An Inter-religious Walking Pilgrimage / July
William Skudlarek, a Benedictine monk from Saint John’s
Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota and Jotipalo Bhikkhu, a Buddhist
monk from Abhayagiri Monastery are in the process of preparing
for a two-week interfaith walking pilgrimage. The journey begins
fifty miles north of Saint John’s Abbey in Brainerd, Minnesota,
the southern terminus of the 150-mile long Paul Bunyan Bike Trail.
The trail conveniently passes through a small town about every
ten to fifteen miles, winding past many scenic lakes.
Day 1, Wednesday, July 11
The On-Star Miracle
parents, Don and Dorothy, were about to drive us to the trailhead
when they discovered the keys to the car were missing. After
having looked in all the obvious places, Don determined he
might have locked them in the trunk. When he called in to report
the problem, the service provider asked for his code, and though
he had never used it since buying the car a year and a half
ago, Don amazingly remembered it. Immediately a satellite was
signaled and the car door popped open. And sure enough, the
keys were in the trunk!
the trailhead, we were met by a reporter from the Brainerd
Dispatch who interviewed and photographed us as we began our
pilgrimage. We started out around quarter to four under an
auspicious light rain. We walked for two hours (about six miles),
at times in silence, at times talking about our hopes and expectations.
Cautiously ignoring a “No Trespassing No Hunting” sign
(we weren’t going hunting, after all), we pitched our tents
and settled in for our first night on the trail. Yes, the mosquitoes
were bad, but only when we left the trail to find a camp site.
Day 2, Thursday, July 12
After a sleepless but uneventful night in the woods (neither
one of us knows the reason for our insomnia, since we were both
feeling confident about the walk and our tents were comfortable
enough), we got back on the trail at 6:40, expecting to meet
a photographer from the Catholic paper of the Archdiocese of
Saint Paul/Minneapolis a few miles up the trail. However, when
we checked, we were told the paper would be using another photo,
so we continued on to the town of Nisswa at the 16 mile mark.
Nisswa is a
resort and tourist town in the Minnesota Lake Region. Our alms
round was not successful. Jotipalo suspects it was because
William, who was walking in his lower robe (tunic), unwittingly
stopped to put on his upper robe (scapular and cowl) in front
of a ladies’ boutique!
We had chosen to conduct our alms round by standing unobtrusively
along the Paul Bunyan Trail, which runs right though the middle
of town. A few people smiled, but most simply walked by and pretended
not to notice us. After about a half hour we decided to use some
of the donations we had received and went to a restaurant for
lunch where some people did ask us what we were up to.
After lunch we went to the Catholic parish where William had
done some Sunday services the previous summer. The pastor was
gone, but Judy, the organist and liturgy director, was in her
office in the church. She made arrangements for a place to spend
the night, which we gratefully accepted. She also called some
parishioners and arranged for us to stay with them the following
Our conversation during the walk focused on community life and,
in particular, on how the alms round is done. Jotipalo pointed
out that an alms round is not about begging for food, but about
making Buddhist monastics available to others. This daily contact
insures that monastics remain accountable for their actions,
because if monks misbehaved, they would probably get very hungry.
Day Three, Friday, July 13
are you dressed so funny?”
On the trail
around 6:20—intermediate destination Pequot
Lakes (mile 21 on the trail).
9:00, we called Diane, a reporter from the Pine River Journal
who had asked for an interview. We sat and talked for about
a half hour before continuing our trek. During the interview
Jotipalo noted that we had received remarkable signs of support—donations, publicity, making arrangements along
the trail, offering hospitality, kind words from strangers—but
most of these offerings came from people with whom some kind
of connection, however recent, had been established. At least
thus far it has been rare to receive hospitality from complete
and total strangers.
There may be a lesson here that can be applied on a global scale.
Most people are genuinely generous and hospitable. However, when
they meet a stranger, especially ones dressed like us, they are
understandably reluctant to interact, especially in an time of
manipulated anxiety regarding security.
every rule there is an exception. Vainly in search of today’s edition of the Brainerd Dispatch we entered
the Silver Creek Trader, where William was enthusiastically greeted
by the owner, Jan, with “Why are you dressed so funny?
Are you a minister or something?” To which William responded,
pointing to Jotipalo, still out of view in the entry way, “If
you think I look funny, wait till you see him.”
Jan was immediately
intrigued when we explained that we were Catholic and Buddhist
monks on a pilgrimage, and asked about Jotipalo’s alms bowl. When she saw that it was empty, she
invited us to go onto the veranda to do “your Buddhist
and Catholic thing,” and she would bring us some coffee.
We told her we were running behind schedule, so she placed two “seven
layer bars” in the alms bowl. (Bars, as anyone who listens
to Garrison Keillor’s stories of Lake Wobegon know, are
a staple of Minnesota cuisine). Jotipalo offered a traditional
Pali blessing chant. Jan, touched by the blessing, replied, “We
celebrate our differences.”
We then walked
an additional three miles on our way to the home of the people
who were offering us hospitality for the night. Turing on to
the highway that would take us to their place, we stopped at
a gas station, determined to purchase today’s
paper. The cashier asked what we were doing, and Jotipalo pointed
to his picture on the front page of the paper. We had a laugh,
and as we left, someone else sent us off with a cheery, “Have
a good day, you people and your egos!”
Half way between the gas station and our destination we met
Jerry, who had walked out to greet us. We were taken to a beautiful
home and immediately made to feel welcome. Jerry and his wife
Sharon began preparing lunch, and we sat down to a delicious
meal and enjoyable conversation. Jerry gave us a tour of his
twenty-acre yard (literally twenty acres), which contains a wood
sculpting studio, a small barn filled with life-sized Christmas
figures with which they decorate their yard each year, a one
acre berry patch (raspberry, strawberry, blueberry among others),
numerous flower gardens, a pond, and an osprey nesting site.
Later in the afternoon Jerry discovered that the nest had been
destroyed and that some predator had probably killed the two
five-week old fledglings.
have already expressed their desire to receive us over the
next few days. The hospitality we are receiving has already
exceeded anything we might have hoped for and makes us grateful.
There still are many uncertainties ahead, but we are enjoying
one another’s company and continuing to walk in
Day 4, Saturday, July 14
Talk of the Town
us a wonderful breakfast, almost enough for an entire day’s nourishment. We departed around 7:30 a.m. Jerry walked
with us the first half mile to the trail junction in Jenkins.
As we parted ways, he slipped William (“the banker”)
a very generous donation, along with the wish that we contact
them if we needed anything. We are considering asking them if
they could take us from Red Lake to the headwaters of the Mississippi
River in Itasca State Park at the end of our journey.
Not long on
the trail, we met April, who was bicycling from Nisswa. She
stopped and told us that she saw us walking past her shop on
Thursday. She said we were the talk of the town. (Funny, because
few had approached us.) She even knew what we had eaten for
lunch! It appears that one of the comments people were making
was, “I thought all Buddhists were vegetarians.” She
thought what we were doing was great and was happy that people
in Nisswa were talking about it.
About an hour
later we saw a familiar red van in the distance and heard Diane,
the reporter from Pine River, calling out cheerfully, “No,
I am not stalking you!” She had brought her seven-year-old
daughter Ari to meet us and presented food offerings: bananas,
plums, and a snack pack. Ari mentioned that she loved snack packs,
so we offered that back to her. We have been very touched by
the support we have received from Diane and by her interest in
what we are doing.
on, stopping before we reached the town of Pine River to meditate
and pray along the banks of the Pine River. Before heading
out we made a small meal of the many food offerings we had
recently received. A few more miles along the trail we arrived
at the Pine River Welcoming Center. John, the manager of the
Center, welcomed us warmly. If anyone was ever perfectly suited
for a job, it’s John. According to him, however,
it was not a job; he was simply doing what he loved. John explained
that the Paul Bunyan Trail was born in Pine River because it
was the first municipality to make a town resolution to convert
rails to trails. After the last train passed through the town
in 1984, he took part in a town council meeting in the basement
of the Methodist church. “The reason I remember the meeting
so well,” he said, “because carrot salad was served,
and I hate carrot salad!”
Before we left
town John’s wife and daughter came to greet
and have their picture taken with us. His daughter, a college
student at the U of M, wanted it for Facebook—to which
William responded, “Oh, we could be friends!” (Jotipalo
didn't have a clue what we were talking about.)
to walk at least ten miles today and then call Mary, who had
offered to put us up for the night and to take us to Mass on
Sunday morning. Along the trail we met a couple who spotted
us as they were driving south on Highway 371. Cindy had read
about us in the Brainerd paper and wanted to make a food offering.
Her husband had not read the article, and when she asked him
to stop, he replied, “What are you talking about, woman?” Cindy
had just returned from Thailand and showed respect by asking
if it would be all right to shake hands. They offered a box of
Pop Tarts and a banana, all the food they had in the car. As
he has been doing whenever someone offers us food, Jotipalo chanted
a traditional blessing chant in Pali, the scriptural language
of Theravadan Buddhism. As we talked, William discovered that
a mutual friend was the Confirmation sponsor of their son, who
will be a junior at Notre Dame.
After a slightly longer walk than we had expected, we reached
the Mildred church, where we called Mary, who came to pick us
up. We estimate we walked between eleven and twelve miles today.
Mary and her
husband Donny live on a small forty acre lake—so
small, they pointed out, that the loons have to circle it three
times to gain enough altitude to clear the trees. Their home,
built by Donny, is nestled in a secluded section of the forest,
far from the noise of the world. Mary told us she refuses to
have a computer in the house; “Donny would use it as a
boat anchor," she explained, "and a boat anchor is
a lot cheaper!”
Once again, we have experience the joy of being warmly welcomed
into the home of strangers, who have now become friends.
Day 5, Sunday, July 15
Hackensack and Back
their neighbors Kathy and Verdale over for breakfast, after
which we made our way to Mass in Pine River. The church was
full, partly due to the influx of vacationers during the summer.
The pastor, Father Bruce, gave us a warm welcome, as did many
of the parishioners. During the Mass there was a second collection
to support an abused women’s shelter sponsored
by the parish. We decided to make a contribution from the donations
we had received—and then received almost the same amount
back from people who wanted to support our walk.
for the day was Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan,
which Father Bruce interpreted as an expression of compassion
for anyone in need, simply because they are human. His sermon
was the topic of discussion for much of our afternoon walk.
After church Mary dropped us off at the trail in Backus with
instructions to call her if it started to rain and we needed
a place to stay. It had been a beautiful morning, but it was
now threatening rain. We left Backus at 1:08 p.m. for Hackensack,
eight and a quarter miles away. That was perhaps the most peaceful
stretch of walk we have done so far, as Highway 371 was a good
distance from the trail. Along the way we met Gail from the Walker
newspaper, who gave us a bag of cherries and asked us to call
the paper when we were approaching Walker tomorrow.
The closer we got to Hackensack, the more it felt like rain;
thus we only stopped once for a short break. We started feeling
sprinkles after about six miles and a light rain just as we entered
town. We checked at the Catholic church, but since the pastor
lives in Walker, it was locked. So, without further hesitation
we called Mary.
that evening centered on locals who were suffering from cancer—a
sobering reminder of what it means to be human.
Day 6, Monday, July 16
Back to Hackensack
us back to Hackensack through a rather heavy rain, which let
up as we approached the village. We resumed our walk at 6:45
a.m. After walking about 100 yards, we saw a box alongside
the trail, which looked like a discarded fruit container. “Oh
look, a package for us," Jotipalo said. When he looked closer,
to his surprise he saw a note that read, “To Fr. Bill and
Jotipalo.” We opened it up and found blueberries, cherries,
six peaches, and six fresh ears of corn, with the note, “You
can eat the corn raw. If you do, you’ll never cook it again.” (He
was absolutely right!!)
There was also
a card inside the box with the following message: “You
both walked by my fruit stand in Pine River yesterday. I recognized
you from the Brainerd newspaper, which I read last night, and
I wanted to pass on a few goodies. About ten years ago I was
just a simple Catholic boy befriended by a Southern Baptist gentleman
(thirty years my senior). What we did with our collaboration
ended up having some amazing results. I believe it started with
our mutual respect. I wanted to share that with you both. (signed)
The Pine River Fruit Stand Man.”
Todays walk was long and grueling. It was the first time we
had to use rain gear, and we also walked a long stretch along
a busy highway. As we were approaching Walker a couple people
stopped and offered us rides. Not wanting to arrive at the door
of the Walker newspaper in a vehicle, we declined. As soon as
the cars left, we looked at each other and asked what we were
possibly thinking of, since we were both exhausted.
About a block
from the Walker Pilot Independent newspaper office the journalist
who was going to do the interview came out to meet us. During
the course of an hour’s interviewed, Hope
expressed her concern that we had a place to stay and were eating
well enough, offering us cheese and more cherries. We told her
that we had been able to speak with the new pastor of the Catholic
church in town, and that he had invited us to stay.
We got to Father
house in the early afternoon and discovered that he was in
the middle of moving in, having just taken up residence here
three days earlier. We spent the next couple hours helping
him move furniture. Having received so much generosity over
the past six days, it felt good to be of service.
At least for
the next two nights we’re expecting to be
sleeping outdoors. (But who knows?) We hope to reach Bemidji
on Thursday and possibly be driven up to the Red Lake Native
American Reservation on Friday, where four sisters from Saint
Benedict’s monastery in Saint Joseph MN are in residence.
Day 7, Tuesday, July 17
Beyond Benedict and Back
After an early breakfast, we went to Mass, where Father Mark
introduced us as a couple of hobos who showed up at his back
door, but whom he welcomed with delight. The Scripture text for
that day was about the birth and early years of Moses. Fr. Mark
pointed out that even though Moses had a shaky beginning (including
killing a man), he became a holy person. The lesson: don't judge
people who are currently in a shaky situation.
Because we had been walking for six straight days, we were considering
taking a rest day, but finally decided to continue walking after
lunch. Before leaving town we bought a few supplies, since it
looked like we would not be hitting any sizeable town before
We got on the trail at 12:15 to much warmer temperatures than
we were accustomed to (upper 80s). After four miles the trail
was no longer paved; it looked more like a well kept logging
road. In many ways, it was actually more pleasant than walking
on asphalt, though we had to be attentive to removing ticks.
About mid-afternoon William spotted some steps leading down
to an abandoned dock on Kabekona Bay of Leech Lake. After a refreshing
swim, our first, we continued on to Benedict. Misreading a sign
that said it was .25 miles to the right, we continued on for
about a half mile. Spotting a couple men building a house we
asked them where Benedict was. They sent us to the highway, telling
us we had walked a half mile too far.
In Benedict we found three building, one of which was the Fort
Benedict gas station-grocery store-post office-live bait shop.
We enjoyed a leisurely one-and-a-half-hour tea and got back on
the trail about 6:00 p.m.
Before leaving William reached his cousin Ed's wife Marla, who
told us we could use their lakeside guest cabin for as long as
we wanted and arranged for a friend to pick us up on Thursday
After walking for another hour, completing about eleven miles
for the day, we found a good enough patch of trees with soft
and level ground where we decided to pitch our tents. The only
drawback was that it was fairly close to a moderately travelled
road. The only noise Jotipalo heard later in the evening was
from a rather large deer who was not happy with his new neighbors,
and snorted his displeasure on and off for a couple hours.
Day 8, Wednesday, July 18
Nothing to Prove
We got up at dawn and were on the trail around 5:30 a.m., but
soon began walking on the highway to avoid the dew. About an
hour and a half later we arrived in LaPorte where we indulged
ourselves in a typical Northern Minnesota breakfast at the local
gas station-convenience store-cafe-mechanic shop. The local breakfast
club of about ten people warmly welcomed us and took great interest
in who we were and what we were doing.
We settled into a comfortable walking pace, with a ten minute
break every two miles. Though it was warm, we were able to walk
in the shade most of the morning. About two hours after leaving
LaPorte William remembered he had forgotten to pay for breakfast.
We decided to call as soon as we could to explain. We are sure
we are already the talk of the town in LaPorte!
Shortly before 1l:00 a.m. we entered what the map said was the
town of Guthrie. We found a Bible church, two houses, and a stop
sign. Pam, one of the residents, kindly allowed us to charge
the cell phone in her house and gave us water. We then rested
for an hour behind the church. Looking at the map we decided
to try to reach Nary, 5.2 miles further north, and then decide
what to do for the night.
Pam's, we explained our situation with the LaPorte gas station
and asked if she could find the phone number for us. She offered
us the use of her phone. When Kathy, the cashier answered,
Jotipalo asked, "Did you have two monks stop at
your cafe this morning?" Kathy (rising inflection), "Yes,
we did." "Did they leave without paying?" (Another
rising inflection),"Yes, they did." "I'm one of
those monks." A relieved Kathy replied, "That's good!" William
then made arrangements to send a check.
In the course of receiving Pam's hospitality, we discovered
that her husband is the nephew of a priest with whom William
had been in the seminary.
We reached Nary, which now consists of nothing but a cemetery,
around 3:00 p.m. Spotting a house across the road, we stopped
to replenish our water supply. There we met Toni, who was busily
at work remodeling the house.
us in, and while William was filling the water bottles, Jotipalo
asked about the nearest motel. Because she was new to the area,
she called her husband. As she conveyed his directions, she
stopped mid-sentence and asked, "Would
you like me to drive you there?" Jotipalo waited a full
two seconds before accepting her offer. Later William confided, "Am
I glad you said 'Yes'!" At this point we had walked fourteen
miles and had decided to push on to Bemidji another seven miles
and possibly get a motel for the night. But when the offer for
a ride came without our asking, we took this as a sign (from
Toni drove us to Bemidji and dropped us off at a motel. On the
way she mentioned that her husband was a bit concerned that she
was taking two strangers into town. She reassured him that it
was OK because we were monks, which didn't seem totally to alleviate
his concerns because he said he would be praying for her!
Upon arrival, William called Mary, the person who was planning
to pick us up tomorrow afternoon, to tell her that we were already
in town. We assured her that it would be no problem for us to
stay in a motel, but she arranged for her husband Jim to come
and take us to the cabin that Ed and Marla had arranged for our
When Jim picked us up, he asked if we wanted to swing by the
airport to pick up the truck Ed had left for our use. (Ed, Marla,
and their son had just left on vacation.) The blessings just
Day 9, Thursday, July 19
Rest and Reflection
We've been joking with one another about how grateful we are
that we didn't have to walk the last seven miles, because that
would only have reinforced our egos!
Mainly we've been reflecting on the generosity we have received.
We walked for eight days, covering eighty-five miles on foot,
doing this completely on faith. Not a day passed when we didn't
encounter some or many acts of kindness. Being on the receiving
end of such generosity is both humbling and gratifying.
On the walk that he attempted two years ago, and which he wrote
about in Bulletin #76, Jotipalo encounted this same kind of generosity
in Mississippi. Because that walk ended so abruptly, he desired
to confirm the experience. These past eight days have indeed
confirmed that a walk done in faith is not only possible but
will exceed expectations.
Prior to the walk, William, who was unfamiliar with the practice
of alms rounds, anticipated that he would experience feelings
of humiliation and embarrassment. Instead, he too discovered
how uplifting it is to make yourself available to gestures of
generosity and hospitality. He went on the walk hoping to deepen
his understanding of a particular Buddhist monastic practice
and the teaching that supported it. What especially impressed
him was how interested and supportive others were of this practice
and of the interreligious harmony that it demonstrated.
Now that we know that an interfaith pilgrimage can be done,
and can be done joyfully, we hope that other Buddisht and Catholic
monks might consider the possibility of doing something similar.
Since Buddhist monks are already doing this practice in America,
Christian monks might also consider doing it by themselves. It
is an incredible way of reinforcing a sense of community and
of one's dependence on the goodness of others.
This will be our last entry. If we add further reflections,
they will be linked to the MID website.
With folded hands and bent knees, we give thanks to all who
have supported us with their gifts, they generosity, their prayers,
and their good thoughts.