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The organized pilgrimage over and here in self-isolation back at home, I have some time on my hands to reflect back to Fr. Sam Sawyer’s comments on his morning talk on Day 3.  In effect Sawyer said, the pilgrimage as retreat will reveal its moments in God’s plan; if a pilgrim is not moved by a particular site – even one where he or she expected to be moved – it’s O.K. God will tailor make an experience, one that is the best fit for each person.  In a sense, that is what these daily posts have included: my “tailor-made” moments – in addition to matters of history, geography, culture, and color that appeal to my interests (and, hopefully, that resonate with my readers).  This epilogue is a collection of stray thoughts that did not fit into the daily posts, yet they were parts of my pilgrimage.

During the entire pilgrimage, I only opted out of three sites, and while each was, most likely, fitting and fascinating, I have nothing in the way of regret.  The “Milky Grotto,” an obscure, non-scriptural site near the Church of the Nativity was passed by, in favor of shopping and enjoying Ramallah-brewed Golden ale on tap.  This grotto is a purported site where Mary nursed the baby Jesus.  Visitation is said to aid those troubled with infertility, and the tradition is captivating.  Just the same, lounging in a chair on the edge of Manger Square in Bethlehem, glass in hand suited me fine.

I also opted out of the Mount of Olives exploration when we pilgrims were offered options for an afternoon.  Thankfully, I accepted my fellow pilgrim’s offer to accompany her and another to the narrow and compelling streets of Old Jerusalem accessed by the Jaffa Gate.  The ambling shopping opportunity  and exploratory foray into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher bolstered my confidence in venturing forth into unknown geography.   Finally, I opted out of my roommate’s invitation to rise very early to join him and others to see the Holy Sepulcher without the customary hours’ long line. I opted to sleep in after a series of very full days.

My students know me as having a strong dislike of litter, so I was pleased to find Israel and Bethlehem in the West Bank to be relatively litter-free.  Israel was not completely without litter, but most public spaces at all the pilgrims’ stops were litter-free.  Oddly, the morning that I rose early to photograph the sunrise over the Sea of Galilee, the foreground of the images was a badly littered slope.  My roommate made it a point to clear the litter that might have spoiled his images.  That location was at pilgrimage lodging, so my theory is that foreign visitors were the culprits; however, it is just a theory.

What is not in question is what an unbelievable mess the United Airlines flight from the United States to Israel was at disembarkation!  I have never seen a plane that was so trashed in a lifetime of flying.  My economy coach seating was toward the back of the plane, so as I left I encountered row after row of debris and trash on the cabin floor, seats, and aisle.  It resembled the grandstands after a NASCAR event or the field of a stadium after a rock festival. Shameful. The United Airlines flight back to the States was also littered upon disembarkation, but nowhere near as badly as the U.S.-Israel flight.  My homeward bound JetBlue flight from Newark to Los Angeles, in comparison, was pristine upon disembarkation.  The flight crew of the Airbus A320, admittedly smaller than United’s 787, made several waste pick-up rounds throughout the flight, so the plane was tidy and largely connection-ready upon arrival at LAX.

Tour guides, Maher (Green Bus) and Maher (Red Bus) provided most all information and explanations to the pilgrims through “Whisperers,” one way wireless communications devices with provided ear buds.  These two Palestinian-Israelis were ideally suited in temperament to our pilgrim group; they were good-natured, yet firm if necessary; knowledgeable without notes or script; possessing good humor, and offering an insightful, balanced commentary on the historical complexities of the political issues facing the region.  Additionally, “our” Maher (Green Bus) held a “hidden” voice which he revealed during the communion hymn at our final pilgrim’s mass in Emmaus.  Accompanied by organ, he sang a beautiful solo rendition of an Arabic devotional song to Mary, akin to the “Ave Maria.”  His delightfully powerful and resonate voice sailed up into the vaulted ceilings of the Benedictine Monastery of Abu Gosh, the Crusades-era church near the site of ancient Emmaus.

No travel with John Stradley is complete without puns – both good and bad.  I delivered many – two of which were well received: one to my roommate at the Imbal Hotel in Jerusalem and the other to him and a fellow pilgrim within the chapel of the Holy Sepulcher.  In our hotel room, my roommate and I were comparing the state of our walking shoes, and I showed him that the sole of my Skechers walking shoe was separating at the tip, and I quipped, “It wouldn’t do for one to go on a pilgrimage and lose his sole.” Later, in the Franciscan chapel of the Holy Sepulcher, my roommate JT and Jack, his friend and fellow pilgrim, were sitting in adjoining ornate wooden abbot’s chairs at the back of the chapel when I heard them discussing what an abbot was.  Upon hearing this, I took a picture (see slideshow below) and commented that they looked like “Abbot and Costello.”  They did too!

As an aspiring percussionist, I am always on the lookout for interesting drums and hand percussion instruments. I found a lovely Egyptian Doumbek drum, also known as a Darbuka, in a vendor’s stall in the Christian Quarter of the market in Old Jerusalem (see slideshow below).  The vendor, who was also a drum teacher, did an impromptu demonstration performance which I both videotaped and recorded.  It seemed too large and too lavish to buy, even at its reasonable price.  I considered a purchase throughout the day – all the way into the early evening.  After a conversation with my roommate, I decided to buy it, and made a deliberate march back to the old city when were allocated free time that evening. I made the two mile round trip in about an hour, and returned to the hotel as the proud owner of a beautiful Mother of Pearl-inlaid Doumbek, which produces a lively combination of high pinging notes and low, resonate bass notes.  It is a wonderful addition to my percussion array – dubbed the “infinite trousseau” by my band mates. It became my oddly-shaped carry-on “personal item” companion for the return flights home.

I awoke on our departure day feeling as if my body had been put through the paces. I was lethargic, suffered from body aches, and had a low-grade fever – not confirmed by a temperature reading, but I felt it. I had heard that other pilgrims in our company were having cold and flu-like symptoms, so I didn’t think much of it.  Upon my arrival home, I did a home test, which returned a positive result for COVID-19.  By that time, my symptoms had worsened somewhat, and I inquired of Kaiser.  In a phone consultation, the nurse practitioner recommended Paxlovid, a five-day course of medication that lessens the severity and duration of symptoms.  I opted to take it, and I am in self-isolation as I write this epilogue.  My long-suffering wife is being an ideal caregiver: picking up my prescription, providing me with over-the-counter symptom relief medications, keeping me fed with an array of food and snacks, and hydrated with cold beverages.  We are taking self-isolation seriously as she has significant upcoming travel herself.

This post-pilgrimage five-day self-isolation means more time away from my students, who certainly miss me terribly, and a return to the woeful days of “distance learning” – except the students are on campus under the supervision of a number of colleague substitutes while I am distant, monitoring their productivity remotely.

Those are the remaining threads in the quilt of my America Media Pilgrimage.  I look forward to seeing how this transformative experience will deepen and resonate in the coming days, weeks, months, and years.  I am truly blessed for having made this wonderful, meaningful pilgrimage, and I am grateful to Fr. Travis Russell, President of Verbum Dei Jesuit High School, America Media, and to my fellow pilgrims, whose invitation and underwriting made my participation possible.  Buen camino! my fellow pilgrims – thank you for joining me for our walk in Jesus’ footsteps.