The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry


“Every summer I fight the dream of running away.”

It was a decade and a half back when I wrote that, on another sweaty night sans AC. With my old basemented band, as we scratched off another chance to win a little national exposure. Our management guy tossed us a tip about a soundtrack contest for an upcoming major motion picture.  The movie, you ask?  None other than that celebrated classic, the Ashton Kutcher vehicle Dude, Where’s My Car?

The song was “Summertime #2” – written during our middle period, the year or so between getting the boys out of the garage and finally getting the garage out of the boys. If I remember it right, we had half a shot of getting our song in the film.  At the time the idea of running an online contest – and the magic of streaming songs over the internet – was still kinda fresh and cool. I think we came in something like twenty out of one hundred. Nowhere near the top, but it was another one of those little affirmations that made us think that we might be on to something if we just kept on truckin’.

The contest needed a one-sentence description to post along with the song. It fell off of my fingers onto the submission form: “Every summer I fight the dream of running away.” The line wasn’t from the lyrics, but it seemed to capture just the right amount of ambiguity for maximum pop-hook potential. Looking back, it’s one truth that I’ve kept tucked tight, hidden away, a constant in my ever-modulating cosmology, my fluctuations of faith. So many hopes and burdens I’ve dropped along the way, but I’ve never quite quit on my Cassady dreams of indestructible machines, my mental montage set to Springsteen. The trip never taken.

All that bites my ankles and nips my nose sooner and sooner every year. As I moved north the tease, the taste of summer breeze comes later and later, and there’s not a drop of unfrozen water to slake the thirst.  And the knees hurt more and more. And the sleep becomes more dear. And crushing the sixer looks less sexy and the sexy looks like too much work. The woo-hoo has up and gone. And now the wild’s just wilderness.

But there’s still that urge, when the mercury skips up past sixty-five, when the weather’s good enough for a ride or a walk or window-down drive. The temptation to start off, to say screw it for a stint or a season. Not forever, mind you. There are good and worthy things to be done in the here if not the now. But for a bit…  You won’t miss me.

Harold Fry, the head-down old hero of Rachel Joyce’s Oprah-approved novel never would have guessed that he needed to do the same. But then he set off to deliver a letter, on foot, to the far side of England. He journeyed from coast to coast, relived a whole life in the space of a few months – he got his legs, found his stride, and then lost it again before returning to the sea.

For once he had a reason to start walking, to see a friend before it was too late, to pay a penance, to find grace.

And here I am. I’m on that dulled edge of midlife, that place where Harold once was, his turning point between the fun-loving, dancing young man and the quieted and scared father, buckled and bent. There’s this danger that what you do here on this half-way plateau will define you for the rest of your days, that what you achieve or foul-up during these years will be stuck with you, chiseled on your tomb. Set in stone, cemented.

Unless you keep quick, unless you keep walking.

And so I do, and so I must. One foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other. I feel my strength grow with each step, my smile stretch and my eyes flicker. Head high, arms wide. My friends, my family they cheer me on. And I find that I’m not dreaming of running way anymore, not fantasizing of flight and its flawed freedom. I’ve given it up, traded it in for a better model. A new hope stirs, one harder to hold but so much more worthy: To live a life of chasing after.

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