Last week for eight days I joined a walk from Chicago to St. Paul, Minnesota, a seven week trek that will culminate at the Republican National Convention in the opening days of September. Our numbers varied from fifty participants to ten as we wound our way along highways, town boulevards and bicycle paths in south central Wisconsin towards and along the Mississippi River. A core group of ten nonviolent practitioners at Voices for Creative Nonviolence began in January to organize foot soldiers like me for this dialogue of the village For years I have wanted to learn how walks of this nature unfold. Travel by foot brought me closer to the feel of Gandhi’s freedom walks and Jesus journey with his handful of disciples through the towns of Palestine.
I had allowed my mind to be tricked into thinking such experiments hold little promise for engaging fast track civilization . Occasional evening gatherings along the way reminded me of how encouraging a walk can be for local people. A bicycle and trailer provided replacement water that the summer heat soaked from our bodies. Walkers learned to massage sore muscles and treat oncoming blisters. I was enormously thankful that I had prepared by practising with a walk of several miles on alternating days for a month. From those prep times I learned that after mile five I encounter a boundary created somewhere in my body memory that sends sore signals to my hips. But, I also learned that I could press through those physical barriers and that by the following morning the miracle of renewal had occurred because my body felt relaxed.
Local news outlets prepared people for our coming with generous helpings of announcements, pictures and stories. “We have been expecting you”, a coffee shop hostess said as I awaited an ice coffee, my luxury for that day. Her face radiated a backyard or supper table conversation about those walkers coming through and what they are walking for. Her questions about the mechanics of walking great distance and themes of peace displayed genuine curiosity. My mind and spirit still has callouses from earlier and shorter walks that I helped plan where I heard angry shouts, “Get a job”, or was given mean gestures and hand signal with the raised middle finger shouting at me. I didn’t experience any of this in south central Wisconsin. Horns and waves of support were frequent.
By tenting in parks, staying with local people or camping in places like the English Lutheran Church (La Crosse) our group enjoyed glorious hospitality, mixed with moments of joy, engaging discussion and occasional times of uncertainty as rain threatened or the distance for the day remained unclear. Little things caught my attention like the amount of oncoming traffic, the quality of the shoulder on the road, water supply, and even the sign that I carried which grew sticky from sweat. Wisely, in this journey the organizers had easy to read, firm but respectful signs printed ahead of time thereby avoiding confusion of purpose that can sometimes divide participants.
Earlier walkers had met with the Wisconsin’s Governor’s staff to challenge his support for another deployment of the Wisconsin National Guard. The news coverage of the event helped to remind citizens of Wisconsin that the culture of hospitality and decency so apparent in Wisconsin’s community life is not visible in the deployments to Iraq. By praying, singing, or crossing lines into restricted areas at Camp Douglas and Fort McCoy, the reality of this nation at war and the power of confrontational witness became visible and sometimes even supported by soldiers.
In my days with the pilgrimage I encountered several veterans and their supporters who are still fighting the Viet Nam war or its contemporary surrogate, Iraq. Their words betray inward wounds that have held so much power over our body politic. Jim Nelson of Onalaska, Wis. reminded me of images I awaken in some of them when I walk. On August 15 he wrote the following letter to the La Cross Tribune which on the previous day had placed a prominent photo and article about our journey on its front page. His letter helps us remember a slice of American mythology.
LEFTIST WING-NUTS AND HIPPIE LOONIES
“Resurging from the Canadian woodwork and hippie havens around the United States, we find old hippies out recruiting young, like minded liberal loonies to provide front page nostalgia for their left-wing ravings once again offered up by the left-wing media as heroes for a cause. To address the peace walk, let’s all admit that no one “likes” war. Especially our men and women in uniform. They all too often pay the ultimate price.
Our military men and women have volunteered for very dangerous and often times, thankless job. They follow orders. Saying that soldiers have made the statement “the war is a bunch of crap” obviously is not a majority opinion. The mission, goals and objectives may be honorable and achieveable.
There were “peaceniks” around in the 1930 and early 1940s. Had they prevailed, we would be speaking German or Japanese rather than English, which should be our undisputed national language.
Western Wisconsin is an area that houses a small nest of radicals who will attempt to disrupt any event they disagree with. The old hippies and flower children have a refuge in our media.
Be prepared for the left-wing nut cases and their symbol “footprint” to disrupt the Republican Convention in Minneapolis. Their history tells us that violence is part of their strategy of dissent, so much for peace. Here we go again.”
Lest I become too innoculated with the kindness and niceness that surrounds us in our Wisocnsin village culture this letter reminds me that there is still miles of walking in store before the completion of a party platform for the age of righteousness.
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