“For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see [God’s] invisible qualities – [God’s] eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.” (Romans 1:20, New Living Translation)
One of my dreams for post-retirement life was to travel. At the top of my list of intended destinations were the many national parks that I have never been to visit, especially those west of the Mississippi. In July, I was blessed to take the first of what I hope to be a series of pilgrimages in pursuit of that dream.
You may be thinking that pilgrimage is an odd word to describe a vacation. Yet I wanted my trip to be more than a vacation, more than just “get to a destination, check it off my list and head home”. Pilgrimage is defined as a religious journey, a holy expedition. On my journey, I wanted to witness the beauty of creation, to know God more fully through the “eternal power and divine nature” visible in creation, not only in the parks I planned to visit but also in all of creation that I could observe along the way.
I purposely chose my route to take “the road less traveled” whenever possible. County roads, state roads and scenic highways, most of which were two lane roads, were preferred to multi-lane interstate highways for two reasons: first, the slower pace was more conducive to contemplation; and second, I could stop more easily and more frequently along the way. I intentionally planned to come home along different roads than I took on my way out west. I took the time to pause at roadside markers and learn more about the history and geology of areas I drove through. I also found that, since I was driving unfamiliar roads, I had to pay more attention to my surroundings than I do driving around central Wisconsin.
As I drove, I witnessed the immense variations in nature: the multitude of colors, the diversity in topography and vegetation, and the assortment of creatures that share this land with us. I marveled at the height of canyon walls, the beauty of rock formations, and the majestic views from the top of a mountain. I noticed the ways humanity has tried, and sometimes failed, to harness the power of nature: wind turbines and hydroelectric dams stood in contrast to urban and rural areas flooded by recent rains.
I saw sections of national forests that were in the process of regeneration after being devastated by wildfires in recent years and pondered the resilience of nature. I observed many acres of barren farm fields, perhaps never planted because of late snows and substantial rains this spring, and I prayed for those who are at the mercy of the weather for their livelihood. I imagined what the grasslands looked like when herds of bison, elk or moose grazed freely. I thought about the hardships endured by the European settlers as their wagon trains ventured west across the plains and mountains. And I felt somehow united, connected, with all I saw, imagined and pondered.
The most profound experience for me was driving through the Badlands. As I approached the park, I could see the hills off in the distance but that could not prepare me for what I was about to see. Once I entered the park and got a closer look, the view took my breath away and brought me to tears. The vision was beyond description, and photos could not possibly capture it. Amazed and awestruck were the best words I could come up with to describe the feeling. I understood why the Sioux saw these lands as sacred and I mourned the ignorance of our nation’s leaders who could not understand the spirituality of indigenous people. I prayed for all the Native Americans who died at the hands of my ancestors and for those survived but were stripped of their human dignity as a result.
Nearby Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial were also planned stops, but I did not expect the mixed feelings I had about those man-made monuments. The monuments are indeed impressive and the giftedness of the artists who created them is undeniable. As I continued my journey through the Black Hills, canyons and peaks of the Rocky Mountains, and the Garden of the Gods, I was grateful for those who had the foresight to preserve these areas for future generations to experience. Even with so many God-made monuments and so much natural beauty to enjoy, I could not help but feel sad for the natural beauty that had to be destroyed to create the man-made monuments. I wondered about the cost of our short-sightedness in other matters such as destruction of habitats, extinction of plant and animal species, and pollution or depletion of natural resources.
Religious journeys should prompt us to reflect, ponder, question, and this pilgrimage certainly did that for me. I invite you to consider where your journeys have taken you. How have you been changed by your experiences? Was there anything that caused you to change ways of thinking, praying or living? And I invite you to consider taking a pilgrimage of your own, even if it is along a familiar route, and see what God has to show you that you may have missed before.