Pandemic pilgrimage: what a cross-country road trip taught me about hope

As a card-carrying extrovert, the pandemic had really done a number on me. I expected that Summer 2021 would be similar to the last one, which was a pretty bleak forecast. But when it was announced that my two kids, Veronica, 15, and David,12, would be eligible for the vaccine—and potentially some travel—my possibilities for the summer expanded. While our last family road trip was more about seeing fireflies and sites frequented by Laura Ingalls Wilder, this summer would be about reuniting with friends. No more virtual visits; this summer promised real flesh-and-blood hugs.

Forty-eight hours after a quick email to friends from my college days, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and graduate school, I had mapped out a 10,000-mile plan for my Southern California kids and I to visit nine households in seven weeks.

If at this point you had asked me what I expected from my road trip, I would have said: having a good time, seeing new sites, being with friends, rejuvenating my spirit. But I would not have said that I was about to embark on a hope-based pilgrimage. But an incarnational imagination is all about seeing the grace revealed in the ordinary, especially when it is unexpected.

No more virtual visits; this summer promised real flesh-and-blood hugs.

My first moment of hope was at the end of our first week. I remember explaining to Mary, my Airbnb host in Tennessee, that we would be going to Dollywood that day; then we would have a five-hour drive to my kids’ godparents’ house in West Virginia. “That has you driving after dark,” Mary said. After a pause, she added, “Please be careful not to hit a deer.”

I knew how serious it could be to hit a deer, so once we were off the interstate—driving local roads in the dark—I slowed down considerably. At about 10 p.m. in Athens, W.V., I saw the line of cars piling up behind me. I was well-aware that no one wanted to be behind the California plates going 10 miles below the speed limit, so I decided that I would pull off at the next turnout, slow to about 20 m.p.h., then pull in behind the last car. Simple. I saw a turnout coming up and put on my blinker.

As I pulled into the gravel turnout and slowed down, I suddenly realized this was not a turnout and I was headed straight into a culvert. I slammed on my breaks, rolling into the ditch. We tilted to the passenger side, with all the back-seat snacks rolling on top of Veronica. With the rear of the car in the air, but all of us safe, we began our ascent out of the driver’s side doors.

An incarnational imagination is all about seeing the grace revealed in the ordinary, especially when it is unexpected.

So where is hope in this?

The colloquial definition of hope is to desire a specific outcome. So yes, that was readily apparent. I hoped my car was driveable. I hoped I could crawl back in and get the car moving (despite the rear wheels being off the ground). And I hoped one of these cars would stop and just reassure me.

But the Christian definition of hope is different. It is less about outcomes and more about trust. Sure, it is connected to outcomes and human life, but it is ultimately grounded in the assurance of God’s promises (which, of course, are often made manifest in our shared life). It is about relying on God and allowing that trust to “buoy” us (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1817-18). And it was in my vulnerability and in the strangers who responded to my vulnerability that I saw goodness and found strength.

Our car butt-up on the side of a West Virginia road (Provided by author)
Our car rear-end up on the side of a West Virginia road (Provided by author)

Even before we had emerged from the car, the parade of assistance began. Three cars pulled over. The first had three 20-somethings, and they told me to turn on my hazards and to make my way out of the car. One of them called 911, and another asked if my kids wanted to wait in their car (the air was chilly for our T-shirts and shorts). The other two carloads simply asked if I was O.K. and if I needed them to wait while help arrived. I told them to go ahead; the hope had already begun its healing.

About a dozen more cars arrived before the sheriff came. In fact, just about every car that passed us on that quiet road pulled over to check in. People wanted to make sure I had cell phone service, snacks and anything else that might make my plight a little more bearable. When the sheriff did arrive, I commented that I wasn’t used to such generosity. The sheriff told me this sort of caring was pretty typical around here.

As we continued to wait (the sheriff said the tow truck would get here eventually), a caravan of two pickup trucks pulled off, and a driver asked if I could use a tow. I laughed at myself and said, yes, but that a tow truck was on its way. He said he had a chain in the back, that he could tow me out no problem.

So here is where my California kicked in, and the questions started racing through my mind: If this goes wrong and my axle breaks, what then? Would this well-meaning man be somehow liable? Would it end my warranty? What if towing me out damages his car? Hope was being crowded out. I turned to the sheriff and, as though he could hear my thoughts, he said, “Cars end up in ditches all the time, and we just pull each other out when we can.”

The Christian definition of hope is different. It is less about outcomes and more about trust.

So it began. I got back in my car and put it in neutral, while the sheriff pulled into the road to protect the truck and my car as I was towed back onto the road. I needed to take a leap of faith here. A man outside my car told me what to do while another person kept an eye on my car and guided the driver. A 5-year-old screamed angrily from one of the trucks, “I want to help tow the car!” I felt the rear of my car lurch down and backward, slowly, steadily rising out of the culvert.

I got out of my car and thanked the caravan with the most enthusiastic gratitude I’d felt in a long time. They smiled and wished me a safe arrival.

After over a year of avoiding strangers, circumstances forced us into proximity. And I remembered the warmth that can happen in these anonymous encounters.

But it was certainly not just the strangers who brought me hope, but my long-missed friends, as well. There was one friend whom I had not seen since we lived next door to each other in a co-ed dorm 24 years prior. Yet, he happily opened his home to us for three nights. My kids’ godparents hosted us at the Alderson Hospitality House, a Catholic Worker home they run that welcomes guests visiting their mothers, wives and daughters in the local women’s prison. We stayed with friends in Brooklyn whom I sponsored in their confirmation decades ago. We visited for a week in the D.C. area with a family we lived in intentional community with in graduate school. My kids met Mike, my roommate from my days in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Detroit, and his wife and kids. Two families made room for us in the Bay Area where we played games and chatted late into the night.

Every person and relationship was so different, and yet the story was the same: Quality relationships do not fade but await your return. Love carves a space for you and saves it. When you leave, the space does not get filled. We feel the holes we save for others now and then, but our hearts wait in hope that the hole will be filled again one day.

Love carves a space for you and saves it.

And I feel those holes all the more with these recent visits. My thoughts of my friends were more like wistful memories before our recent visits. Now there is a longing. But it isn’t a longing that hurts. Instead, it is a longing that buoys. A few days after our trip, David said out of nowhere, “I wish everyone we saw on our road trip lived in our neighborhood.” Relationships, and longing during absences, are simply fundamental to being human.

In addition to my car being towed and my visits, I had other experiences of tenderness and care toward others that evoked hope.

Eating popovers in Maine (Provided by author)
Eating popovers in Maine (Provided by author)

There is an island off the coast of Maine, Mt. Desert Island, that is accessible by bridge. When I was 18, I took a road trip there and thought it was so beautiful. I was not disappointed upon returning 25 years later. From rugged coastlines to misty hilltops to cedar groves, the island remains stunning. I was exploring breakfast options on my computer—which was not an option 25 years ago—and I found the Common Good Soup Kitchen, which holds popover fundraiser breakfasts most mornings to help run their soup kitchen and food pantry programs. With popovers as big as your face, it is amazing that the sense of community at their outdoor tables is even bigger. This group reminded me that any talent can be used to bring folks together and lift up others.

While we were in the D.C. area, we learned that our pastor died from complications following a surgery. It was horribly sad news made more difficult by the fact that we would not be home in time for the funeral. But I thought of a way to honor his passing that we could only do while traveling. Our pastor grew up in Detroit, and here and there his homilies would incorporate childhood memories from his home parish, the Church of the Transfiguration (now renamed for St. John Paul II).

After phoning the parish in the four-day window we were in Detroit, it didn’t look like we could get in. The parish only offered Sunday Masses, and the parish secretary was planning to head home soon and wouldn’t be back for the next few days. She asked why I wanted to pray inside this church. When I explained we wanted to light a candle for our pastor who grew up there, she replied, “Come on over. I’ll wait for you.” And she didn’t rush us out. Instead, after our prayer, she showed us a few architectural features of the church and asked us about our trip. Her gentleness and hospitality are a gift to the church.

Hearts to benefit the Mighty Oakes Heart Foundation (Provided by author)
Hearts to benefit the Mighty Oakes Heart Foundation (Provided by author)

As we were making our way west again, we stopped in St. Louis. I asked my old Jesuit Volunteer roommate, Mike, why there was a 15-inch red heart on the trees in his and his neighbors’ yards. He said a boy named Oakes was born with a congenital heart defect in 2011. After several major surgeries, he passed at 15-months-old. Oakes’s parents, Becky and Greg Ortyl, started the Mighty Oakes Heart Foundation, which helps financially and emotionally support families with children born with heart defects so that they may, as their vision statement says, “have hope amidst the chaos.” Folks in the area buy the hearts to benefit the organization and fix them to their trees as a sign of solidarity. Hope consoles our hearts and points us to others.

As I have pivoted from this road trip to preparing to teach my semester courses, the summer experiences have stayed with me. In the (albeit few and fleeting) reflective moments peppered throughout my day, I’ve realized that hope is a virtue that I too often neglect, write off or misunderstand.

When we think about emerging into a post-pandemic society, let’s put hope near the top of the list of virtues we’ll use to discern who we—as individuals and as a society—want to become in this new world. I invite us to think about helping strangers, gathering with long-missed friends or getting involved in community projects over the coming months, and when we do, let’s be intentional about seeking hope. We’ll all be better people because of it.