TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. —
Think your little walk to the mailbox was cold the last few days?
Try trekking six hours down an unbroken path in blistering winds.
“Tuesday was a real hard day to walk,” said Curtis Chambers. “The wind blew me off my feet four times.”
Chambers, a member of the Burt Lake Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, is walking in the footsteps of Bishop Frederic Baraga in the upper and northern lower peninsulas Michigan.
Concerned that people have drifted away from Catholicism, the Cheboygan man hopes his 160-mile spiritual journey will inspire folks to have faith.
He also feels a strong connection with Baraga.
“Perhaps it has to do with the fact that in June of 1831, my tribe—under his direction—constructed the second Catholic church in Michigan,” he said.
Chamber’s 10-day walk ended Friday in Manistee, Mich. Some days were worse than others, with snow ranging from a few inches to mid-thigh in several spots. Chambers, 59, shields his tanned face with Vaseline and a mask for the bitterest winds.
Baraga walked with a lot less, said Chambers.
“Just one or two guides would help him out,” he said. “One of his diary excerpts says, ‘Oh thank God, they brought two wool blankets this time.’”
Baraga, a candidate for sainthood, is a northwoods legend. He left a life of privilege in Slovenia in 1830 to minister to Native Americans, miners and fur traders. Known as the “snowshoe priest,” he’d trek as far as 60 miles to his far-flung churches, covering an estimated 700 miles in winter.
Chambers polished off 115 miles in the Upper Peninsula, Feb. 4 to 8, mostly on snowshoes.
Early on in his U.P. walk, he came upon fresh wolf tracks on a railroad track.
“He must have been pretty darn close,” he said. “I’m pretty sure he saw me.”
There have been challenges. “I’ve been covered up twice by snowplows—it’s hard for drivers to see,” he said.
Chambers covers up to 20 miles a day. He hasn’t had to camp thanks to the generous offers of strangers and friends to stay at tribal resorts, rectories, and homes.
Chambers thought about the journey for years but didn’t want to rush into it.
Then came a sign. The blind woman woke up one morning and drew a map that appeared in her dream.
“Her husband thought it was something in the U.P.,” Chambers said. “Other spiritual people brought the map to me last summer, and asked if it made sense.”
Incredibly, her map lined up with Chamber’s own map of the native and mining communities he planned to walk to.
“That was my ‘Yes, you better get moving here,’” he said.
Chambers had dinner with the woman. “It was like meeting an old friend for the first time,” he said.
Chambers said strangers tearfully thank and hug him. Some hand him a prayer list—spiritual fodder for the walk ahead.
Chambers said the walks are long but he’s never lonely.
“I enjoy the silence out there,” he said. “You really feel small, but you feel connected.”
Anne Stanton is a reporter for The Record-Eagle in Traverse City, Mich. Contact her at email@example.com.