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On Foot and on Faith
One remarkable woman's 25,000 mile walk for peace.
by Maggie Spilner

She didn't wear high-tech walking shoes, just plain canvas sneakers. She didn't sport a trade-name jacket or hat, just a simple navy blue tunic and pants. No organization sponsored her. No one followed her with a van to pick her up when she grew tired or when the weather turned foul. She traveled alone, on foot and on faith, with a singular purpose: to share her prescription for worldwide harmony. "Overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love. This is the way to peace," she told anyone who stopped to ask.

Her name was Mildred Norman Ryder, but she become known simply as Peace Pilgrim, the name that appeared on the front of her tunic. And the name captured her essence: She was a woman on a 25,000-mile walking pilgrimage for peace.

In the 1950's, long before T-shirts became billboards for personal politics, Peace Pilgrim knew that a few words, sewn to her tunic--"walking coast to coast for peace"--would be an effective way to share her message. But it wasn't her message that fascinated me at first; it was her medium. She was a phenomenal walker--in every sense of the word. Not only did she cover an amazing number of miles in her lifetime (well beyond the 25,000 she set out to do), but she was also vital, energetic and at peace with herself. (Not to mention that she amassed most of that mileage after her 50th birthday.) She was amazing. Inspiring. From the moment I heard of her, I wanted to know more. Here's what I learned.

A brief history of Peace

Peace Pilgrim's monumental trek across the United States began in 1953 at the Rose Parade in Pasadena, California. There, she handed out leaflets and gathered signatures for a Peace Petition, one that she delivered to the United Nations after walking coast to coast. Before her death in 1981, Peace crisscrossed the continent seven times on foot, stopping to talk to anyone intrigued by the message on her tunic.

Like some mystic Johnny Appleseed, Peace Pilgrim sowed the seeds of peace during conversations, college lectures, church services, radio programs, and TV interviews. She covered, as she was known to say, "the whole peace picture: peace among nations, peace among groups, peace among people, and, most important, inner peace." Not a new message, she willingly, acknowledged. But one that she felt America needed.

The more I heard about Peace Pilgrim, the more compelled I felt to read about her. And the more I read, the harder it was to believe she actually existed. Yet there were thousands of newspaper clippings that vouched for her reality, Still, the scenario was an unlikely one: Imagine an ordinary woman, hair already turned silver, setting off on a twentieth-century pilgrimage on foot (in America, no less--land of the car), without a penny in her pocket.

Day in, day out, Peace Pilgrim wore the same outfit, regardless of the season, washing her garments in rest rooms and letting them air-dry on her body. (She claimed that, over the years, her system adapted so that she easily adjusted to temperature changes.) She ate only when food was offered and slept wherever she found herself, which was often in an open field. And she carried only what she could fit into the pockets of her tunic: a comb, a folding toothbrush, her mail, a pen, a map, and, later, copies of her booklet, "Steps Toward Inner Peace," which she left with folks along the way.

Peace Talks

Once I'd read of her journey and her lifestyle, I became curious about her message, too--and about the enthusiasm with which she delivered it. As I watched tapes of her college lectures, I was struck by how much they seemed like mini-plays rather than speeches. In them, she waved her arms and raised her eyes to the heavens, her long slender fingers pointing and clasping to punctuate her message. It was clear: She was talking from her heart. There wasn't a trace of judgment or criticism in her words or her manner. And she was having a heck of a good time.

No question could throw her off course. No intellectualization dampened her enthusiasm. She had found inner peace and she wanted to "shout it from the rooftops." And, essentially, she did. "Only as we become peaceful will we be finding ourselves living in a more peaceful world," she'd say.

To small towns and large cities alike, Peace Pilgrim brought ideas that today are the topics of endless books on self-improvement and spiritual development. "Problems are opportunities in disguise" and "inner peace is where peace begins" were just two of her mantras. At the time, what she said was radical. And yet she was so compelling--and she so obviously lived by her beliefs--that thousands of people took her into their hearts and even into their homes. Soon her difficulty wasn't waiting to be offered food and shelter, but finding a way to graciously refuse. Peace Pilgrim had come so far--literally and figuratively--that I couldn't help but wonder where she'd begun.

Peace's First Steps

Walking played an integral part in the "creation" of Peace Pilgrim. During what she called her 15-year "preparation period," she spent time every day walking and drawing inspiration from nature. Neither highly educated nor an avid reader, Peace (then known simply as Mildred) claimed to receive insights as she walked.

She worked to put those insights into practice in her life, and she suggested that others do the same. "From the beauties of nature, you get your inspiration. From the silent receptiveness, you get your meditation. From the walking, you get not only exercise, but deep breathing--all in one lovely experience," she said.

In 1952, a year before her first pilgrimage, Peace walked the entire Appalachian Trail, from Maine to Georgia--a distance of over 2,000 miles. It taught her the necessity of traveling light. "I lived out-of-doors completely, supplied with only one pair of slacks and shorts, one blouse and sweater, a lightweight blanket, and two double plastic sheets into which I sometimes stuffed leaves," she said. "I was not completely dry and warm, but I enjoyed it thoroughly!" she said. It was toward the end of that expedition, after walking all night, that she experienced the vision for her first pilgrimage across the country.

Talking More, Walking Less

In 1964, when Peace had completed 25,000 miles, she decided that was enough. It was time to stop counting. She had walked the highways because it was easier to chart her progress, but it wasn't the best way to meet people and share her message. Now she was ready to walk through the towns that the highways passed by. There, she'd find the listeners she sought.

Along with her change in route came a change in priorities. . .from walking to speaking. She booked engagements across the country. She even began to accept rides so she could fit in as many speeches as possible, although she always returned to walking when time allowed. And as Peace's focus turned toward the spoken word, it turned toward the written word, too. On her journeys, she wrote to thousands of people she had met and counseled; and to share her thoughts with her friends, she wrote a newsletter called Peace Pilgrim's Progress.

Although Peace claimed people should never look for results from their efforts, she did live to see a shift in the world culture of the 1960s--a shift away from the belief that war is the answer to conflict. Before the `70's dawned, she saw the fear and apathy of the McCarthy Era replaced with fervent demonstrations for peace. She saw people who'd had little interest in spiritual growth become hungry for the kind of message she sought to deliver. This peace-loving trend grew stronger through the 1980's and, thanks to folks like her, still lives on.

Of course, every pilgrimage must come to an end. On July 7, 1981, Peace Pilgrim was, ironically, killed in a car accident while being driven to a speaking engagement. She left no more written material than her newsletters and the booklet "Steps Toward Inner Peace." When her thousands of followers heard the news, they joined in spirit to mourn her passing. But I suspect that Peace herself would have told them to save their tears. In her own words: "The body is just a garment. Death is a glorious transition to a freer life." In death, Peace Pilgrim was free. But her message lives on in my heart. . . and now, I hope yours, too.

Reprinted by permission of Walking Fit Magazine
Copyright 1997 Rodale Press, Inc. All rights reserved

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