The 40 Thousand Mile Man – Odyssey of a Pilgrim

This is an unusual story about an unusual man. George Florian Walter celebrated his Catholic faith by walking the world from 1970 to 2013. He renounced all his possessions (see LK 14:33), left his father and mother (see MT 19:29), denied himself, and took up his cross (see LK 9:23). The book recounts what led him to do this, where he walked and how he did it. He is a one man religious order – the Order of the Pilgrim.

Growing up in the Pittsburg, PA area he had a Catholic education followed by 4 years of study in the seminary to become a priest. On completion, he decided he could not be ordained as a priest because his faith was not strong enough. He had extensive book knowledge but no personal knowledge of God. A few years later, he came upon his vocation as pilgrim after three steps:

  • he realized God created him and loved him unconditionally (while in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado)
  • he discovered Jesus was with him always and that he is never alone (while on the Camino de Santiago in Spain)
  • receiving the Holy Spirit’s gift of prophecy (while at a Charismatic Renewal prayer seminar in Pennsylvania)

He also cites as inspirational The Way of the Pilgrim written by an anonymous 19th century Russian peasant who learns to pray the Jesus Prayer continously as he walks across Russia.

With this foundation in place he decided to focus on eschatological issues. i.e., those relating to death, judgement and final destiny of the soul and humankind. God owns me, Walter thought, so I must journey back to him. There is no point in collecting possessions, money, status, relationships along the way because all these are passing and will be lost at death, he concluded. So he gave away his possessions, said goodbye to family and friends and walked 40,000 miles over the next 43 years lifting up the cross of Jesus Christ and being a witness to the world.

He travelled with only a change of clothes, a plastic sheet, a staff, a bible and an icon of the Virgin Mary, no money, no food. He slept mostly outside and relied on donations of food and water and occasional shelter. He walked by the side of the road through 41 countries. He visited some places familiar to me such as the Shrine of the Canadian Martyrs in Midland, ON, Madonna House in Combermere, ON, Anchorage, AK, Rome, Paris and Jerusalem. In one of his longest hikes, he walked from Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine in Mexico, to California, to Alaska, across Siberia, through Kazakstan and on to SW India over a 7 year period.

During winters he would ensconce himself in a poustinia, often a small storage room spending 4 days a week meditating, praying and reading. The other 3 days he worked in a parish or monastery to earn his keep. Watch the short interview below while he was in poustinia.

Pilgrim George experienced many challenges and persecution. His father could not accept his choice of vocation for the first 20 years. He was stoned by Muslim children in Turkey, beaten over the head with his staff in California and wrestled to the ground by robbers in Kazakstan. Getting visas to enter particular countries for extended periods of time was a real challenge for someone with no money or fixed address. Understanding the language or maps was a problem. However he had many passers by give him donations of food and water, offer him a lift, invite him into their house and the strong support of his mother and home Bishop. He said he never went hungry.

In the last chapter of the book, George recounts some lessons learned and observations on his pilgrim life. For example he came not to expect hospitality from religious people or groups. Churches, schools and rectories have insurance policies in place that trump hospitality. Nor could he expect hospitality from daily Mass goers whom he had just been united with who after Mass, would just walk out with not so much as a word of welcome, a who are you or would you like a drink of water? Most of his hospitality came from unchurched people and in poorer countries. Going to church does not automatically make someone a more loving person. Often it was young mothers with children in car seats who stopped to offer him a ride. This went against every natural instinct of concern for human safety and often their husband’s specific directions, notes George.

There is so much more fruit in this book. I will sign off here with a 5 star rating for content, meaning and interest. May God Bless you pilgrim George.

(Surprisingly I found this book at my local library. For further information search on YouTube to find several longer interviews of Pilgrim George.)

Pilgrim George working on his sandals that used truck tire treads he found along the side of the road

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