The Pilgrim

I met a man. A young man, of 20 years. He was walking his bike up the side of a mountain pass last week as I drove by, 30 kilometres to the nearest town. His bike was a BMX, and the sun was setting, and there were no vehicles in front of, or behind me; a lonely stretch of the 93 highway heading South. So after a brief hesitation, I pulled over and called out; “Do you want a lift?”

“Hell yeah!” Was the reply as he quickly jumped on his bike and cycled furiously in my direction. So the bike itself wasn’t the problem, as I had thought it might be.

After loading the bike on the rack and brief introductions with a hand shake we were off. This sort of meeting is always intriguing to me. Who is this person? Why are our paths crossing when from all external evaluations we might seem so different. Where will this conversation lead? And where is this guy going at this time of day on his little bike?

“I had been saving this water. I thought two litres would be enough, but I have to refill a lot.” He says as he gulps down the dregs from his bottle. 

“Where are you headed?”

“Vancouver. But Radium will do for today.” He says as I make a mental note that he must be close to 1000 kms away from his ultimate destination, and at least a few more major mountain passes away.

“Where did you come from?

“A small town near Calgary. The prairies, you know?” Mental note; he is about 300 kilometres from his starting point, and has already climbed over the Rockies.

“And When did you start?”

“Two weeks ago. And I won’t lie, I puked twice on the first day. I’m 20, and I’ve been smoking 2 packs/day since I was 13. I never drank much, but the night before I left I went on a binge with my buddies. Then got up the next morning and left. I’ve got my pack, water bottle, tat gun and roll out mat. Not a cent to my name. But I have all my debts cleared. I’m going cold turkey you know? No more smoking, or drinking for this guy.

“I sleep out under the stars, and this gives me the creeps, but I get so tired, I sleep. I’ve never done much exercise, but now I am feeling stronger than ever. I never thought I could bike so far!”

The conversation was fascinating. And I would interject with “Wow.” Or “Good for you.” Not much else to add really. I did tell him he was amazingly brave. As the conversation went on I learnt that it seemed his life had become incredibly toxic, and not just through what he was ingesting. It was also his job, and the people he knew, and the habits he’d developed. And all this very suddenly became obvious to him. So cold turkey one day he woke up and quit the addictions (drinking, smoking, and pot) and took to cycling under the gorgeous Albertan blue skies. A truly purifying experience.

His humility was immediately apparent. When i spoke to him about my friend who’s a monk in Thailand, he immediately recognized the similarities between the two human journeys. He said one of the hardest parts is facing yourself all day, but he also saw this as being the best part, and the most rewarding part. He was clearly ready to face himself in a way that most people never do, are never capable of doing for fear that their true natures will be revealed. He was willing to spend this time alone, the past 14 days, listening as the past bubbled up through his thoughts. Re-thinking his actions, his motivations. Feeling for what was true inside of him. Finding that deep inner pool, that in his case was pure and still, and totally accessible. Again, an unusual quality, as most have so much baggage to dig through first. I had the feeling as he bubbled and babbled away, and then as we sat in silence side by side in my Dodge mini van, that I was next to a great old saint (with grubby fingers, and a rough vocabulary).

He told me he’d been collecting cans along the side of the highway as they appeared. Little treasures, affording him meals along his journey. He would crush them, then stuff them into his pack, his sweater, and down his sleeves… anywhere he could find a carrying space, cashing them in to satiate his tummy. Then he’d get back on his bike and start all over again, singing karaoke to keep himself company.

I told him I enjoyed our chance meeting, but of course knowing that nothing is left to chance. I knew right then that he would be with me throughout my life. Whenever my fears arise, I knew I would think of him, and thank him for his example in bravery and courage. All alone, with no money and not quite enough water to get by any great distance; sleeping under the stars and drifting off thinking of grizzlies, cougars and wolves, and whether or not he’d still be alive come sun rise, and yet continuing on, determinedly changing his course. He was following what he knew to be his right path. Leaving the toxicity of the city and all that comes with it, and moving forward. Perhaps these patterns will repeat in his life, or perhaps he is making such a big and certain break from the old, knowing that this is truly it for him; a second chance. This pilgrim is on the next leg of his journey.

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