Camden, Gees Bend, and Journeys


Black Eyed Susans in Wilcox County, Alabama

Every day is an adventure when you are a parish priest. Earlier this year, Holy Comforter received a wonderfully generous gift from a sister parish, St. Paul’s, Carlowville. We have an old van that allows us to transport food in bulk from the Montgomery Food Bank once a week to support our feeding ministries. I have driven our van a couple of times with teeth rattling and my heart in my mouth. It was scary enough that I wanted nothing more than to shut my eyes tight and step on the accelerator to get there already. St. Paul’s wanted to help us buy a new van. Then, one of our parishioners who has a tremendous amount of experience writing grants put in an application for one of the Covid recovery grants provided by our state. We received the full amount we applied for. We had what we needed to buy a van!

The thing was—there were no secondhand vans to be had. None. Anyone who’s been in the market for a used vehicle this year knows what I am talking about. We agreed we’d sit tight and wait—praying to all the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist saints for our old faithful van to hold on. As the day was ending on Thursday, one of the parishioners who was instrumental in us receiving the gift from St Paul’s texted me. She’d found me a van through a friend and car dealer in Camden. A flurry of pictures followed, all of them looking really promising. The window to jump on this opportunity was small and several pieces had to be put in place, all while our wonderful parish administrator has a bad case of shingles. It certainly was a zingy-kind of exciting!

Enough fell in place to find me driving down to Camden on Friday morning. Camden is the birthplace of Jeff Sessions and the county seat of Wilcox County. It is also a river town that’s experiencing something of a revival downtown. To get there, I drove for an hour past bank after bank of dazzling Black-eyed Susans, aflame in the sunlight. The van is great, the vestry has done its due diligence and approved the purchase ; Now all that’s left is to wire money on Monday and figure out how to get the van up to Montgomery.

This was not my first visit to Camden. In fact, soon after we moved up here, we took some friends to a place across the Alabama River. Gees Bend is where the river folds on itself so there is a relatively small peninsula that became world famous in the late 70’s when “The Quilts of Gees Bend” were discovered. The first time we set out to find it, we drove and drove and drove through back country roads until we finally got to a little spit of land that felt like it was at the end of the world, so cut off and isolated from what people like I know of life. The quilts and quilting were amazing and then, to top it all off, we discovered there was a ferry we could take that would carry us across the Alabama River to Camden. I have never met a boat ride I didn’t love and this one was magical.

Gees Bend Ferry Docked in Camden

What I didn’t know was that, like so much else in Alabama, that ferry had a complicated history. After the Voting Rights Act became law, the women of Gees Bend went all out to get people from their small community registered to vote. They would have to do so in Camden. And because the times were what they were, as the first elections they could vote in came close, the ferry was closed down, stopped running between Gees Bend and Camden, making it much, much more difficult for people to get to the voting booth. The people of Gees Bend did what they had to do—drive, ride or walk 40 miles each way, to and from Camden on election day. They had a few mules they used to work the hardscrabble red clay of Alabama and older folks got to ride the mules to get to vote. This all brought a lot of national attention, and even a visit from Martin Luther King.

And then the unthinkable happened on April 4th of 1968. When the family and close friends of Dr. King planned his funeral, they remembered the mules of Gees Bend. It was those mules that pulled the simple farm wagon that carried Martin Luther King’s casket down the streets of Atlanta.

There are so many kinds of journeys; some of them are so brutally hard and so remarkable for what they teach me about grit, determination and what being human really looks like. My ride to Camden, with a quick stop at the Gees Bend Ferry dock, was so easy and pleasant. The only hardship I encountered was having to get my tires checked because the pressure warning light came on while I was there. And ever since Friday, all I can think about is the journey, the walking, not for the sake or pleasure of walking; some lives don’t afford that luxury. Walking to cast a vote.

Things I’d Forgotten, Things I Learned

Lake Martin

I had forgotten a lot of things. I had forgotten that it isn’t just the path that means something on a hiking trail. It’s also about the marks on trees along the way. Yesterday, when I went on my first monthly hike on the John B. Scott Forever Wild Trail, there were places where it looked like there were three plausible directions the path could take. That’s when looking down was not enough—I had to look up, look ahead. Trail markers are a remarkably kind gift. I had forgotten there are an infinite number of small details to see when there is time to walk slowly and walking carefully is a necessity. There were beautiful little flowers all along the way. A gentle breeze blew along most of the trail and lots of leaves danced and did their pirouettes headed to the ground.

And then there were the smells. Part of the trail follows the shoreline of Lake Martin. Before I’d even seen it, I could smell the swampy terrain that I was getting to. Over and over again, I stopped to enjoy that loamy scent that’s part of any wilderness trail. It wasn’t exactly like the scent on the Tahoe Rim Trail but close enough to be recognizable. A few times, I got a whiff of a flower of some sort. I felt almost giddy, reminded that hiking is such a celebration of our incarnate being.

There were also new things to learn. Last time I went on a serious hike was in Tahoe in the fall of 2013, when I made the 30 day Ignatian silent retreat. Eight years later, my body isn’t as limber; I walk more carefully. Tomorrow I am having my cataract surgery but yesterday, I hiked with compromised vision. My depth perception is pretty bad so a couple of times, I reached for a tree trunk to hold on to and totally missed my mark, had to try again. It was a little scary and very annoying.

I found out the leggings I was wearing were way too warm for a muggy day in Alabama but that the recommendations I’d read for footwear for the Camino de Santiago were spot on. The big deal when you are walking a long distance is avoiding blisters. People do things like put a film of Vaseline on their feet as the first step in getting ready to walk. A couple of places, I’d read you should wear toe socks that wick well, and then put on another pair of socks that also wick well and provide some cushioning. Instead of hiking boots, hike running shoes that are light, fast drying and cushioned seem to work better. I got myself a pair of Altra Women’s Lone Peak 5 shoes based on those recommendations. While I didn’t do the Vaseline routine, I did everything else and boy, mine were happy toes and feetses. I had no hot spots, I had no place that rubbed, my shoes felt sturdy and provided good traction. I will certainly keep using them to hike.

Last but not least, because I am not as limber, nor have the balance I had in 2013 I need to make some accommodations for that reality. Especially in places that were slick or steep, having some extra help was essential. Yesterday I had to make due with a sturdy branch I found early in the hike to use as a walking stick but it was heavy and eventually, my arm got pretty tired. I’m going to need to get a pair of walking poles. I’m not thrilled at that prospect and I far prefer that to the alternative.

I have woken up today with only a few minor aches even after a 4 hour hike on an “intermediate difficulty” trail. That delights me. After tomorrow, God willing, I will be able to see a lot more, and that moment cannot come soon enough. This 61-year-old incarnate self still has some miles left in her. By this time in 2022, I will be home, if the pilgrimage works out. In the meantime, how cool is it that all around me there are wonderful hiking trails and I can go on these small adventures?