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Pilgrimage: My Journey to The Christopher Awards

10:01 a.m.: Departure from Altoona's Station Building in central Pennsylvania. Window seat aboard Amtrak's 42 Pennsylvanian. Picture of a 92-year-old nun in my pocket.
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10:01 a.m.: Departure from Altoona's Station Building in central Pennsylvania. Window seat aboard Amtrak's 42 Pennsylvanian. Picture of a 92-year-old nun in my pocket.

It will take seven hours to reach New York City where my memoir Five Years in Heaven will receive The Christopher Award.

I have the best intentions to spend my journey doing work and catching up on some reading. Instead, my MacBook Air and Peggy Noonan's glorious collection of essays, The Time of Our Lives -- albeit channeled along the way, remain closed on the seat beside me.

My eyes are fixated outside on the long stretch between where I am and where I'm going.

We wind our way through towns with names like Tyrone, Huntingdon, Mill Creek, Port Royal, Elizabethtown, Intercourse, and Coatsville.

Houses and trailers pass in a blur of white, tan, and brick. Occasionally lime, baby blue, sunshine yellow, and coral, leaving me to wonder who chose those daring colors. Some have dilapidated back porches, chafed siding, unkempt lawns, rusted pickups in unpaved driveways, and heaping junkyards. Others are gabled, manicured, and pristine.

Baseball fields and playgrounds are ready for the sunny season. There are Main Streets and side streets. Neighborhoods with church steeples and schools. Norman Rockwell would have swooned in these places once upon a time.

I wonder, Who lives there? What are their hopes, their dreams? Or do they feel hopeless, fearful? Do they ever fantasize about hopping on this train?

There's so much we don't know about each other.

Some of these towns are familiar to me. Like Paoli, a previous destination years ago while on my way to sell The Ultimate Beer Lover's Cookbook on QVC.

And Bala Cynwyd. I text a friend: "I'm passing through Miss Vida Boheme's hometown!"

In some places, we pick up new passengers and leave others off.

I hear the train's whistle -- its pining is part of every small-town soundtrack along with Springsteen and Mellencamp.

Also, there are miles of forest. Muddy and green, in mid-bloom between spring and summer. Pink, yellow, and purple bunches of wildflowers pop every so often.

Two deer -- heads bowed, eating -- ignore our silvery bullet passing through their world.

Hawks hover unhurried like a Calder mobile over a plowed field.

At points, we race creeks swollen from the winter thaw and recent rainfalls.

I note the mom and pop shops of these rural hamlets: Atlas Vans, Perry Pallet, Mike's Subs, Cooper's Garage, Loose Caboose Campground, TJ's Everyday Restaurant, markets, and dive bars. Each with its own character and backstory. I'm descended from similar grassroots -- my great-great-grandfather's 144-year-old Straub Brewery.

Dozens of factories go by -- the bread and butter of these communities. Time-weathered buildings much like those in St. Marys where I live. Some thriving. Others boarded up and bygone.

There are many sprawling farms. Inhabited by generations of good, resilient, blue-ribbon folks. And horses and cows, dotted across pastures like living, breathing Bev Doolittle watercolors.

In Lancaster: red and white barns. Silos. Patchwork fields. Willow trees. Amish houses and clotheslines filled with neat rows of black pants and dresses, crisp white shirts.

I daydream about wandering these rolling fields and hills -- the best of God's country -- upon which so much depends.

Along the way, tunnels through mountains plunge us into unexpected darkness. Then light comes again at the other end.

I relish sightings of humans amidst these backyards, fields, and dirt roads.

Something about a train still invokes a childlike awe.

Men and women stand to the side, waving. A young kid on his bike, watching. Someone in a blue pickup at a railway crossing, waiting. A family in an out-of-ground pool, splashing and glancing.

A young woman is leaning against the backdoor of an old warehouse. Long brown hair, ripped jeans, white tee, black leather jacket. Her attitude is raw and inspiring. Our eyes connect for the moment it takes to speed past. I wave. Hello, Patti Smith! She waves back.

I sense that she, too, is on a pilgrimage.

A mowed pathway in a field of tall grass encircles an old apple tree. I once loved a similar apple tree and am grateful for the reminder of that friend.

Then comes Philly, Trenton, Newark. On to New York.

Landscape morphs fast-forward into cityscape -- steel and concrete, hustle and bustle.

I find the graffiti poetic. A spray-painted tag reads: "Restless Bob."

I wonder, Why so restless, Bob?

Several leafless trees alongside the tracks are painted pink. Does the artist realize the power of this masterpiece? I hope so.

In a final grouping of trees, rises a tent city. Who lives there? Are they content? Just maybe they are.

A white bird coasting overhead catches my eye. A little voice reminds me, Holy Spirit is everywhere.

5:20 p.m.: Arrival at Penn Station in New York City.

Tonight, I stand in a large room thirty-five floors above Park Avenue. Surrounded by walls of windows offering an angel's eye view of New York. With the picture of 92-year-old Sister Augustine in my pocket.

In front of me is an audience of A-List celebrities, producers, directors, editors, authors, journalists, and humanitarians.

But who am I? Only a messenger with a pen who simply had a story to tell about my friend -- a dear old nun and artist, and the hundreds of visits we once shared.

For that story -- Five Years in Heaven, I'm presented a shiny Christopher Award medallion bearing the words: "Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness."

I turn toward the audience and now hold up the small portrait of Sister Augustine. She opened my eyes and heart to the light in the darkness. She helped me to discover the pathway to Heaven and my true purpose.

And, my friend taught me that life's pilgrimage is as much about the journey -- the joys and the sorrows, the beauty and the ugliness -- as it is the destination.

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