By Carol Vaughn —
We all have been on a journey of sorts these past few months, as the coronavirus pandemic changed our lives in fundamental ways.
Wachapreague resident Claire Poole recently took that journey to the literal level by circumambulating the Eastern Shore of Virginia — a 212-mile journey on foot that took 20 days.
“In these times, we are all moving in a body from one place — an ordinary or known place — to an extraordinary, unknown place…so the whole idea of pilgrimage is suddenly very apropos to every single individual in our culture, whether we know it or not,” said Poole, 66, a recently retired massage therapist who also is a spiritual director with the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia.
When COVID-19 came on the scene, the massage business was shuttered and Poole decided it was time to retire.
Her decision to walk the Eastern Shore came out of what at first was disappointment, after a planned pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in April had to be scrapped because of the pandemic.
The Camino de Santiago — in English the Way of St. James — is a network of ancient pilgrim routes stretching across Europe and coming together at the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, in north-west Spain. The Camino attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year.
Poole had been preparing for a year, both physically and mentally, for the 350-mile walk through parts of Portugal and Spain. The plan was to begin on April 22, her 66th birthday.
Instead, after initial disappointment at the trip’s cancellation, she decided to make a pilgrimage right here at home.
With husband Art providing daily transportation to and from the path, and wearing a blaze orange safety vest, she started walking March 24 at Wise Point at the southern tip of Northampton County and proceeded up Seaside Road all the way to the Virginia-Maryland state line.
Then she crossed over to Bayside Road and traveled south until she arrived again at the Shore’s southern tip on May 11, after 20 days walking.
What did she find along the way?
A new appreciation for the Eastern Shore, which she already thought she knew and loved. Still, seeing the land and its inhabitants on foot gave a new perspective.
“I’ve seen quite a bit of the Shore’s landscape and I’ve said hi to many people along the way,” Poole said.
Her overarching impression?
“I have just been stunned by the goodness of the Shore. My breath was taken away from day one with the sweetness of the landscape, but right with that is the goodness of the people…across all classes, all races, all cultures, and assumed political persuasions,” Poole said.
She walked through wealthy subdivisions, poor neighborhoods, and everything in between during the 20 days.
“To walk through neighborhoods with neither fear nor judgment…It’s easy to have judgment on both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum…so it’s an exercise in not doing that,” Poole said.
Some people she encountered asked if she was walking for exercise or if she needed help. The orange safety vest helped let most people know she was out intentionally.
People were out working in their yards and children were outside a lot this spring, in part as result of the pandemic and resulting closings of workplaces and schools.
That led to conversations as she passed by.
“There was a lot of talk about yards and the weather, or COVID, or the kids are out there, or I like your dog — just very light stuff, but (as songwriter Elvis Costello wrote) “Put your big toe in the milk of human kindness,” it’s just the milk of human kindness. It’s all over, and that’s what I encountered,” Poole said.
People sometimes ask her about memorable moments along the way.
“It’s hard, because there are so many just casual greetings. They feel good, but they feel good inside, so it’s not necessarily a story or memorable moment,” she said.
She recalled meeting a man in Guilford who has returned to live in his childhood home, where his mother raised 13 children. “I think that’s an amazing story, but a lot of it is just people in their yard.”
Still, it’s the big picture, made up of those seemingly insignificant encounters, that stands out most to Poole.
“Here on the Shore, even if we’ve lived here our whole lives, I think most of us have a pattern. We go to work, we go to Food Lion, we go to our friends’ house…Sometimes we might get in the car with our husbands or wives and explore the Shore — and that’s great; it does get you out of your rut,” she said.
The couple has done some of that type of exploring since they moved here fulltime six years ago, after buying and renovating a fixer-upper house and property in 2009.
Still, Poole’s journey on foot let her see the area in a whole new light.
“When you are walking it, it’s entirely different because you see everything and you see people and it’s extraordinarily different, so you bond with it in a whole different way,” Poole said, adding, “I really had no idea what the Shore was all about. I would have told you I couldn’t love the Shore any more, but I do.”
On the first day’s walk, Seaside Road from just north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to Capeville, she began to see things about the Shore she had not perceived before.
“I just felt the sweetness of that landscape; I wanted to weep. And the oldness of it…you get this sense of people who have lived there for their entire lives, and the people before them and the people before them — just that little world. When you are going by on the highway, you just don’t think that off to your left is an entire, self-contained world that is beautiful and has been beautiful for generations.”
Now that she has retired, Poole plans to continue her Shore walks — to return to some locations she wants to explore more and to go to some she did not get to see on her initial pilgrimage.
She is walking around 30 miles a week these days.
The journey has been more than merely physical for Poole.
“It’s so unified for me now, my sense of the Shore. It’s not this group of people and this political persuasion and this race and this class. Because I’ve stitched all the roads together, I feel it’s a unity for me.”
Citing Joseph Campbell, an American mythologist, writer and lecturer, Poole talked about the transformation that can result from a pilgrimage.
Campbell in 1949 coined the term “hero’s journey,” referring to a classic story structure that appears around the world.
“Every story across every culture since time immemorial, all have those same elements — separation from the ordinary, obstacles, help, and then eventual transformation and then return, bringing home the boon,” she said, adding, “So my boon for this has been a deep and far more multifaceted love of the Shore.”