We had just left camp about 20 minutes prior, heading out on the trail at 7:20 AM. Will and I were alone on the road, as the others were well ahead of us climbing towards downtown Alto Pass, Illinois, elevation 751 feet.
The previous day, we had started the penultimate leg of a trek that had started over 3 years earlier. On December 23rd, 2019, my 4 oldest kids and I, and a couple of friends, had taken off from the easternmost terminus of the 157 mile long River to River Trail (R2R) in Elizabethtown, Illinois, overlooking the Ohio River.
On this particular morning, we had arisen after completing over 14 miles the prior day, camping near a scenic creek bed just south of Little Cedar Lake. Will had joined us on a few of our earlier segments (having not started out as the original crew), but had done more mileage and carried more weight on this leg than ever before.
As we ascended what for an undersized, yet wiry 11-year-old probably appeared like bona fide mountain, I knew he was feeling fatigue and soreness from the previous day. And yet, I also sensed that his mind wasn’t in the best place, especially as his older siblings and more accomplished hikers yelled back (largely friendly, but still pushy) encouragement from a ways ahead. Refusing to accept help with his pack, it appeared Will was committed to grinding it out at his own pace to the end.
His older brother, Matthew, had pointedly informed me a few minutes earlier (having done his own calculations) that there was no way we were making it to our planned Mass on time, which was at least 90 minutes away. I quickly responded to Matthew that all we could do was our best, and let God take care of the rest. Meanwhile, as I walked next to Will, I asked him multiple times to let me know if he was moving as quickly as he could, given the obvious toll of Saturday’s 14 miles and the current demands. I explained that he had, and was doing, an amazing job, but as we were hoping to catch Mass that morning, I just wanted to understand how he felt. He didn’t respond, and his face told a conflicted story. Immediately (part of) a quote from Thomas Merton popped into my head, which is as follows: “When we have really met and known the world in silence, words do not separate us from the world nor from other men, nor from God, nor from ourselves because we no longer trust entirely in language to contain reality.”
Here I was asking my 11-year-old son to articulate how he felt on multiple fronts; it was clear that my “adult request” was not fair given that at his age, in his tired state, he likely couldn’t articulate all that he was feeling. Instantly, I sensed that the best thing I could do was to just give him space (as so often I had realized as a parent) and let him be. And so I walked ahead of him in silence, checking back on him periodically as a couple members of our party dropped back sporadically while they picked up some trash and cans on the way out.
We reached the top of the hill and downtown Alto Pass, with dogs barking from seemingly every yard. My cousin took a quick picture of me and my oldest son, Zach, at the trail junction sign (indicating we had 21 miles left on the entire trail). I suddenly sensed that as we looped through the town and headed west for the last 3+ hilly miles, Will had turned a corner himself. Looking at the clock, which was now near quarter after 8, it still appeared that we would arrive at Mass somewhat late at best.
Yet as the dogs kept barking following us as we left town, crossing over Highway 127 and heading up the road for another climb, the Bald Knob Cross of Peace suddenly came into view. With a base at an elevation of 1,034 feet and standing 111 feet tall, it overlooked the expanse of the Shawnee Forest, through which we had spent much of our time segment hiking the R2R trail the past 3 years.
I looked back. Will was moving faster than ever, flanked by his brother and cousin. With a walking stick in hand, we made our final turn onto Bald Knob Road, with one large descent and final ascent over the next 2+ miles. Not only had his gait and pace changed dramatically, but his face no longer bore the look of someone who was grinding through a hike, even further annoyed that others were outpacing him. He seemed energized for the finish, and even the final climb would not deny him.
We arrived at the NV bus, as the fast crew had started the vehicle. When they saw us, with Will trailing just behind me and his sister, they were shocked that we were already there, especially since they had jogged stretches of the last two miles. Will was cascaded by accolades of goodwill, and we set off to retrieve our other vehicle, in route to arriving at Mass whenever we could.
At 10:23, we pulled into the parking lot at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Harrisburg, Illinois. Matthew quietly stepped out of the car with a chagrined look, acknowledging that somehow despite his worries we had made it to Mass even a few minutes early. As we filed into Church, a few of us, Will included, went to use the restroom. While waiting for the others, I picked up a free book entitled “The Wisdom of the Saints” published by Dynamic Catholic. Seeing there was a saint quote for each day, I opened it to this day, January 15th. The heading was “True Strength” and immediately I recognized the author of the day, as he is the patron of youth and mountaineers.
The quote by Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati read “Learn to be stronger in spirit than your muscles. If you are, you will be real apostles of faith in God.” On June 7, 1925, Pier Giorgio finished his last climb, dying one month later. On the back of a photo of him ascending a mountain, he wrote “Verso l’alto”, which literally means “toward the top.” For the multitudes who came to know him, it became the unofficial motto of his life.
On this particular day, Will had turned a corner in Alto Pass, where an overlook of the Cross of Peace sat just a few hundred yards away. For those particular miles, time and toil had given way to promise and possibility. He had sped toward the top, leaving no doubt of where God was calling him, and us, to be.