In the summer of 2008, I walked from Chicago, Illiniois, to Saint Paul, Minnesota, with a group that was organized by a Chicago-based organization, called Voices for Creative Nonviolence. The walk was called the Witness Against War walk. For the most part, it was a good experience. I met many people who had interesting stories to tell, and I got to see some interesting places, such as Pepin, Wisconsin (the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder), and Tomah, Wisconsin (the childhood home of cartoonist Frank King).
One day, we experienced some unexpected roadblocks in the form of the police. So here is the scenario: the Great Lakes Metra Station in the city of North Chicago, Illinois (which is a different city than Chicago, Illinois). This retelling is based on the journal that I kept during the Witness against War walk:
Just as we were ready to start walking, we were stopped by cops who said that we needed to have a permit to walk through the city of North Chicago. Oh my. This was true, even if we walked on the bike path. We were not too thrilled to hear that. We had not anticipated that sort of response so we did not know what sort of steps to take next. We stood at the station for about an hour and a half, debating with the police and with all sorts of cell phone calls going on.
One of the cops (I’ll call him Joe) told me that you can’t go through any town, carrying signs, without a permit.
“It’s like driving a car,” said Joe. “Not anyone can drive. You have to have a license.”
“That is true,” I agreed. “But a driver’s license is a privilege, not a right. The Constitution doesn’t guarantee us the right to drive. Free speech, on the other hand, is a right, not a privilege, and the Constitution is the supreme law of the land.”
“You’re right,” Joe said. But the cops did not budge. Finally, we placed all of our signs in a support vehicle, and we started walking… fast… too fast for me. After about an hour or maybe it was half an hour of what felt like speed walking, I was ready to admit failure. At the gate of the Great Lakes Naval Station (near North Chicago, in Lake County, Illiniois), I was picked up by a support vehicle. We drove to Victory Park in Waukegan, Illinois, where we were to have lunch.
I felt hot and discouraged and was probably a little dizzy. The backpack that I was carrying felt as if it had been filled with bowling balls. After a while, the rest of the group arrived, and we ate our lunch there, at the park. Later on, I learned that the cops had followed us all of the way through North Chicago.
After lunch, when we were getting ready to start our walk again, I was full of doubt. I asked myself, “Would I be able to walk again? Was I done? Was I not strong enough for the task?”
I chose not to give in to my fears, even though I felt like a failure. I put my backpack in a support vehicle and started walking with the group. No longer behind schedule, we walked at a more moderate pace through Waukegan. I observed kids playing outside and adults working in the gardens.
After a while, we got on a bike path. It was still a hot walk but, without the backpack, the walk was “do-able.”
Eventually, we arrived at a park via a wooden bridge, which I really liked. We then shuttled to Illinois Beach State Park in the support vehicle to avoid a dangerous street crossing. We had dinner, washed dishes, and I called my parents and, then, I settled into my “room” in a tent to write the day’s experience in my journal.
I concluded by saying, “It is now getting to be too dark to write, so I’ll stop. We are about 40 miles from Chicago. That already seems like another world.”
So now, twelve years after the adventure, I can ask myself what I learned from a perceived failure. And I can say that I learned that a temporary setback does not define me as a human being. I learned that not forcing my body to do something that it was not able to do at the time is perfectly okay. And I learned that having fear is not a failure, that I could confront my fears and find my inner strength.
There would be other challenges along the walk during the summer of 2008 and many more in the years to follow. And setbacks, too. But the acronym for “fail” is “First Attempt in Learning,” not “foolishly, abjectly, illogically lost.” I learned that life is an adventure and that, sometimes, there are detour signs and there are paths that are blocked for no valid reason.