Traveling from one place to another is only a journey. In a pilgrimage, motion in the outer world has the goal of promoting spiritual progress. Inconveniences, delays, even hardships can attend an ordinary journey. A good pilgrim should view these sufferings as an opportunity to grow in spirit.
On the weekend of Nov. 5-6, 2011 I made my own small pilgrimage to Louisville Kentucky to view the Buddha relics tour which was stopping that weekend at Unity of Louisville. Unity lies near the heart of downtown Louisville on the corner of Brook and College streets, an usual building that echoes in modest brick the famed Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
The route seemed simple: five to six hours traveling east on I-64 to Louisville with reasonable pit stops and walking breaks. But construction and repair have closed not only the I-64 bridge from Indiana to Kentucky but the I-65 crossing as well. The only bridge open is on the bypass far north of downtown. A local friend had advised me that it was a huge mess with up to three hour waits to cross the bridge. My plan for driving in on Saturday hinged on easy access off the interstate and wouldn’t work. In addition, I learned that the Breeder’s Cup Races were being held at Churchill Downs that weekend. I wouldn’t be able to stay downtown and traffic would be heavier than normal with all the world in from out of town.
So I left after work on Friday, driving through purpling dusk to meet the darkness head-on. I used to be fearless about night driving but age, caution and awareness of my body’s fading capacity make me reluctant to undertake a long drive after a long day at work. As night closed in around my pickup truck, the outer darkness reflected my condition as an ordinary human being trying to make sense of life and death.
The road outruns the reach of our headlights. We can see so far but what is really ahead of us is a mystery. Sometimes others pass us and we can see the gleam of their lights for some distance, taking that as assurance that there is something out there and that the road continues. As long as the road is familiar, we feel a degree of comfort but night hides all landmarks and changes everything. Familiar signposts bob up without context in a formless, alien landscape.
If we travel long enough, inevitably we will be forced to take detours and unknown roads and will suffer anxiety.
My goal for Friday night was Evansville, Indiana. I’d often stopped there for gas on my trips to and from Kentucky as it lies about halfway between my current home and my old hometown. This time I would turn south, searching for the cheap hotel I’d booked, to snatch a few hours of rest. The main attractions of the hotel were that it accepted pets and was within my means.
The motel had always been cheap, but now it was battered by time and the rough economy. In some freak counterpoint to the rundown building and people, the place offered free copies of The Wall Street Journal. The desk clerk was gruff but took pains to describe where the ice machine was. The room had the stagnant smell of a room that never got aired. For a “nonsmoking” room there seemed to be too many cigarette burn marks around the sink. However, the sheets on the king bed were clean, the blanket warm, the mattress firm and running the fan freshened the air.
I read the Wall Street Journal, including the article about what kinds of art to acquire as an investment; the cheapest piece mentioned was $25,000. The Wall Street Journal has changed since I used to read it in graduate school. Less information, less overseas and business analysis and more feature pieces designed to make the well-heeled reader think that all would be well despite the protesters camping in city parks across the nation. In 1979, my business administration professor had praised the Wall Street Journal as a national chronicle of the American Dream. Now, under the aegis of Rupert Murdoch, the Journal is an advocate for riches without responsibility.
I had pushed myself out of my usual routine in search of spiritual insight. But the contrast between the sad motel and the smug Journal roused up the political beast and thinker within me. Feeling despair from the material world, I folded away the newspaper and took solace from my woolly little dog. We were tired—my dog settled down on the bedspread, I settled down under the blanket and both of us enjoyed a nice curl up and snooze.
I awoke at 5AM with the sensation that the sour air was corroding my lungs and the stale odor was sticking to my skin. The free breakfast, available at 7AM, was no inducement to stay. The dog and I decamped. Only the dog got breakfast.
I drove south, still in darkness with the additional complication of mist that grew thicker and thicker as I followed Route 41 south through town. Most people in that part of the world still slept. The houses were dark; none of the restaurants I passed were open. The tourist maps that I had were not clear exactly how the river crossing here was accomplished. Evansville maps showed only that town and a slice of Indiana; Henderson maps showed that community and a swathe of Kentucky. The depicted curves of the river were artistic and did not match. By crossing here I would avoid the construction zone in Louisville but I worried about finding the junction to the Pennyrile Parkway.
The dark, the patches of fog, sometimes so thick that where lights tried to illuminate the exits the world turned to impenetrable haze…this material reality reminded me of the difficulties the spirit faces as it struggles toward the light. But by following the road, I discovered that the way had been made easy for me. I came to an unheralded bridge and suddenly I was in Kentucky. Where the fog thinned, clumps of skinny tree trunks stood like streaks of ink laid down by a master calligrapher. The road was the same, but it turned out to be the road I needed. I was already on the Pennyrile, heading in the right direction.
Premonitions of dawn gave me hope, but darkness and fog and hunger eventually drove me off the road for breakfast at a fast food joint. When I got back on the road, I suffered another check. The SERVICE ENGINE SOON light came on. I pulled off at a truck stop where there was a service depot for big rigs. One of the mechanics looked it over. He asked questions but my answers caused him to shrug.
"Did you buy gas?" He asked.
"Yes," I said.
"Sometimes the light just goes on, just for that. You may have a bit of carbon on the sensor," he said.
With that slender assurance, I got back on the road. Perhaps he just wanted me out of his parking lot, but perhaps he was right. The truck ran fine throughout the trip.
Dawn came while I was eating. With the sun, the fog began to thin. Like a metaphor that Enlightenment can happen suddenly, the veil lifted and the trees, rust and red and bright, bright yellow, burst out of the gray netherworld into glorious light. The rest of the drive to Louisville was an excursion into lyric poetry. Western Kentucky boasts a landscape more beautiful than any description of Heaven. Under an autumn sun, with the varied trees cloaked in dying glory it is a feast for the eyes.
(to be continued)