Long Distance Walking in New Mexico and Colorado written by Rebecca J. Henderson reviewed by Rob Pierson
What is the line that separates walking from pilgrimage? When does a journey cross over from distance, in miles, to presence and transformation?
Long before she served Friends as clerk of Santa Fe Meeting and of Intermountain Yearly Meeting, Rebecca Henderson found herself at a crossroads in her life, exhausted and discouraged. Moving to Albuquerque, she took clerical jobs, working from fall to spring. In the summer, she walked – hundreds of miles, mostly alone, mostly on roadsides, relying on the weather and strangers for kindness and welcome.
Henderson’s posthumous Long Distance Walking in New Mexico and Colorado recounts three such walks – in 1987, 1988, and 1989. The first two wend north from Albuquerque into Colorado. The third heads south into the Gila Wilderness of southwest New Mexico.
One can’t help feeling nostalgia about these accounts – they remind of a time, not long ago, when letters and post offices measured life by days and weeks, rather than the rush of tweets and Instagram posts. During her walks, Rebecca’s then-partner, Quinn, joined her via written words sent ahead to the post office at Rebecca’s next stop and via an occasional toll call. Their love was still a novelty in the landscape – Rebecca faithfully records each “lesbian sighting” as a rare, memorable event, worthy of celebration.
Except for a few pictures and hand-drawn maps, the book consists of journal entries, a few reflections, and some practical details. The writing unfolds at the pace of a walk, at the rate that grass grows or wounds heal – one mile, one conversation, at a time. Spiritual growth emerges like rings in a tree.
For the first year, the going is slow, particularly for the reader. The brief journal entries plod along – accounting for time, miles, lunch stops, campsites, and the occasional short chat. Only after the entire trip does Rebecca stop to reflect: “On the road it becomes very clear that one is given much, all the time, and the givers are there, face to face, to be thanked.”
Journal entries for the second trip in ’88 grow longer and more descriptive. Rebecca seems more present in the landscape and in her writing. She meets lizards, birds, and people with humor and warmth. She expresses awe at the kindness and goodness with which people greet her.
By her third journey, Rebecca has learned to cherish deliberate sloth: “We proceed to lie in the shade watching clouds and practicing not suffering,” she writes. This “we” shows she has learned to welcome and invite companionship as well. She records more conversations. She detours to see the Cholla flowers. She reflects on how male culture scares women out of the wilderness she loves. By the end of her trip, Rebecca finds herself aware that “I am, at last, the person I have always wanted to be.”
The story follows a long arc – from lost to found – that also happens to cross through Colorado and New Mexico in the late 1980s. It ends where Rebecca first meets Pelican Lee. The two were married at Albuquerque Meeting in 1992, and it is Pelican who carried this book through to us after Rebecca’s death.
Throughout the book, Rebecca reminds us of many simple gifts to be found along the way: the wonders of showers and laundry, the joys of hamburgers, oranges, and wool socks. She delights in describing the wheeled cart she built to carrying her supplies. (Details are included for building your own cart!)
This is not a book for everyone. It’s not a book about life or faith or transformation. It’s three long walks by one woman. Are you willing to accompany Rebecca through weeks of cold and heat, rain and sun, sickness, beauty, gravel, foot care, tent-pitching tent, and eating tuna out of a can? For those who say “yes” to that journey, come join the trip. And for anyone who experiences life as pilgrimage, there are few similar books, especially by women, that so honestly capture the day-by-day of a pilgrim’s progress. ~~~
Rob Pierson is a member of Albuquerque Friends Meeting (IMYM).
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