November 19, 2018

World : A Pilgrimage to the Rural South

On our travels home from the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, my friend says to me: "This feels like a pilgrimage."  And I say, and feel: "Yes."  It isn't a word I would have been able to conjure on my own, and is more perfectly fitting than anything concrete I've formed in my head or have yet to form.  Obviously flying to the South and lounging luxuriously in a cabin isn't quite the sacrifice and effort of the Haj or El Camino de Santiago. But leaving our urban coastal work life for climbing in rural Kentucky makes me consider in slices what a pilgrimage might look like for me: what it takes, what it gives, what it seems like and what it could really be.

The underlying principle of pilgrimage is one of a simpler life, dedicated to and centered around one core value.  I'm fully aware of how sacrilegious it might seem to call climbing this one thing.  But I believe really strongly that as long as people devote and derive the same level of generosity and growth from whatever that one thing is, that thing holds true and equal weight.

I'm lucky to love the fullness of my day to day life, and often that love of fullness means that I'm constantly filling up my time and space. Because the content is good, I can forget the importance of pausing, the damage of continued force.  In Kentucky, with so much undeveloped land and trees tall in their natural existence, I remember how much life widens when I stop cramming my own boundaries. Focusing on the one goal to climb, there's a calming sense of purpose that infuses all moments, and I'm filled throughout even when not climbing.  This is what it feels like to possess presence.

This singularity sharpens everything else, like every object in my mind's photograph is shot in macro.  It's immensely useful to me to erase the demands of my daily routine and let everything else come to the forefront.  I find myself confronting a lot, admitting to myself weaknesses even as I feel the strongest I have in a long time. I remember that even as hardships reveal and cultivate strength, they are hard and wear you at certain soft spots.  I see where I can be unkind to myself and others, and I take this for parts of the whole (of myself, of our interconnectedness).  The emptiness of rural Kentucky paves this awareness with ease, and I'm grateful for how filling this space can be, how connecting this isolation can be.

Then there is the sense of time, both its stillness and its progression.  We came to Kentucky exactly one year ago, in the same week in October.  I love birthdays and anniversaries for their marching of time and event, and pilgrimages do the same.  Exactly six months post injury and exactly three years since climbing outside, I can't think of a better way to celebrate the steps since then than a repeat trip to the Red River Gorge with the two girlfriends who made climbing my life.  I connect with one of my very best friends, unique in my life in many ways, one being that I knew and loved her before climbing.  She introduced me to climbing, but that's the least of what she's given me so you can get a sense of how generous she is.  I've known her for over a decade and see her once a year if I'm lucky, so this week is special for bringing close what can sometimes feel far.  I connect with one of my very best friends in my daily life, who spearheaded my ventures outside.  She pushes me to grow in the confines of our immediate day to day, and to regularly leave those confines.  And I coincidentally connect with a friend I met climbing in Mexico this past winter, because this pilgrimage calls to people from all over the world. I accidentally took his gear and though we live in different countries we know I'll return it to him, climbing somewhere in the future.

Fall here feels fuzzily familiar from my years on the East Coast, a melting kind of warmth that at first seems solid then surprises you in its change in form. There's still the flutter of novelty that hasn't dissolved for me, and there's the wonder at how the leaves color first slowly, then quickly, over the course of the week we spend there. I feel that pace in our climbing, as we return to routes we tried the year before, and climb them a little better, and try harder routes and routes with different styles.

And because pilgrimages take you far from home, there is a sense of just how different this place is from where I live.  We travel abroad often for the exposure to other cultures.  We rarely consider the need to expose ourselves to the different cultures within our own country, especially those threaten our security and world views, and I'm grateful to climbing for giving us this chance.

Dogs are kept outside without fences and race into the streets, in front of cars and onto you as you stupidly run on the road, with a sense that this place is theirs and anything entering it is subject to their touch.  We want to respect this truth, as we feel an enormous sense of privilege, coming to this place by choice and for luxury.  In this county rich in rock, a quarter of residents live under the federal poverty line.  Fifteen miles away from the Red River Gorge lies America's poorest white town (Beattyville).  Climbers boost the economy in a way that's appreciated and resented.  On the highway I see a sign: "God and guns are the enemy of Democrats."  While I don't encounter any of the guns that everyone is reported to own, I'm accosted with clear hostility by a homeowner while running and have a small glimpse of what it means to feel unbelonging, unsafe.  Alongside gratitude for what I have at home, this makes me feel deeply unhappy about how little I know of others and they of me. We talk about what this means, and there's no easy response other than to remember the importance of bearing witness.  Different from the America I know, this is America also.

Upon returning home, there's a drive to reach out to people in places outside our spheres, for the midterm elections and shared goals across different communities.  I love most this sense of connecting to people in other states (physical states, states of mind).  Because of our pilgrimage, we call voters in Lexington, Kentucky to encourage them to cast their vote for Amy McGrath, the first woman to fly a combat mission in the Marines. I'm told by an 84 year old man that he'll be driving his grand-kids to the polls, asked by another to tell Amy McGrath that "everything will be okay," and assured by a couple with disabilities that "this disability won't keep us from voting."

Even though Mcgrath lost, these conversations, and the mass mobilization and voter turnout from this election, make me immensely grateful. There's a concrete outcome for our shared values and vision across this massive country with so many different types of people. At the same time, I'm sad about this deep divide that exists not just between political parties but among entire communities living side by side, living in the same country.  We see so little of each other.

This realization morphs my perception of this pilgrimage.  As first I experience Kentucky as a journey for myself, a way to disconnect from my daily needs and to cocoon my caterpillar self, this idea that holing myself up will ultimately open me up.  Later, I see that exploring my walls is a way of peering over and through into what lies on the other side.  Having had the luxury to climb so many walls, it seems like ready time to examine more carefully what I'm climbing towards.  Other people, other perspectives, and the webbing that thinly threads between.

And so I think that while pilgrimages take many forms, that versatile core value ultimately sheds its layers and underneath is the same thing: the long, hard travels we take to connect to each other.  Because as much as rock offers an escape, nothing can ever really exist for me in isolation and that pilgrimage has a purpose outside of the distance from home.  We take it back with us, and use it to continually reach across.

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