Monday, September 29 Litochoro to Methoni
(written Tuesday morning)
I don’t tend to be an early riser, but today I woke up just in time to see the sun peek up over the Aegean Sea from my waterfront balcony. Thessaloniki, about 80 kilometers by bike, is nestled under a single mountain, just to the north of the rising sun. It sounds like I am in a posh resort hotel, but far from it. The Agiannis is a combination hotel/camping spot where the camping spots are a little better than average and the hotel significantly less than average. But, for a price slightly higher than what I have been paying for camping spots this is a deal and I have a waterfront balcony.
I really had a marvelous day yesterday. I had arranged to have my gear stored at the hotel while I made the trek up Mt. Olympus. After a breakfast that was just enough to fuel my ride up the hill without dragging me down, I coasted down the 200 meter section to the bridge that served as the real starting point. From there I immediately was obligated to go up and keep going up. Without the 45 pounds of weight, however, I felt like I was just dancing on the pedals. I couldn’t believe how easily I was gliding up the Mt. Olympus incline.
The terrain leading up to Mt. Olympus is both lush and rugged. At one point I stopped for pictures and could see the hiking trail that leads to the top. Following it I realized what a visual and physical treat it must be. I could see it winding its way through the forest that seemed to hold the earth from falling down into the ravines below. Then the path would disappear as it would hit jagged rocky areas. I knew the trail must continue and imagined the bit of courage that it must take to delicately negotiate those riskier sections. I immediately wanted to call my girlfriend and invite her to backpack with me to the top.
I was part way up the mountain when I suddenly became aware of the significance of this ride. I was riding up Mt. Olympus, THE Mt. Olympus. Thirty-five years ago I took time off from college inspired by the possibility of riding my way into the Olympics. I can’t say that I got close, but I did reach the National Championships in my second and third years before returning to college. Looking back on that period I think I had the raw talent to make it, but I didn’t have the discipline or the support. In many ways this and my last pilgrimage are serving as the completion of that dream. I have finally put all three pieces together—discipline, talent and support.
I enjoyed a wonderful descent down the mountain. What took an hour and forty-five minutes to conquer going up took less than a half hour going down. There were some wonderful sections where I could just let the bike go and glide through corners, but much of it was too steep and not knowing the road and potential hazards, I found myself needing to brake cautiously around many corners.
Leaving Litochoro seemed to signify a shift of some sort. I ate a late spaghetti lunch who engaged me in conversation about my trip. When he discovered that I was going as far as and further than Istanbul where West meets East he offered his own thoughts. Like many of us in America who feel like the Church should be more open to other religions, Demitrios expressed disappointment in the Greek Orthodox church saying that they won’t allow the Turkish Muslims to build mosques in Greece even though they build orthodox churches all over the world. He stated that he felt that the church and the people would be better off with a less religious and protective approach.
I cycled up the coastline of the Aegean Sea checking my GPS often so that I could stay on lazy side roads and avoid the main highway that funnels traffic into Thessaloniki. At a strange little intersection that felt more like I had dead-ended in a park I stopped to get my bearings. There a thin man with long hair that reminded me of America’s hippie generation noticed my puzzled look and asked if I was trying to get to the beach. We spent a few minutes in conversation while he waited for his aunt to finish visiting the church of her childhood.
Kostakis knew about Rumi. He is the first person that easily recognized the name in Italy or Greece. Interestingly enough, Rumi has more name recognition in America than he does in these countries closer to his actual life and influence. I heard recently (not verified) that Rumi is the most purchased poet in America right now. Kostakis informed me that I should begin to experience a shift in culture as I travel east from Thessaloniki. In Thessaloniki there is (or least was) a Sufi site and community, but he is afraid that they may have gone underground because of Christian pressure.
“After Kavala” (about 100 kilometers east), he said, “there are more Turks in Greece than Greeks and that I should start seeing mosques and a much deeper Islamic influence.” I am getting really excited about this part of the pilgrimage. For some reason Thessaloniki has felt like the end of one leg and the opening to something new and Kostakis was confirming that. Of course, Italy and Greece have also been new experiences for me, but they are part of the West. A significant part of this pilgrimage was to experience that shift from West to East that Istanbul (Constantinople) is and represents. I love that I feel that I am about to enter a new world like a kid on a Disneyland train with a ticket to something that before was only locked into his imagination.
My mind also took a journey of sorts today. I had a friend remind me of her offer for money if I needed it and it sent me into a place of really thinking about what I am doing and where I am going. I think my thoughts were prompted by the fact that I wouldn’t want to accept money if this whole thing was just some wild and crazy fling that I had to get out of my system. I know that it isn’t, but it still prompted quite a bit of reflection. I’ll save you the whole process of my thoughts, but I did settle on something that I already knew about myself and was good to say out loud: I don’t think I have ever thought about “making a living”. My mind, even from early college days, have been about “where can I best serve”.
In 2003 as the Iraq War sadly sprang into action I found myself at the army recruiter’s office exploring the possibility of becoming an Army Reservist chaplain. The thought that we were at war and that I was in Portland making dinner, going to movies and enjoying TV shows at night didn’t seem right. Unfortunately, at 43 years of age, I was too old—which was too bad really because chaplains get better with age rather than worse.
In a few weeks I will complete this pilgrimage. As I return to the States I will have a livelihood to think about. But, what I do know is that it is not the livelihood that will drive my decisions. Most of all I am going to want to know where and how I can best serve the community (and humanity, in general). That’s what feeds me. That’s who I am. As I write this I smile at the strange, almost paradoxical combination that makes me who I am. I have Olympic-sized ambitions and the heart of a chaplain. Where, O where can I best serve?