Mildred believed that we make spiritual progress when we live according to the calling of our “higher self” that she called as our “God-center”. She believed that when we submit to the “higher self” then our “mission in life” is also revealed to us. In her words: “Yes all humans have a calling, which is revealed to them through the awakening of their God-centered nature.”
For Mildred her mission in life came to her when she decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. On April 26 1952 Mildred began her walk and she walked for the next seven months. By the time she was done in October she knew what she had to do for the rest of her life and she also achieved complete inner peace. She had trekked more than 2000 miles and became the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail in one season. Equipped only with one shirt, a pair of slacks, one blanket, and two plastic sheets, she lived outdoors throughout her trek. Her menu, morning and evening, was two cups of uncooked oatmeal soaked in water and flavored with brown sugar; at noon, two cups of double strength dried milk, plus any berries, nuts or greens that she found in the woods.
We covered Mildred’s story of her early life in a previous post. The story took us from her early life till when she got a vision for her mission for the rest of her life. After this vision she knew that for the rest of her life she would be walking alone from city to city all across the United States of America. She got this vision while hiking the Appalachian Trail. Now as she hiked alone to finish the trail, it became clear to her that to be successful she had to reduce what she carried with her even further. This was the hardest part for her. She would have to make the leap from being a giver to being a taker. She had lived the previous 15 years of life dedicated to service of others. But now her next steps would take her into an unknown realm. She would depend entirely on the kindness of strangers. She would have to become comfortable with receiving help rather than giving it. She decided that she would walk alone without a penny in her pocket. She would eat only when offered food and take shelter only when offered one. Otherwise she would go hungry or sleep outside. The only things she would carry with her, besides the clothes she wore, would be a toothbrush, a pen, and a comb, along with a few pamphlets about her mission.
When she got back she discussed her ideas with her friends and she received a clear message of disapproval from all of them. Each one of them tried to discourage her from undertaking such a foolhardy venture. Nobody had heard of a lone woman walking penniless across the length and breadth of the United States. “You will not be safe wandering the country alone!” They protested. “You will freeze to death in the cold as you would not have blanket or even a spare change of clothes,” they warned her. But she was not to be dissuaded. She trusted the authenticity of her vision and took steps to carry it out. She got her tunic made. In the front she had the words “Peace Pilgrim” sewn on it. This would be her new name. From now on she would be known as “Peace Pilgrim”. She would be giving up her old identity completely. This belonged to the last vestiges of her life of attachment and possessions. Since she was giving up everything else it made sense that her name would also have to go too. On the back of the tunic she had the words, “25,000 miles on foot for Peace” stitched. This was exactly as per the vision she had. Later it became clear that idea of stitching the words on the back was brilliant. People would read it and approach her and talk with her. This is precisely what she wanted! She wanted to talk to people and give them the message for peace.
On January 1, 1953 she started her “Peace Pilgrimage” from Pasadena, CA. She planned to walk coast to coast from Pasadena to New York. She chose Pasadena because she wanted to walk at the head of the Rose Parade where thousands of people would see her. As she walked at the head of the parade handing out pamphlets of her mission she felt the hands of a policeman on her shoulders. She thought that he would ask her to get off the line of the march, but instead he told her, “What we need is thousands like you!” When she heard that she knew she was on the right track. What happened next was even more miraculous. She spent the next few hours after the march being interviewed by newspaper reporters! This set the stage of spreading the word ahead of her pilgrimage, so that when people saw her they recognized her and approached her. Since the entire point of her mission was to meet people and spread the message of peace, this was very critical. Also many would hear of the strict conditions of her pilgrimage and offer her food and shelter. Unlike India and the East, the US does not have a tradition of wandering monks who need food and shelter. The advanced publicity set the stage for getting the assistance she would need during her walk.
These were bad times for somebody to proclaim the message for peace. The Korean War was going on, which was in reality a proxy war for the larger Cold War that would dominate the world for the next three decades. There was danger that a nuclear holocaust could happen at any moment. Talking about peace was perceived as a sign of weakness and not viewed positively in these times. But all this did not deter the Peace Pilgrim. In fact it enthused and energized her. And when people listened to her message closely, it was really about inner peace, and this is what resonated with people. She believed that the lack of peace in the outer world was simply a symptom of the lack of inner peace inside us. When we achieve inner peace, as she herself had, outer peace would automatically follow.
What about the danger to her personal safety? Would not a lone woman be kidnapped or raped? Would not she freeze to death out in the open country in a sudden snowstorm that seem to spring up out of nowhere? The fact is that both these dangers came to pass on her very first trip across the country. But later she viewed them more as “tests” than as any real danger she faced. She called them as “tests” because never again would she face any mortal danger in the following 28 years that she roamed the country, because she passed these tests.
The first incident happened in the middle of night in the California desert. Here is the story in her own words: “The traffic had just about stopped, and there wasn’t a human habitation within many miles. I saw a car parked at the side of the road. The driver called to me saying, “Come on, get in and get warm.” I said, “I don’t ride.” He said, “I’m not going anywhere, I’m just parked here.” I got in. I looked at the man. He was a big, burly man – what most people would cal a rough looking individual. After we had talked a while he said, “Say, wouldn’t you like to get a few winks of sleep?” And I said, “Oh, yes, I certainly would!” And I curled up and went to sleep. When I awoke I could see the man was very puzzled about something, and after we had talked for quite some time he admitted that when he had asked me to get into the car he had certainly meant me no good, adding, “When you curled up so trustingly and went to sleep, I just couldn’t touch you!” I thanked him for the shelter and began walking away. As I looked back I saw him gazing at the heavens, and I hoped he had found God that night.”
“No one can walk so safely as one who walks humbly and harmlessly with great love and great faith. For such a person get through the good in others (and there is good in everyone), and therefore cannot be harmed. This works between individuals, it works between groups, and it would work between nations if nations had the courage to try it.”
This was the heart of Peace Pilgrim’s message and she had passed her “test” with flying colors. Her calling was to not just deliver a message but to show with her example the living validity of what she was talking about: That if there is peace within, peace outside follows.
The story continues next week: Peace Pilgrim’s Near Death Experience.
Related: Peace Pilgrim’s Early Life: A Saint Who Walked Her Talk