I’ve been really wrapped up in Tony Ellis’ book Walking to Canterbury. At first I thumbed through it and read little snippets. Then I read the whole thing.
Ellis has written another book about walking 900 miles from Oklahoma to Alabama retracing, in reverse the “Trail of Tears” traveled by 18,000 Cherokee under the guns of 7,000 US soldiers. Four thousand died on the way and were buried in shallow graves. I’m dying to read that book.
Then Ellis, who is half Cherokee and half English, decided to explore the other branch of his family tree and take the old medieval pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. He talks about the people he meets and works in a lot of historical information about the Middle Ages and Chaucer and pilgrims.
At one hotel he meets a friendly old Scottish chap with medals on his suit, and explains he is walking to Canterbury. The man, whose name is Frank says he and his friends have just been on a pilgrimage of their own — to Normandy.
“‘Ours hasn’t been a pilgrimage of sorrow,’ Frank told me.
‘Not with Frank Atkinson on the bus,’ said [his friend] George, as he nudged me with his elbow.
‘Oh, you got to laugh at life,’ said Frank as he, too, nudged me with his elbow as if competing with George. ‘See where I skinned my nose?’
He pointed to a scab on its tip.
‘That’s where the ground jumped up to kiss me one night,’ Frank continued.
‘Aye,’ said George, ‘the ground has poor vision in the dark, for who would kiss the likes of an Atkinson otherwise.'”
There’s a lot more joshing around, and some interesting discussions of the Normandy invasion. Ellis likens the WWII heroes to Chaucer’s noble knight. Then later comes a passage that I found really moving:
‘Our group is getting smaller every trip. A few more years and we’ll be just a few hairs on a dog’s back. We lost Jimmy back in the spring. He was a good one, knew how to laught at himself.’
Frank seemed to see his friend somewhere in the great distance.
‘I’ve had a few friends die,’ I said. ‘Sometimes they say hello in my thoughts when I least expect it.’
He raised his elbow, and I assumed he aimed to poke me again. But he placed his hand on my back. ‘Aye,’ he said, ‘you understand.’
When the sadness eased from his eyes and he lowered his hand from my back he got that funny look…
‘I kept a little secret from the others,’ said Frank, ‘until Jimmy was being lowered into the ground. I had arranged for a trumpet player to hide behind a tree on the hill over the cemetery, and when I raised my hand he began to play. Oh it was sweet to watch everybody hear music as Jimmy went his way.'”