Highbanks Road: Where All Things Are Possible

A photo I took a few years back where Highbanks Road dead ends into the St. Francis River.

I’ve thought a lot about roads lately–especially the ones that seemingly end in the middle of nowhere. We call them dead ends.

One day, thirty-two years ago, I had a revelation on an old dead-end road. It was a moment that still guides me.

Everyone back home knows it as Highbanks Road. There are no directional signs that point you there. None that identify it by name for that matter. But it’s a two-mile east-to-west passage “out in the country” as we say, between Arkansas Highway 139 and the St. Francis River dead ending into the muddy waters flowing along the western edge of the heart of the old Macey Community. It’s unremarkable and undistinguished, a few homesteads along the way, most dotting the corners of 40-acre cotton fields, and each with a signature name like Tiny’s Forty, Turkey Run, or Bobby Joe’s down on the corner. When two vehicles meet on Highbanks Road the drivers wave to one another. It’s the code of the community.

It’s also the road where I grew up my first twenty years, and it taught me a lot about life.

County Road 514 as it became known in the progressive 90s was a simple gravel thoroughfare maintained by the county road department. What that really meant was a monthly pass with a road grader, and you were sure-as-the-world bound to get a nail in your tire next trip to town, so you cussed every time the grader appeared knowing you’d have to spend money at Dean’s Tire Store. The grader driver had a big mustache and kept a big coffee Thermos in the cab. I remember that. He looked so comfortable in the air-conditioned cab on those oppressive July days when I chopped cotton on our home place and he’d creep by with the cringing noise of blade against rock. But he always waved. So I waved, too, but couldn’t stop thinking about how hot I was and how cool he must feel. Youth on the farm was so unfair.

Each winter season for two months sportsmen from across the countryside pulled camouflaged boats and motors with pickup trucks to Highbanks Landing lickety-split before sunup every morning. They were in search of mallard ducks from the surprisingly cozy confines of their heated duck blinds. Some loved the hunting, others were just along for the fellowship and tall tales. A few sought undeserved respite from their wives who wished their husbands would do more productive things than hunt ducks, drink beer, and fall asleep on the couch.

The town drunk, Oscar Wiles frequented Highbanks Road in an old brown Ford Maverick. Old Oscar got drunk three times a week on whatever he could find and you’d often find him passed out in a ditch snoring, tobacco juice running down his chin and onto his shirt. Depending on the angle Oscar hit the ditch at least one of the Maverick’s wheels revealing balding tires was always suspended mid-air. People said Oscar never broke a bone because the booze loosened him up so much.

“Having trouble?” my dad would ask as we pulled up on the scene. Oscar growled unintelligibly. “I’ll be fine. Go on,” he’d eventually say.

We pulled him out from road ditches a hundred times if one. Oscar eventually died in one of those accidents when he crashed into a ditch and the car went ablaze. People secretly swore a local troublemaker killed Oscar for sport. He was surely mean enough the story was credible.

Someone gave me a pair of roller skates for Christmas the year I was eight and I wondered how in the heck they expected me to learn skating on a gravel road. Might have been the most disappointing gift I ever got. Funny thing is, I actually tried. You got really bored sometimes on Highbanks Road.

A few years later, daddy thrilled me when he bought an old rusty go-cart frame and a brand new four horsepower motor to drive it. I recall it as the most adventurous summer of my life loading up bait and fishing pole each afternoon heading to the ditches toward the river and pulling in endless stringers of bream, goggle-eye and perch. Going fishing alone on that old rickety four-wheeled-bucket-of-bolts contraption made me feel like the king of the world, the captain of my soul. Remembering it makes me so happy for how that young boy felt. It was pure liberation.

The summer of my eighteenth year is a time I still recall as critical in shaping a personal life view. It seemed abrupt that summer season that I had no girlfriends to date, no buddies with whom I could spend time, and it was the first time I remember feeling truly lonely. It may have been my first introduction to depression. But it was a time of extended contemplation for a young man beginning to think about things in a deeper way.

I spent a lot of time reading the bible that summer and also fighting the anxiety that comes with a personality always looking for the next thing. Waiting has always been so hard. I also spent considerable time each evening around sunset riding a bike or just walking along Highbanks Road. As the sun would slip past the treeline marking the river and setting the sky ablaze as red fire, I’d wonder about the other side of the world where the sun now rose. People of different skin color, languages, customs, things I’d only read about in the leather-bound Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias. Big dreams of faraway places were born on Highbanks Road that summer.

One especially tranquil sunset that summer brought the most peaceful hope when it made me think about the rural, isolated dead-end road, and how it lead out on its other end to Highway 139. From there, it lead everywhere. You could go north to St. Louis or south to Memphis and from there, well, nothing stopped you from there.

In that moment, everything changed. The epiphany was almost spiritual.

Highbanks Road wasn’t a dead-end at all. It was just a starting point to all other destinations. It would take you every other place in the world if you’d let it.

But getting those places was my responsibility. No one else would take me there.

From a dead end, all you have to do is turn around and go the other way. And from Highbanks Road, all things were possible.

Advertisements

Pilgrim Strong: An Interview with Author Steve Watkins

An interview with my Seattle friend, Beth Jusino who will release her own “camino” book in 2018.

camino times two

There are dozens of books written about people’s personal experience on the Camino. Today, a new one will be added to the list, and I’m particularly excited about it.

51yP+8A6UqL

This is Pilgrim Strong, by my friend (and tattoo buddy) Steve Watkins.

Steve walked the Camino Frances (St Jean Pied-de-Port to Santiago) in the fall of 2015, setting out just a few weeks after I returned from my own adventures. He traveled to Spain by himself, and he took full advantage of social media and his own storytelling skills, posting almost daily updates, videos, and photos to the American Pilgrims of the Camino Facebook group. He attracted thousands of followers who journeyed vicariously with him through a winter Camino, complete with snowstorms and empty albergues.

Screenshot 2017-10-28 14.39.13 A screenshot from one of Steve’s many videos from his Camino journey, shared on Facebook

Those posts, and the encouragement he got from his…

View original post 1,787 more words

Pilgrim Strong – The People Who Didn’t Get a Byline

(Blogger’s Note: This long journey of walking, writing, and marketing comes mostly to a close in three days – at least this particular experience. Our Amazon Launch Day is Wednesday when we’ll get a fair measure about the kind of book Pilgrim Strong will become. As we promote and push over the next three days, I hope you’ll help spread the word to those who could use a good message about hope, truth, perseverance, and the true meaning of strength. Proper thanks is so important. Counting all who contributed to this book (especially several thousand friends across social media) is impossible, but the key players are mentioned below. )

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

A wise mentor once shared his beliefs that nobody achieves anything significant without the help of others, and there is no such thing as the self-made man. His realization is as true in book writing as anywhere else I know. There is so much gratitude to give for this two-year journey.

Thank you to each of my walking companions across those 500-plus miles, and for the stories we shared. My deepest thanks goes to Naomi White and Aïda Guerrero Rua, my Camino sisters. You will always be family.

A team of five committed they would pray for me each day during my walk, and indeed they did. Jim Jackson, Kathy Qualls, Steve Terrell, Keith Richardson, and Maria Blount—thank you, my brothers and sisters in Christ.

The experience would not have been the same without the Facebook forum American

With Annie O’Neil at the 2016 Hot Springs Film Festival. Annie authored the Pilgrim Strong foreword.

Pilgrims on Camino (APOC), a place that graciously allowed sharing daily thoughts about pilgrimage. APOC is an incredible resource.

Everything about Annie O’Neil makes me smile. Her documentary filmmaking is a creative inspiration and her friendship highly prized. Thank you for contributing to this work, Annie. You’re one of the great pilgrims.

My informal creative team is incredible. Brad Harris is a master wordsmith who’s helped me become a more thoughtful, relational writer. When I hired Brad five years ago, I needed a developmental editor. What I got was a real mentor and friend. Thanks also to Anita

With my primary style and content editor, Brad Harris.

Agers Brooks and Beth Jusino who allowed me to pick their brains in countless email exchanges. This book is better because of you both.

Visually, this work belongs to cover designer Jenn Reese, interior designer Colleen Sheehan, and freelance designer Hanne Pelletier. You three rock. Thank you for sharing your gifts and giving my work the perfect look.

Raney Rogers is the mild-mannered genius who produced all promotional trailers for Pilgrim Strong. Raney, you nailed it every single time. Thank you for understanding my vaguest visions, and producing work I could never create on my own. It would be in error not to mention the inspiration of Terry Watson, pastor of the Rock of Northeast Arkansas from whom I diligently take notes each Sunday. He stimulated much of the creative thinking for the topics of monotony and proving ground detailed in chapters twenty-four and twenty-five.

Finally—my family. Thanks to my mom who has an unblemished streak of fifty-one years now as my trusted cheerleader. She has never once failed me. To my children, Adam, Emma, and Sophie—there is hope for the world in each of you. I love you to the core of my soul.

And to my wife, Dana. Suddenly, words fail me. Thank you for saving my life, and then for encouraging me to live. I’m so blessed you came along. Every man should know the love of a woman like you. I love you to eternity.

-30-

Pilgrimage: Ancient Practice Now With Some Modern Tensions

(Blogger’s Note: Roni Jackson-Kerr and I became acquainted, interestingly, by way of technology. We connected between her pilgrimage and mine in the fall of 2015 and remain friends. As she nears completion for the Ph.D in Communication, Jackson-Kerr has become a research leader in a field of interest to us both. She’s in the final days of completing her doctoral dissertation examining the role of modern technology as it blends with the ancient practice of pilgrimage. She has titled her work,  An Ancient Practice in the Modern Age: An Examination of the Camino de Santiago and the Impact of Technology on Modern Pilgrimage. Jackson-Kerr is also the founder of the American Pilgrims on Camino Oklahoma Chapter (Okies on Camino). We visited recently to discuss her work in-depth.)

Roni Jackson-Kerr at the iconic Alto de Perdon in the early stretch of the Camino de Santiago near Pamplona.

Q: Historically, there was a time when the practice of pilgrimage was common, then periods when it was not so much the case. Is technology responsible for what we might think of as a resurgence in the practice?

A: Because the type of research that I did for this project was ethnographic, I am unable to make direct assertions regarding causality. What I can say is that the rise of the Internet and the resurgence of the Camino have run largely parallel to one another. The resurgence has occurred for many reasons — one being the significant investment Spain has made in the Camino routes, particularly the Camino Frances, and the promotion of the Camino de Santiago itself. I can say the mere volume of information about the Camino that is now available online has unquestionably made the pilgrimage more visible — a simple Google search for ‘Camino de Santiago’ yields more than twenty million results. Blogs, forums, books (tech is affecting self-publishing and the sheer volume of books available), podcasts, documentary films, TED Talks, YouTube videos, and web series have all flourished in recent years. People are sharing their journeys on social media, inviting those in their social network to come along. The increase in available information and visibility is undoubtedly significant.

Q: Understanding that your research is objective in nature, what do you see is both the best and worst impacts of technology on pilgrimage?

A: (As an aside) No research is wholly objective. There is an element of subjectivity to even the most empirical of studies. Ethnography does not aim to be objective in nature, because it recognizes the futility in such an effort. We cannot escape ourselves as a vehicle for the transmission of information. That said, we do try to maintain reflexivity and recognize the ways in which we might influence our own work.

With that said, what’s interesting to me about this study is the very tension between the positives and negatives of technology on this experience, and the internal tensions caused by that impact. It is not altogether separate from the concerns we have regarding the impact of technology on our lives and ourselves in general.

In many ways, technology is offering many practical benefits to pilgrims. With respect to pack weight alone, it’s remarkable how many functions our modern devices can service — our cell phone can be our camera, our diary, our map, our guidebook, our compass, our connection to the outside world (for better or worse), and much, much more.

Modern technology is also enabling pilgrims to connect with one another before ever stepping foot on the trail and making it easier than ever to maintain those connections after returning home. It’s changing the very manner in which pilgrims engage with one another in space and time. It’s offering pilgrims access to a network of others who understand the gravity of the experience and who can offer support when perhaps those back home cannot, not having experienced the pilgrimage themselves. This is no small fact. The return home particularly can be quite emotionally complex, and having easy access to a support network can be extremely helpful for those navigating the transition home.

The other side of the coin, the one that has drawn the most attention from scholars and lay pilgrims alike, is what technology may be taking away from the pilgrim experience and the pilgrimage itself. There can be no doubt that the Camino is changing, both as a result of modern technology and as a result of the increasing numbers. There is a clear delineation between the sacred nature of pilgrimage and the profane nature of modernity and commercialism, and this almost intuitive delineation is what is causing such distress among those who see pilgrimage as a sacred act. Many pilgrims complain about the commercialism of the Camino, particularly in the post-Sarria stretch. But the truth is, the merchants have always gone where the people are. This was true in medieval times as it is today. Yet, there is an observable distinction between the merchant selling pendants outside the cathedral and posters advertising an albergue stapled to every passing tree. Despite the qualitative distinction, commercialism is still commercialism. The concept of making money off of a sacred experience is uncomfortable and challenges us spiritually, rightly so.

There is also much to be said about technology as distraction. In our daily lives as well as on Camino, our devices are distracting, pulling us away from the immediacy of our experiences and separating us from those in our immediate presence. For an experience as rich as pilgrimage, that distraction can be quite troubling.

We have a lot of reflecting to do on this, as individuals and collectively. Many pilgrims lament the numbers we are seeing on the Camino today, yet we speculate how wonderful the world would be if there were more pilgrims in it. We have much to reconcile within ourselves.

With colleagues at the University of Oklahoma 2017 spring commencement ceremonies.

Q: Have you detected any common personality traits among those who are interested in pilgrimage?

A: I think those who are drawn to pilgrimage are driven toward something “more.” They see life as more than merely the passage of time, but as something to actively pursue. There is a kind of bravery associated with taking on the hero’s journey, jumping off into the unknown (although there is no doubt that technology is significantly diminishing that unknown.) Time spent on pilgrimage forces you to spend time with yourself, away from the demands of everyday life, and it offers no escape from yourself, at least as long as technological access is still mostly limited to cafes and bars (I believe strongly that we will cross a threshold when Internet access is inevitably available everywhere, all the time.) But, for the time being, I would argue that while each pilgrim is unique, there are common yearnings that drive each of us, and it’s perhaps the yearning that is universal, if not a particular personality trait.

Q: Is there any evidence that technology use during pilgrimage detracts from the experience?

A: In many ways, that is impossible to answer, because our experience is our experience. It’s the only one we know, so to speculate on what might have been can become a bit of a fool’s errand. With that said, most pilgrims I spoke with recognized that their online engagement was not without consequence. They realized that time spent blogging or scrolling through Facebook was time not spent talking with other pilgrims, exploring villages, or chatting with locals. Importantly, time spent online is also time not spent simply thinking, being alone with one’s thoughts. When going through an experience as emotionally and spiritually intense as pilgrimage, offering oneself time to contemplate and process the lessons, thoughts, and emotions of that experience is essential. And there is no question that access to our distracting devices offers a barrier to that reflective time.

“Here I saw the entirety of my dissertation; this tension between the sacred and the profane; the tension between modernity and tradition; the tension between convenience and presence. How do we reconcile an ancient practice in the modern world?”

Q: What would you classify as the most significant findings of your research?

A: I think among the most interesting findings are the dialectical tension between our desire for the conveniences of modern technology and our sense that something is being lost as a result of it. One of the clearest demonstrations of this occurred at the 2016 American Pilgrims on Camino Annual Gathering. During one session, representatives from Santiago de Compostela came forth to discuss the many investments that were being made on the CF and in Santiago, including replacing the waymarkers, opening a new pilgrim’s office in Santiago, and “putting wi-fi everywhere.” To be clear, this measure was taken in response to pilgrim demand-pilgrims want the convenience of wi-fi access, even as we lament its problems. The next representative from the Confraternity of Saint James made an announcement about a new albergue opening on the Camino Norte. At the end of her announcement she proclaimed, “There will be NO wi-fi in the albergue. That’s not what the Camino is about.” Here I saw the entirety of my dissertation; this tension between the sacred and the profane; the tension between modernity and tradition; the tension between convenience and presence. How do we reconcile an ancient practice in the modern world?

Q: So from a practical standpoint, someone asks you if they should remain “connected” or disconnect during pilgrimage. How do you answer?

A: This is such a personal decision, and it is not a small one. I find that many people felt that they remained too connected during their journey. The use of our devices has become so reflexive — we do it without even thinking about it. We engage our devices when there is a lull. We’ve become uncomfortable with the mere absence of engagement. To be sure, choosing to disconnect while on pilgrimage requires intentionality and commitment. One pilgrim said to me, “When you’re dealing with addiction, moderation does not work.” And we are addicted to our devices. I believe this is why so many people found themselves regretting the amount of time they spent on and with their devices, because moderation simply did not work. Yet for safety and practicality’s sake, I would not necessarily recommend leaving one’s devices at home. I know pilgrims who did this and for them, being totally disconnected added a layer to their pilgrim experience. However, I also met pilgrims for whom access to their devices provided a level of security or enabled them to take the trip at all. Each pilgrim must make up their own minds about how and if they will engage their devices. The key is to remain committed to the role they wish their technology to play. If it is only for emergencies, then don’t make exceptions. Otherwise the rock will begin to roll downhill and it will gain momentum.

Q: Did your research investigate multiple pilgrimage routes, or primarily the Camino de Santiago? And if more than one route, are findings consistent?

A: For this project, I focused solely on the Camino de Santiago. However, there is evidence to suggest that this phenomenon is in no way unique to this pilgrimage. One out of every three modern travelers is a pilgrim, and technology is undoubtedly affecting pilgrim travel across the board. If you Google “selfies at the Hajj” or “technology and the Kumbh Mela,” you will find that pilgrims across faith traditions are grappling with the profane influence of modernity in their sacred spaces.

Q: Does your research tell us anything about common perceptions or misperceptions regarding pilgrimage?

A: Interestingly, for all those who conducted research prior to the Camino, in an effort to minimize uncertainty and gain a sense of preparedness, most laughingly said that nothing can truly prepare you for the Camino. Yes, you can read up on footwear and footcare and you can study maps and learn how to properly use trekking poles, all of which are valuable, but there will always be unexpected challenges and obstacles, and at some point, you will have to lean on your own fortitude rather than your research. And that is the point of liberation, isn’t it? When we realize that everything we need to move forward is already in us, we don’t have to rely on cell phones or wi-fi or others. We have everything we need all the time.

Q: For many there is a period of societal re-adjustment following pilgrimage. What does your research tell us about this?

A: This is one area in which I see a significant benefit of modern communication technologies. Many pilgrims experience what’s come to be known as “The Camino Blues” after returning home from the pilgrimage. This is largely because recounting what is in many ways an ineffable experience is challenging, and while many people are interested in hearing about the journey, their interest wanes after a while, leaving many pilgrims feeling isolated as they struggle to make sense of the many lessons and experiences that the Camino offered. Today, pilgrims have much greater access to others who can more easily relate to the challenges of re-entry, and anyone with an Internet connection has instantaneous access to pilgrims around the world who can help them sort through some of those feelings as they emotionally and spiritually unpack. Forums such as Ivar’s Forum, CAMIGAS, and the American Pilgrims on Camino forum on Facebook are offering pilgrims greater access to support networks than ever before, and the expansion of local APOC chapters is enabling pilgrims to connect with fellow pilgrims in their own communities as well. All of this has been made possible (or at least made easier) by communication technologies.

Q: It’s a broad question, but did you encounter any common ways the pilgrimage experience effects things like beliefs, values, morals or other qualities that guide us through life?

A: I think the Camino provides many useful tools and lessons for life. The pilgrimage is merely a metaphor for our life journeys, right? We move ever-forward toward the inevitable end, facing many joys, challenges, and heartbreaks along the way. Our bodies slowly deteriorate. We find comfort and support in the beautiful souls who intersect our path (and some who challenge it.) Some walk with us for only a short time, and others become permanently imprinted on the journey.

I think the pilgrimage demonstrates to us our own fortitude. It shows us that we are capable of things we never imagined. It teaches us the value of a kind gesture, of service to others, of laughter, and of pain. I have been fortunate to have been in many classrooms in my life, both literal and figurative, but perhaps never one so prevailing as the Camino.

-30-