evi­dent­ly-aban­doned. It had a dirt floor. A con­crete bench had a rus­tic wood-slat top, which at first looked like a tol­er­a­ble bed. I had a space blan­ket, but no sleep­ing bag.  Then it struck me, the bench was hab­it­able for vipers, who’ll come out to play after dark. I re-joined the lin­ger­ing sun­light. After dark, a 500-year-old nun answered the con­vent door. She might have been try­ing to con­vey that the Gite d’Etapes for pil­grims was fur­ther down the road. I couldn’t under­stand her. I joined a mul­ti-course din­ner of pil­grim­age vol­un­teers, after which I was escort­ed up to my 4th floor, solo, three-per­son bed­room.

While cor­rect about pil­grim traf­fic being light, I didn’t take into account that by mid-October most Gites close for the win­ter, great­ly restrict­ing options, espe­cial­ly for late arrivals.

At first glance this stone shepherd’s shel­ter looked like a safe place to spend the night.

Dormitory Life

I hadn’t slept in a dor­mi­to­ry-style room since I was 17.  It wasn’t so much that I mind­ed shar­ing a mul­ti-bed­ded room with oth­ers, but that oth­ers might mind shar­ing with me.  I’m often rest­less dur­ing the night, pro­duce sound effects (my nose, thank you), and can be back and forth to the bath­room.  While it was rea­son­able to think I would be dog-tired and sleep hard, the oppo­site was equal­ly like­ly: I would be sore and unable to get com­fort­able on an unfa­mil­iar bed, in unfa­mil­iar sur­round­ings.  And it was true that I went out like a light, but only for a cou­ple of hours. Then the rest­less­ness, sound effects, and up-and-down behav­ior began.  Dorm life wasn’t for me.  Was it an essen­tial part of the expe­ri­ence?  No, because we each cre­ate our own rules.  Is it essen­tial to spend a night cocooned in bub­ble wrap on the floor of a priest’s house? No, but when all the Gites in a town had closed for the sea­son, a priest took me in, and that’s what he offered as a bed. I had the kitchen floor with adjoin­ing bath all to myself.

I did try pil­grimag­ing dor­mi­to­ry-style. After exper­i­ment­ing, I made a con­scious deci­sion to ask if I had the option of pay­ing extra for a pri­vate or dou­ble room.  But even when a Gite had them, they usu­al­ly made just so many pri­vate or dou­ble rooms avail­able.  If I could get some rest­less sleep on the priest’s floor cocooned in bub­ble wrap with my hip bones grind­ing into the linoleum, you’d think I could sleep in a bed­room with six oth­er pil­grims of var­i­ous ages and gen­ders. The biggest prob­lem with dorm rooms was that they weren’t designed to allow mul­ti­ple peo­ple to charge cell phones and oth­er elec­tron­ic devices simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. Sometimes ear­ly arrivals hogged the out­lets.  I opt­ed out of com­pet­ing and typ­i­cal­ly charged my phone and/or cam­era bat­ter­ies the next morn­ing, while every­one else was prepar­ing to hit the road.

 This dor­mi­to­ry-style room served as a dou­ble because only one oth­er pil­grim sought lodg­ing.

Keeping Away from Starvation’s Door

I knew I had my dried blue­ber­ries and Comte cheese to nib­ble on dur­ing the day. I wasn’t accus­tomed to eat­ing lunch so I was sat­is­fied with the prospect that Gites would pro­vide ample break­fasts and din­ners. Still, could I be sure? What if I arrived long after din­ner? What if I had to get off ear­ly?  The last ques­tion was pure­ly the­o­ret­i­cal because I knew it would nev­er hap­pen.

Turned out there was no rea­son for con­cern. Most Gites served mul­ti-course din­ners with freely-flow­ing wine, either as part of the cost of lodg­ing, or for a nom­i­nal fee.  At many Gites, pay­ments for lodg­ing and meals were vol­un­tary offer­ings.  Breakfasts var­ied wide­ly from sim­ple bread, cof­fee, and fruit, to more elab­o­rate meals includ­ing cheeses and meats.  Soft cheese, which looks like yogurt, was my big dis­cov­ery.  Many served cof­fee in bowls, fol­low­ing Aveyronnaisecustom.  On one occa­sion when the priest took me in at 10:30 p.m., he gave me a sand­wich with some­thing to wash it down.  I quick­ly dis­pensed with any notion I would starve.

Where Gites left off, peo­ple liv­ing along the pil­grim­age route picked up.  Many left out drinks (water or tea) or fruit (apples, pears, plums) for pil­grims. The fam­i­ly that left out a bas­ket of quince must have laughed at my attempt to bite through its thick, fur­ry skin.  Nearly any­one in France whom I told about it laughed uncon­trol­lably while repeat­ing, “You have to cook it.”

Families along the pil­grim­age route some­times left out fruit or drink for pass­ing pil­grims.

Staying Hydrated

Staying hydrat­ed is far more impor­tant than con­stant­ly feed­ing one’s mouth.  Other than nib­bling on berries or sam­pling fall­en fruit, I gave lit­tle thought to food dur­ing the day. However, to avoid feel­ing weighed down, I car­ried rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle water. Years ago, as a long-dis­tance run­ner, I even enjoyed the high asso­ci­at­ed with dehy­dra­tion, but I had no inter­est in test­ing the lim­its of my abil­i­ty to tol­er­ate dehy­dra­tion dur­ing my pil­grim­age.  It was help­ful in terms of main­tain­ing hydra­tion that it was easy to pick up recent­ly-fall­en fruit.

It’s prob­a­bly fair to say I effec­tive­ly ran out of water dai­ly. “Effectively” means I kept a reserve of a few sips that I almost nev­er touched.  I was con­stant­ly look­ing for “eau potable” signs. If there was no sign, I wouldn’t make assump­tions about pota­bil­i­ty unless from a water foun­tain intend­ed for human con­sump­tion.  There were many times I found water and want­ed to drink, but absent a sign vouch­ing for its pota­bil­i­ty, I passed.

The prospect of run­ning out of water added to anx­i­ety relat­ed to reach­ing the next Gite before night­fall, in time for din­ner. It was iron­ic that ceme­ter­ies attached old pil­grim­age church­es became my most reli­able water source, because water rep­re­sents life.

Old church­es often offer potable water at the inner or out­er walls of ceme­tery yards.

Keeping One’s Footing

Terrain varies great­ly and can change dra­mat­i­cal­ly on the same day. The route I walked rolls through the midi-Pyrenees, but major towns are near­ly always built on rivers, and require steep descents on arrival and an even steep­er ascents at depar­ture.  I didn’t know what quite to expect. My friend who had gone with her hus­band the pre­vi­ous sum­mer told me that one day the ter­rain was so rocky they caught a cab past that stretch. My rough­est day I couldn’t have antic­i­pat­ed. In my years long past as a long dis­tance run­ner, I loved run­ning hills, but wasn’t a fan of long, twist­ing down­hills.  One stretch required going down­hill for two hours over rocks used to fill in a path, which rains had turned into a suc­ces­sion of ravines.  Using the walk­ing sticks uncon­scious­ly to make adjust­ments, I sat­is­fac­to­ri­ly adapt­ed to the role of arthrit­ic moun­tain goat.  Some days, stretch­es of trail looked like stones craft­ed and placed by a per­for­mance artist to remind us that this wasn’t sup­posed to be easy.

While the typ­i­cal stretch of path was rel­a­tive­ly flat and not too rocky, there were chestnuts—not horse chest­nuts, but the kind peo­ple eat—strewn near­ly every­where. One day, I saw two old men fill­ing giant bas­kets with chest­nuts, then load­ing them onto a truck.  And two pil­grims I met emp­tied their back­packs at the end of their jour­ney, mailed their cloth­ing and oth­er pos­ses­sions home to Provence, and re-filled their back­packs their pre­cious chest­nut car­go.

Even while on a rel­a­tive­ly flat sur­face, walk­ing on the trail felt more like a climb or a dance.

In October, chest­nuts lit­tered the trail, with this year’s join­ing rem­nants from pri­or years.

Lions and Tigers and Bears

At least three pil­grim­age guides spoke to the risks of con­fronting angry dogs along The Way, not­ing that, even if walk­ing sticks aren’t need­ed for mobil­i­ty, they come in handy in fend­ing off dogs.  I didn’t wor­ry because as a sum­mer postal car­ri­er and decen­ni­al cen­sus tak­er, I learned long ago how to get along with dogs.  I was more con­cerned about fer­al cats.  Walking through woods near Mt. Tremblant three years ear­li­er, I came upon signs warn­ing me to beware of lynx and to stay on asphalt path­ways to low­er my risk of encoun­ter­ing them. I was hop­ing that few wild cats inhab­it­ed these Aveyronnaise hills. My friends joked I would be far more like­ly to encounter wild boar.  I joked back, “Have no fear, I have expe­ri­ence with bores.”

Cows are every­where through­out the Aveyron. Most wear impres­sive horns that cause naïve cow-gaz­ers to believe they’re bulls.  Au con­traire! They’re most­ly gen­tle crea­tures that cre­ate an almost idyl­lic-look­ing land­scape, espe­cial­ly when wear­ing melod­ic bells and crowns made of wild flow­ers.  However, they’re not always mild tem­pered, as I learned the hard way.

I was for­tu­nate that hours before I encoun­tered an intem­per­ate cow I made the acquain­tance of a kind-look­ing German shep­herd named Zita.  She led me up a long hill to the chapel of St. Roch, the patron saint of dogs and dog lovers, and led me inside. Sitting in the third pew, she seemed to med­i­tate.  Afterward, I shared some Comte and blue­ber­ries with her. I tried say­ing good­bye, but she wasn’t ready to part.  Over the course of eleven hours, she shield­ed me from oncom­ing traf­fic, caused a charg­ing cow to run off, and guid­ed me through a dark for­est.  I hat­ed part­ing with Zita, but that was a con­di­tion of the priest’s tak­ing me in for the night.

Maybe the brown-and-white mot­tled cow was just fussy.  Maybe she got upset when I took her pic­ture with­out per­mis­sion.  My friends near­by warned me: “Barbed wire won’t stop a charg­ing cow.” As she built up steam, I could see this cow wasn’t going to let a lit­tle barbed wire keep us apart.  At the deci­sive moment, my shep­herd dodged under the fence and counter-charged, send­ing the cow rear­ing back on her hind legs before run­ning off. I have two pic­tures of that cow.  In the first, she’s stand­ing still. One can’t see the whites of her eyes because they’re red. For the sec­ond, I was falling back­wards so I only caught a blur­ry image of her front heels held aloft.

Aubrac cows often seen in the Aveyron have long horns that result in being mis­tak­en for bulls. 

A German shep­herd led me up a long hill into the chapel of St. Roch, patron saint of dogs.

The Weight of Organized Religion

The prospect that the pil­grim­age would be dom­i­nat­ed by tra­di­tion­al Catholicism caused anx­i­ety about reli­gious prac­tices that no longer gov­ern my life.  What I learned ear­ly on was that heav­i­ly-traf­ficked stops offer both com­mer­cial/non-reli­gious lodg­ing and the reli­gious­ly-con­nect­ed Gites.  That meant I’d have a choice.  And when offered a choice, I con­sis­tent­ly picked the reli­gious­ly-con­nect­ed Gites so I got the inside scoop. Once inside, I had more choic­es to make (e.g., about going to Mass). I was impressed with the ded­i­ca­tion of the staff and vol­un­teers.  I got to know a staff mem­ber at a Monastery who came from Canada as a vol­un­teer, set­tled down, and stuck around.

Many of the church­es along the pil­grim­age route date back to the 12th cen­tu­ry.  Over time they’ve expe­ri­enced many forms of ortho­doxy and near­ly all were seri­ous­ly van­dal­ized dur­ing the Reformation and had to rebuild.  As church­es expand­ed or need­ed repairs, new archi­tec­tur­al and art forms were added.  Some of the recent art forms sug­gest open­ness to con­tem­po­rary and abstract art and oth­er reli­gious tra­di­tions, mak­ing them more invit­ing for con­tem­po­rary pil­grims.

Stained glass win­dow in the Chapel of St. Roch sug­gests a ques­tion mark with Zen influ­ences

Maintaining Human Contact and Getting Home

I went on the pil­grim­age to get away from peo­ple, at least cer­tain peo­ple. I cer­tain­ly wasn’t seek­ing to meet new ones.  I looked for­ward to lis­ten­ing to the trees con­vers­ing. I want­ed to get lost in the dark­est part of the woods and take soli­tude into my lungs. When pil­grims met along The Way, we talked about where we were from, where we planned to spend the night, and what moti­vat­ed us to walk.  Pilgrims typ­i­cal­ly arrived at Gites solo. Especially over meals and with the help of freely-flow­ing wine, the sense of being alone gave way to shared pur­pose, being part of a fab­ric, even con­nect­ed­ness. Most of the din­ner con­ver­sa­tions took place in French—after all, we were in France—and it flowed read­i­ly. Keeping up with a rapid­ly-shift­ing con­ver­sa­tion in French was near­ly impos­si­ble. It also wasn’t essen­tial.

One-on-one, I enjoyed con­ver­sa­tions with oth­er pil­grims on the road and at the Gites. Younger pil­grims con­fid­ed they were going in circles—nothing stuck, they’d hit a wall, felt blocked, want­ed to get their bear­ings, and sought guid­ance in careers, rela­tion­ships, spir­it. Older pil­grims said they searched for peace, hoped to gain con­trol of a med­ical con­di­tion affect­ing them­selves or a loved one, or sought guid­ance re-pri­or­i­tiz­ing now that work and fam­i­ly no longer sapped their ener­gies.  One retired police­man said he walk­ing as a way of seek­ing for­give­ness, “for all the uneth­i­cal things I had to do.”

I always left solo as did every pil­grim I met except for those trav­el­ing as cou­ples.  Now and then, I talked with restau­rant man­agers and even peo­ple I met along The Way. Once, a mid­dle aged woman in a red sweater ran up a hill, greet­ed me as a pil­grim, and with her arms reach­ing toward the sky announced, “Quel Dieu journée par­faite nous a don­né!” (What a per­fect day God has giv­en us!)  Ritually exchang­ing “Bonjour” and quick smiles with pass­ing strangers often rein­forced the sense of being cut off.  I some­times had to remind myself, I’m mere­ly a pil­grim, by def­i­n­i­tion I’m only pass­ing through.

 

As I walked, using my walk­ing sticks to pro­pel myself for­ward or regain bal­ance, the prospect of a National Strike relat­ed to pen­sion reform loomed in the back­ground. Posing no imme­di­ate threat, it caused lit­tle anx­i­ety. And allow­ing it to cause anx­i­ety would have inter­fered with my sur­ren­der­ing to The Way.  Still, as I got clos­er to the day when I would catch a train to Toulouse and a plane from there to Paris so I could fly home, I began to expe­ri­ence some break-through anx­i­ety about whether the strike would inter­fere with my get­ting home.  That would be just desserts since, when I left home, my pri­vate thought was that I want­ed to get lost in the deep­est, dark­est for­est and nev­er return.

Toward the end, I vis­it­ed a town already in the throes of the National Strike. The pub­lic high school stu­dents and fac­ul­ty were on their fifth day of strik­ing. Students, fac­ul­ty, and union rep­re­sen­ta­tives were in the streets togeth­er.  First, I talked with the stu­dents not direct­ly involved in strike actions about what this meant to them. Then, as I walked the streets, I stopped res­i­dents and inter­viewed them.

The next day, I was sup­posed to catch a train, but despite assur­ances that the trains were run­ning, when I reached the train sta­tion I dis­cov­ered the rail­road union called a strike.  I sat on a bench wait­ing for my alter­nate trans­porta­tion by bus. A high school stu­dent sat next to me and offered to share her sand­wich, ham on baguette.  She described the teach-in that her Catholic high school was hold­ing instead of strik­ing.  Suddenly she bolt­ed, “That’s my bus,” and bare­ly caught it.  I didn’t real­ize until the bus pulled out that it was also mine.

I had over three hours to kill before the next bus so I walked into town.  The town square was filled with strik­ers: stu­dents, teach­ers, rail­road work­ers, union rep­re­sen­ta­tives, elect­ed offi­cials, fam­i­ly mem­bers. Again, I start­ed con­duct­ing inter­views, focus­ing on the stu­dent activists first.  I watched as the clown-nosed stu­dent leader was inter­viewed for tele­vi­sion.  The rail­road work­ers offered bread, cheese, and wine.  Students offered Coca Cola.  An old­er itin­er­ant strik­er offered cannabis. I accept­ed all offers except the cannabis. When it was time to walk to the bus, some of the stu­dents walked with me.

Student activists on strike as the coun­try pre­pared for the loom­ing National Strike

The night before I was sched­uled to fly home, I went out for a walk in Paris’s res­i­den­tial Eighteenth Arrondissement. Almost back to my hotel, I stopped and talked for two-and-a-half hours with two home­less women, a moth­er my age and a daugh­ter my daughter’s age.  They invit­ed me to ask what­ev­er I wished but our exchange quick­ly turned into a three-way con­ver­sa­tion.  Toward the end, the daugh­ter caught me off guard, “People stop and talk with us because they have a need.  What is your néed?” I offered a suc­ces­sion of answers.  After shrug­ging off each one, they sug­gest­ed I give their ques­tion more thought.  Part of my answer: I need peo­ple.  I was ready to go home.

News reports that night indi­cat­ed that the strike would start halt­ing air trav­el at a time yet-to-be-deter­mined the next day. By morn­ing, it looked like the win­dow for depar­tures was clos­ing rapid­ly.  After the fias­co with the trains, I wor­ried I might not even make it out.  Even after I board­ed the flight, I stayed con­cerned about being deboard­ed.  But no soon­er had we got­ten off the ground than I began think­ing about going back to resume talk­ing with the two home­less women and to find Zita, my com­pan­ion dog to whom I said good­bye when the priest took me in.

~

Jim Ross jumped into cre­ative pur­suits in 2015 after retir­ing from a fruit­ful career in pub­lic health research. He’s since pub­lished non­fic­tion, poet­ry, and pho­tog­ra­phy in over 130 jour­nals and antholo­gies in North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. Publications include Barren, Columbia Journal, Ilanot Review, Kestrel, Litro, Lunch Ticket, MAKE, The Atlantic, The Manchester Review, and Typehouse. Two years ago, he wrote and act­ed in his first play. A non­fic­tion piece result­ed in a role in a soon-to-be-released, high-pro­file, doc­u­men­tary lim­it­ed series. Jim and his wife—parents of two health pro­fes­sion­als on the front lines and grand­par­ents of five preschoolers—split their time between city and moun­tains.