Atlas Unplugged

Author: Carol Schaal

MIssissippi River photography/Getty images

Awakening from a dream, I jump out of a strange bed — “Where am I? What am I doing here?”

Scanning the room, I detect no imminent threats. It looks like a cross between your grandmother’s cozy guest quarters and an unexpectedly tidy college dorm. In a moment, everything becomes clear. This is the Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, housed in a wing of the Saint Rose Convent, and I’m here to embark on a pilgrimage following the Mississippi River 150 miles northwest to Minneapolis.

That explains my dream, which was disconcertingly literal. In it, I am supposed to be setting out on a journey somewhere in the mountains of Europe, but I can’t get started because of a series of bizarre obstacles worthy of a Three Stooges movie. Instead of being relieved it’s only a dream, I am anxious, recalling in minute detail the doubts that accompanied me to bed the night before.

This trip represents a longed-for adventure, which I squeezed into a crowded autumn schedule in the hope that four days away from my desk exploring spiritual questions will instill me with the inspiration I need to meet a deluge of deadlines waiting back home. Right now, as my wristwatch on the nightstand reads 4:45 a.m., that seems crazy.

For one thing, I’ve neglected to make proper preparations for a pilgrimage — both logistically and mentally. After buying a one-way Amtrak ticket and booking lodging for the ride, I got caught up in other things and gave little thought to the pilgrimage until yesterday. Indeed, I had no idea of where to find the Saint Rose Convent when I landed at the La Crosse depot. Luckily, a guy I met on the train offered to drive me, which I accepted even though my goal was to travel only by foot and bicycle all the way home to Minneapolis.

That raises another concern — can you legitimately make a pilgrimage on a bike? You never hear of spiritual explorers pedaling their way to Mecca, the Holy Land or the Ganges. But I have only four days, not six months like pilgrims of the Middle Ages who walked hundreds of miles to holy destinations all across Europe. I’m not even sure anymore what I hope to discover. I feel guilty about leaving my wife and teenage son when I have no clear purpose in mind.

By now I am wide awake, and it’s only 5:05. Two hours and 55 minutes until first call for breakfast. I remember spotting the Catholic Cathedral of Saint Joseph the Workman on the edge of downtown last night as I looked for a restaurant open late. They must offer an early Mass, I figure, so after a shower I hop on my bike in pursuit of spiritual revelation.

The idea of taking a pilgrimage has gripped me for some time. Time to think — away from the demands of email, voicemail and my overstuffed calendar — sounds luxurious and restorative. I have particular problems to sort out, too — notably how I can finish all the projects ahead of me without sacrificing everything else in my life. In truth, I’ve always found it difficult to balance family and community with the demands of work.

For several years now I’ve dreamed of walking the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile route stretching from Southern France across the north of Spain to Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of Saint James the Apostle are said to rest in the local cathedral. As many as 500,000 pilgrims a year visited during the Middle Ages, including Francis of Assisi, but the tradition of pilgrimages began to fade in the 16th century under attacks from Protestant reformers, who deemed the practice corrupt and pagan.

In 1974, Linda Kay Davidson and David Gitlitz, authors of Pilgrimage: From the Ganges to Graceland, reported seeing no other pilgrims when they traveled the entire length of the trail. Yet by 2011, the number of pilgrims visiting the Santiago de Compostela cathedral for the ceremonial end of the journey rose to 179,919, according to church records.

The Camino de Santiago, restored as a pedestrian path in the late 1980s after several pilgrims walking along the highway were hit by trucks, is being rediscovered by people of all spiritual inclinations. It’s the setting of a recent Hollywood film, The Way, directed by actor Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen, as a gruff, agnostic ophthalmologist from California who walks the trail after his son dies there during an unexpected snowstorm in a mountain pass.

Santiago is not the only medieval pilgrim route attracting new interest. Saint Olav’s Way, a 400-mile Norwegian trek from Oslo to Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, draws visitors from around the world. “Like a necklace, it links ancient churches, chapels, shrines, sacred springs and monasteries along the way,” enthused American travel writer Julie Whipple.

The renewed interest in spiritual journeys represents a universal human instinct, according to Leonard Biallas ’61, author of Pilgrim: A Spirituality of Travel and distinguished professor of theology at Quincy University in Illinois. “Our hearts are restless. It’s the archetype of leaving home and returning home, transformed,” he says, noting that pilgrimages are central to nearly all religions, and have remained a Christian tradition — but usually taken by car, train or plane, not on foot. “People are becoming interested in walking again,” he says, “because they want to get in touch with the earth.”

The Catholic element of pilgrimage holds considerable appeal to me. Wavering between lapsed and observant, I find myself drawn to the customs and practices of Catholicism even as I bristle at some of the doctrines. Following the footsteps of Catholic seekers going back centuries feels like an honest expression of my faith.

But I can’t afford the time or money to walk across Spain right now, so I decide to find a pilgrimage closer to home that I can travel on bike — a two-wheeled mini-Midwestern version of the Way of Saint James. I don’t have to look far. The Mississippi River, which flows just a few miles from my house, has always felt sacred to me. Indeed, the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto must have felt the same when he named it Rio de Espíritu Santo (River of the Holy Spirit) in 1541. So also must have the Native Americans who’ve lived here for centuries, erecting impressive earthwork mounds up and down the river.

A distinctly Catholic flavor permeates many communities along the upper Mississippi. Just a few hundred yards downstream from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, miles from the nearest town, sits tiny Saint Catherine Church, which appears to stake a Catholic claim to the river from the very start. A succession of river cities — Saint Cloud, Saint Paul, Winona, La Crosse and Dubuque — are all Catholic strongholds, along with smaller communities such as Fort Madison, Iowa, which when my father grew up there boasted three sizable Catholic churches and two Catholic high schools in a town of 14,000.

And now the creation of the Mississippi River Trail, a bike route under development along the river from Louisiana to Minnesota, makes it easier for middle-age pilgrims like me to consider such a journey.

I’m not the only one thinking about how Americans can become pilgrims without flying to Spain or India. Ron Briery, a retired music teacher who’s done the Santiago de Compostela four times, charted an 800-mile walking route from San Diego to Sonoma, visiting the 21 California missions established in the 1700s. He made the trek over 54 days in the spring of 2011 and is now writing a guidebook. “I’m not a religious person,” he admits, “but hiking gives you the time to relax and think about where you are in the world. That’s spiritual for me.”

So this is why I find myself in La Crosse, Wisconsin, riding my bicycle toward the Cathedral of Saint Joseph the Workman as the first glimmer of dawn lightens the sky.

The Cathedral itself stands as a challenge to one of my most fervent beliefs: that modernist church architecture is an abomination. Finished in 1962, it is simply beautiful — a minimalist masterpiece that achieves Gothic grandeur out of stone, glass, steel and wood. I’m so enraptured looking around that I mostly tune out the message of the Mass.

As worshippers file out of the church heading for jobs and daily duties, I stay behind to study the building. I spend a long time in the chapel at the back of the church where five windows depict sites of Marian devotion around the world: Fatima, Lourdes, Guadalupe, Częstochowa and the revelation of the Miraculous Medal in Paris. In the pews, I find a prayer card quoting Pope John XXIII: “Permit me to work in peace, patience and moderation.” That seems a direct answer to my prayers.

When I am finally ready to head back to the Franciscan Spirituality Center for breakfast, the 8 o’clock Mass begins and I sit back down. Morning light shines through the stained glass windows, projecting lovely splotches of red and blue onto the stone walls. I feel at peace.

There’s a refrain in the service I completely missed the first time: “God delights in his people.” That strikes right at the heart of my quibbles with the Church and struggles in my own soul. Religion to me often feels like a scolding litany of all my sins, my faults, my unworthiness. The essential message of love and forgiveness seems to take a backseat. Perhaps this is a reflection of my own perfectionism — the inner drive that pushes me to work too hard and then judge myself harshly about it. I find joy in the thought that someone on high takes delight in me.

Stuffing two small suitcases into the saddlebags of my bike and saying goodbye to the generous staff at the Franciscan Spirituality Center, I decide that if the Mississippi River ever becomes a popular pilgrimage route then this comfortable spot on the campus of Viterbo University would be well-suited as a stopover, like the monasteries and auberges (hostels) serving pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago.

On this unseasonably cold September morning, I’m wearing practically all the clothing I packed. The forecast predicts rain, and I fret that I paid more attention to choosing which books to bring than what gear. But I can’t worry about that right now. The first order of business is finding the best way out of town. I pop into the local bike shop for guidance, and they point me toward the Great River Trail, a biking-and-walking path along an old rail line that takes me almost all the way to my day’s destination — Winona, Minnesota.

At last, I’ve got an open road in front of me and lots of space to think. Nothing matches the sensuous satisfaction of swooshing under my own power, feeling connected to everything around — the breeze, the sunshine, the muscles in my legs, the landscape, the people passing by. A good spin on a bike is one part sightseeing tour, one part meditation session and one part joy ride.

In a short while the river appears, and my spirits soar even higher. I am reminded of lines from poet T.S. Eliot, who grew up on the Mississippi in Saint Louis, “I don’t know much about gods; but I think that the river is a strong, brown god.”

When the Mississippi curves out of view, I content myself with woods, wildflowers, prairie grasses and the fact that it’s not raining yet. The gravel trail is dotted with walnuts still encased in green hulls. When I stop for lunch at the Trempealeau Hotel, which has been in business since the 1880s, I order the “famous walnut burger,” which is scrumptious washed down by a Spotted Cow Ale from the nearby New Glarus Brewing Company — the Wisconsin equivalent, I decide, of dining on local lamb and red wine in northern Spain.

Back on the bike, I pedal into the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, one of many nature preserves that line the river. It’s a reminder of how wild the river still is. Forty percent of all migrating waterfowl in North American pass through here on their journeys north and south. I’ve always known how important wetlands are to the ecological balance but never before considered how beautiful they are in their own right. I ride a long loop through the refuge, adding probably five miles to my journey, to see more of the birds, the marshes and the river itself.

Unfortunately, the Great River Trail ends at the wildlife refuge, and I am deposited onto the narrow shoulder of State Highway 35 for a nerve-wracking four-mile ride toward the bridge that will carry me across the river to Winona. It’s about 5 o’clock and the traffic on the road is thick with drivers hurrying home. To make matters worse, my bike is making funny noises.

A new worry gnaws at me: What if I don’t make it all the way to Minneapolis? Although I bike almost every day, I’ve never undertaken a long journey like this. It seems the height of hubris for a guy in his 50s — who can’t fix a flat and hasn’t done a lick of training — to undertake a 160-mile journey on a cheap, beat-up bike with little thought of steep river bluffs, busy highways and other perils along the way. And now my knee is starting to hurt.

Doubts increase with each turn of the pedal, making me recognize that a lot of time to think is not always a positive experience. One hopeful scenario, however, pops into my head. It’s likely the bike will break down before I do. Then I can blame the bike, not myself, when people ask why I did not finish my pilgrimage.

My bike rattles and the back wheel wobbles as I cross the river bridge and turn off onto Winona’s Main Street. Luckily I spot a bike shop and roll in. The diagnosis: broken spokes. The cause: too much weight in my luggage. The cure: two new spokes for $17. The prognosis: more broken spokes.

Sitting in a local tavern, I tell Reggie McLeod, editor of Big River magazine — which chronicles the attractions, culture and ecology of the upper Mississippi — about my plans for a riverside pilgrimage. He considers the idea. “Well, we meet a lot of people every summer who take a journey on the river as a vision quest, going from Itasca to the gulf as a transformative experience. Most of them travel by boat. . . .” He takes another sip of pale ale. “But I guess you could do it on a bike.”

The next morning I wake up early at my bed-and-breakfast, a stately, turn-of-the-19th-century mansion in a neighborhood that seems to sport handsome homes as far as the eye can see. I decide to attend early Mass at Saint Stanislaus Kostka, a red brick palace with a white dome resembling a state capitol, built in 1895 to serve Winona’s burgeoning Polish population.

Architecturally, its Victorian exuberance is as moving as Saint Joseph the Workman’s mid-century restraint. I stay in the pew after the closing hymn and wonder if an idea I’ve associated with Buddhism flows just below the surface in Catholicism, too: the power of the present moment. What attracts me most about Catholic practices — candles, chants, bells, statues, architecture, music, stories, bread and wine — shifts my attention from thinking about what needs to be done next and focuses me instead on what’s happening right now. It dawns on me that the point of this pilgrimage is not finding time to think but taking time to experience.

I vow to explore this feeling further — as soon as I visit the post office to mail home the books and other heavy objects in my luggage. I don’t want to break any more spokes. A long line is in front of me, but for once I don’t mind because the sun is streaming through the post office windows and the woman behind the counter is quite pretty. I realize the magic of the present moment doesn’t happen just in churches.

I pedal through the neighborhoods of Winona toward the big box stores and strip malls that infect the outskirts of almost every U.S. city. My harrowing experience on the state highway yesterday makes me anxious about traveling the much busier U.S. 61 on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi today. Yet this shoulder turns out to be quite wide, and once I get accustomed to the sudden whoosh of trucks speeding past, it’s not scary or unpleasant. The terrain is hillier than yesterday, but the heights afford sweeping vistas of the river valley dotted with wooded islands.

Something about the Mississippi always thrills my soul. It’s not just the size and the scenery but the sheer awe it inspires — bending and rolling just as it pleases through the middle of America. After declaring the river “a strong brown god,” T.S. Eliot describes it as “untamed and intractable.” That sounds right.

The Mississippi goes back a long way in my family. My Walljasper ancestors arrived in New Orleans from Westphalia, Germany, on Christmas Eve 1846, and headed upriver to Iowa before it was a state. My grandparents lived three blocks from the river, and my dad, brother and I walked over there every time we were in town. Dad was a champion rock skipper, side-arming flat stones across the surface of the water that bounced seven or eight times before they sank. I turn off on a side road winding down to the water’s edge and toss a few rocks myself. I am missing my dad as much right now as when he died 17 years ago.

My dad always stressed the virtue of doing your very best. Indeed, when I was in college and heard about sociologist Max Weber’s theory of the Protestant work ethic, my response was: “Max Weber never met my dad. The Protestants have nothing over him when it comes to getting things done.”

He worked long hours as a teacher, coach and school principal but at home was always available to play with my brother and me and to enjoy what he loved most — talking about history, sports and politics. For me, too many evenings and weekends are spent putting the finishing touches on projects or answering emails.

I cross the river again at Wabasha, Minnesota, a town of 2,500 that is home to the National Eagle Center and Saint Felix Catholic Church, which looks large enough to serve a city 10 times this size. Back in Wisconsin, I’m nervous about returning to Highway 35 but the shoulder is comfortably wide here. I pass though the town of Stockholm, and a few miles up the road witness one of the most luscious sunsets of my life over Lake Pepin, a 22-mile-long natural reservoir (caused by sediment entering the Mississippi from the Chippewa River) that marks the widest natural point in the river’s 2,500 mile journey: two-and-a-half miles. In the sunlight, the bluffs on the far bank glow like golden embers in a dying campfire. I feel blessed to enjoy it from the vantage point of my bicycle seat.

Then all of a sudden I’m ambushed by a swarm of tiny bugs. It feels like the scene from Star Wars when spacecraft from the Rebel Alliance attack the Death Star. I am the Death Star. I pedal with one hand waving up and down in front of my face so that I can see the way. It’s a technique I learned biking through snowstorms in Minneapolis.

I arrive in Maiden Rock (population: 119) in one piece and quickly locate the old schoolhouse that a couple has been fixing up as an inn for 15 years. I describe the insect infestation I just escaped, and they both shake their heads, saying they’ve never heard of anything like it.

The next morning I get an early start. It’s a good thing, because this is the longest day of my pilgrimage (70 miles) with the steepest bluffs. And I am really eager to see my wife and son.

The road grows dauntingly steep north of Maiden Rock. It takes me a half-hour to reach the top of one hill, standing up on the pedals to pump more power. That’s when it strikes me — savoring the present moment is essential to a pilgrimage. Otherwise you’ll go bonkers counting down the minutes to the top of the hill, the hours until dinnertime, the days to your destination. The giddy rush I feel descending this bluff teaches me another lesson about living in the moment. Hold on for dear life and enjoy the ride. Whee!

By the time I hit Prescott, Wisconsin, where the Saint Croix River joins the Mississippi, I’m famished. It’s Saturday and I walk into one of the Main Street bars, finding everyone engrossed in the Notre Dame game on television. I savor a greasy sandwich and an Irish touchdown against Pitt.

I assume the bluffs I just conquered would be the biggest challenge of the trip, but crossing the river back into Minnesota I uncover a bigger one. As it nears the Twin Cities suburbs, the Mississippi River Trail abandons increasingly busy Highway 61 for a series of back roads and bike trails. I photocopied these directions out of a guidebook before mailing it home from Winona. Now I can’t find them. I think I remember the way, so I climb back on the bike. All goes well for about 15 miles, until I find myself hopelessly lost in an exurban wasteland surrounded by busy roads.

I stop, take a deep breath and look for a sign — either a bike-trail marker or one from the heavens. Finding neither, I decide to head down a street that looks less important than the others. After taking a curve at the bottom of a hill, the skyscrapers of downtown Saint Paul come into sight, with the cathedral of Saint Paul on the bluffs in the background. Hallelujah! It’s still miles away, but I know I’ll make it in time for the 7 p.m. Mass. And from there, it’s a mere 60 minutes home to Minneapolis.

I pick up a bike trail that cuts through the woods, emerging right on the doorstep of downtown. Most of the riverfront land in the Twin Cities is managed by the National Park Service and offers city dwellers remarkably easy access to wild nature. I stop to watch a Somali family fishing together on the embankment then notice — what? — a gondola gliding along the far bank.

I look again. It’s definitely a gondola, complete with gondolier, and I can hear a band belting out a Dean Martin song in the distance. Must be some kind of Italian festival at the park across the river. A look at my watch reassures me there’s time to head over there before Mass, but first I want to call my wife, Julie, to tell her I’ll be home soon.

Julie’s got an idea. One of our favorite restaurants is just a few blocks from the cathedral. She proposes to meet me there after Mass for a celebration, and afterward she’ll drive the bike and me back home. I must be really tired, she says. Actually I’m not tired, and this means I won’t achieve my aspiration of biking all the way from La Crosse to Minneapolis. Without hesitation, I answer “yes!” happily realizing this makes a perfect ending to my pilgrimage, not a perfectionist one.

My biggest revelation on the road to Saint Paul is that the joys right in front of me count for more than the abstract goals I often try to impose on the world.

In the months since the Mississippi bike ride, I am applying this lesson — however imperfectly — in many ways in my own life. It helped pull me through my frantic autumn schedule without becoming a stranger to friends and family, and continues to enrich my experiences every day. I now enjoy, at least part of the time, a closer connection to what’s going on around me, from church bells and bird songs to children’s laughter and impromptu conversations.

I’m not a totally changed man. I still work too many weekends and feel frustrated when things don’t turn out as planned. But when I lose sight of the present moment, sometimes it’s because I’m busy plotting further pilgrimages — biking the Mississippi from Fort Madison to La Crosse . . . or walking the North Shore Trail along Lake Superior . . . or hiking along the Saint Lawrence River through Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula, which I read about an Iowa family doing . . . or someday trekking the Camino de Santiago.

Jay Walljasper, editor of, is author of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons and The Great Neighborhood Book. See his website.