Travel blogs are filled with advice on how to pack—tight, light, and only the essentials. The Holy Grail is to stuff everything you need into a carry-on. Everything you need to stay safe, comfy, and connected forever in a 35-pound backpack.
Yet, no one, not even the most seasoned traveler, could pack lighter than Peace Pilgrim.
For almost 30 years, she traveled on foot with everything she owned in her pockets–a toothbrush, comb, a pencil, and some paper. No backpack, no food, no shelter from rain, heat, or cold, no fancy performance wear. No hat. No sunglasses.
While you’re picking up your jaw, let me also mention that she didn’t even begin her epic walkabout until she was 45. Twenty-eight years later, at age 73, she died in a car accident while being driven to a speaking engagement. She had criss-crossed the country seven times with dips into Mexico and Canada. She averaged 25 miles per day and stopped counting at 25,000 miles.
Her approach: I will walk until given shelter and fast until given food, remaining a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace. Seeing that “mankind” is such a slow learner of the ways of peace, such a mission could unfortunately consume many lifetimes. Her “way of peace”: Overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth, hatred with love.
Simple and not even terribly original, but the totality of her dedication to her mission and the way she lived it was unique. The woman walked her talk.
I first heard about Peace Pilgrim many years ago when I was camped on a free beach on the Texas Gulf Coast, about two miles north of the Mexican border. I was facing a difficult transition—a watershed, really—in my life. Day after day, I’d walk along the shore, drawing comfort from the eternal rhythm of the waves and tides. Sometime during the weeks I spent there, my sister happened to send me a book about Peace Pilgrim.
At first, I was incredulous at her story and her message. Then I was awed. Then her sturdy, meat-and-potatoes spirituality gave me sustenance for my own journey through the next few tumultuous years. The example of her life continues to inspire and amaze me.
Peace Pilgrim gave a lot of speeches and interviews for various media during her sojourn, but she didn’t write a memoir, and she didn’t speak much about her life before she became Peace Pilgrim. I’ve gathered that she was an intelligent, strong-willed, and somewhat outrageous young woman. (She was born near Egg Harbor, New Jersey, in 1908.) She wasn’t raised in any religion and didn’t go to church. She was married and divorced without children.
At some point, however, she began a search for greater meaning in her life, during the course of which she had a conversion experience and literally came down from the mountain with the seed of a life plan.
Here’s how she described that mountaintop experience:
I was out walking in the early morning. All of a sudden I felt very uplifted, more uplifted than I had ever been. I remember I knew timelessness and spacelessness and lightness. I did not seem to be walking on the earth…but…every flower, every bush, every tree, seemed to wear a halo. There was a light emanation around everything and flecks of gold fell like slanted rain through the air…The most important part was not the phenomena: the important part of it was the realization of the oneness of all creation…
During the years of spiritual preparation that followed, she began to live very simply and rid herself of possessions. At some point, perhaps to test her resolve, she hiked the Appalachian Trail (2,050 miles) in one season. She was the fourth person and first women to do so.
On January 1, 1953, she formally “put on” her name and the uniform she’d wear the rest of her life (navy pants and tunic with commodious pockets) and she began walking toward New York City from Pasadena, California.
Her goal was to deliver a petition to the United Nations for international disarmament and two to President Eisenhower to end the Korean War and to establish a Peace Department. She walked the 5,000 miles and delivered all three.
Then she just kept walking and speaking about how to find personal peace and fulfillment. As she became well-known, she was given places to stay. But she’d grown so used to “walking on foot and on faith” that I’m not sure she really preferred a mattress over a bed of leaves in the forest.
As with the saints of my Catholic tradition, Peace Pilgrim has accumulated some fascinating myths and stories. I’m inclined to believe them because she lived so recently and because most of them are told by witnesses.
Once, for example, she led a small group of people who wanted to experience her wandering life, on a short walkabout. A pack of wild dogs was terrorizing the campground where they were staying, and some women in the group were afraid. Peace Pilgrim walked over to the dogs and said, “Shoo!” They slunk away and left the group unmolested.
Peace Pilgrim always walked alone, didn’t belong to any church or organization, and accepted no money. She consciously chose to live “at need level.” And since her wants and needs were the same, “you couldn’t give me anything beyond what I need.”
She was utterly fearless not because she was courageous, but because she believed so completely in the good and that all difficulties were an opportunity for growth. “If you are fearful, you will attract the thing you fear. I fear nothing–I expect only good, so only good comes.”
One would think that the life of a penniless vagrant would end with barely a ripple on the surface of world consciousness. Not so with Peace Pilgrim.
At first, some of her closest friends and followers formed the “Friends of Peace Pilgrim” to spread her message. At one point, they came together to compile and recollect her teachings for a book. The result is Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words. One of the people in the group described the joint compilation as deeply peaceful, as though the spirit of Peace Pilgrim was in the room. He said that the book essentially wrote itself. I found the book extremely satisfying and compelling. It’s pure Peace Pilgrim without commentary or intrusion from friends or experts.
And it’s free! In the spirit of Peace Pilgrim, the book and other literature, including Peace Pilgrim’s own booklet, Steps Toward Inner Peace, are free. They’ve been translated into many languages and is available for download on ereaders at the Peace Pilgrim website here. Donations have met the costs of printing and mailing for all these years. The volunteers work for free.
I can follow the message of Peace Pilgrim to a point, and then she slips beyond my understanding. I don’t understand how she could be so fearless when confronted by life-threatening situations, as she sometimes was. Isn’t some sort of instinctual fight or flight reflex supposed to kick in? I don’t understand how such a willful person could have relinquished her self-will so completely, and yet she describes just how she did it.
Her message is simple. It’s universal, without denomination or churchy balderdash. It’s profound and life-changing. Do yourself a favor–take a look at her Steps Toward Inner Peace. It’s good stuff.