Strangers and Pilgrims – Coming Home

For some weeks in 1979 I visited what was then Western Samoa in the South Pacific. An independent state it became known in 1997 simply as Samoa. Not to be confused with the American territory of American Samoa which lay to the south east! W. Samoa consists mainly of two inhabited islands in the midst of a vast ocean. I first visited on my own and was doing the job of ‘line up’, preparing for the visit of the ship MV Logos. See ‘line up’ tag links if interested to know more. Before going I had been given the name of one man that would introduce me to people who could help me with accommodation and contacts. Problem was that I only had the name and no address or phone number. This was before the days of mobile phones and social media so it wasn’t clear how I would find him. On arrival at the airport in the capital Apia I decided to take the airport bus which made a tour of the island’s hotels dropping people off. Money was very tight so was a bit anxious about taking a hotel but couldn’t think of any other plan. Anyhow got off at I think the last hotel on the route and went to reception to book a room for the night. While signing the visitors book whose name should I see but the one contact I was looking for. His room was next door to mine! What an answer to my prayers.

It was arranged for me to stay with an extended Samoan family. Their gracious hospitality was in accord with their culture and traditions. Three generations all slept on the floor in one room but I was given the privacy of my own room. At mealtimes I would eat first, watched by the father of the family. Then it was his turn to eat, followed by the boys. Then the mother and womenfolk. Finally, the poor girls ate whatever was left. I felt honoured but also the responsibility not to eat too much so as those following had enough to eat.

Western Samoa lies near the international date line. It is no mistake that this rather crooked line between north and south poles weaves its way through the most remote and sparsely populated areas of the earth. Mainly between remote islands and ocean. Imagine the chaos if the date line went through the heart of Greenwich, London instead. In 1979 W. Samoa was just to the east of the dateline** and was proud of its status of always having the last sunsets of any given day. Not to be outdone I noticed that the local newspaper in Tonga (west of dateline) had the strapline ‘where time begins‘.

Living and travelling near the dateline plays havoc with your diary. On one occasion I flew from Western Samoa to Tonga which was on the western side of the date line. Diary entry says I left Apia at 3:15pm on Sunday 28th October 1979 and arrived Tonga 4:50pm on Saturday the 27th. It was weird having 2 Sundays that week! About a month later I was on board the MV Logos. We set sail from Western Samoa on Sunday night at 11:10pm on the 25th November. Our destination was Fiji to the west of dateline. My diary has the words ‘NO MONDAY’ scribbled for the 26th November.

Such novel (to me, not to locals!) cultural and geographical experiences were of course exciting. However living for some months in such remote parts and often alone did leave me feeling vulnerable and lonely at times. One of W. Samoa’s most celebrated visitors of a bygone age was Robert Louis Stevenson. He was a Scot and a famous writer who spent his last days on Samoa. He was the author of much loved and world renown classics including ‘Treasure Island‘ and ‘Kidnapped‘. His writing never impressed me as a boy. It might have had something to do with his works being prescribed English reading for most Scottish school children at the time. My interest however was awakened during my stay in Samoa. Despite dying over 90 years previously I was intrigued that his memory was still revered by locals. Known in Samoan as ‘Tusitala’ (‘teller of tales’) he had been buried in Samoa.

So while there I resolved one day to visit his grave. It was reached by climbing Mt. Vaea. Stevenson had written an epitaph as a poem which was inscribed on his tomb. Reading the last few lines spoke to me profoundly. Poetry can give space to feelings in the journey of life you can’t describe, awakening longings you are scarcely aware of. 

Home is the sailor, home from the sea, 

and the hunter home from the hill. 

RL Stevenson

About a year after my visit to Samoa I flew back from the Far East to the UK. After 30 countries and over 3 years away my thoughts were much on coming home. Although I’d had many separate travels during these 3 years there was also a sense of having completed one long journey. When leaving the UK in Sept 1977 I had no idea how long my time away would be. Here are my notes then of the return trip back to UK…

The journey to the U.K. was interesting: From Bangkok I flew via Delhi, Bombay and Rome to arrive somewhat weary in Frankfurt, West Germany to discover the airline had lost all my baggage. Truly forsaking all was becoming a reality – thoughts of returning home after over 3 years away with a Bible and a few notes as sole possessions filled my mind. I spent a night at the Int’1 HQ for both MV DOULOS and LOGOS in Mosbach, West Germany. The next day saw me travel luggageless on to London via Paris. In the air approaching London I was awakened from slumbers by my name being called on the plane’s tannoy system — surprise luggage was on this plane: False alarm as it didn’t materialise on the airport’s conveyor belt. Eventually it came on another plane — it was all quite a test as in 3 years of travelling no such thing had happened. Nov’ 1980

These experiences evoked a variety of contradictory emotions. The following is a short poem I wrote during that homebound journey. Like Stevenson’s poem it helped give expression to my feelings at the time.

In Christ we are always coming home

As coming home is our hearts meeting the object of our treasure

For we who love Him what joy to know this daily experience

Of meeting the One who is the same yesterday, today and forever

At whose feet our hopes are never disappointed

However many ‘homecomings’ I have in this life the true calling is that ‘here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come’ (Hebrews 13 vs 14).

** At midnight on 29th Dec 2011 Samoa moved west of the dateline and missed out on 30 Dec in the process. It was said to help trade with Australia and New Zealand.

The Trail Runner’s Psalm – 121

Buachaille Etive Mòr* (from trail between Kingshouse and Altnafeidh)

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—

   where does my help come from?

My help comes from the Lord,

    the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip—

    he who watches over you will not slumber;

indeed, he who watches over Israel

    will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you—

    the Lord is your shade at your right hand;

the sun will not harm you by day,

    nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm—

    he will watch over your life;

the Lord will watch over your coming and going

    both now and forevermore.

Psalm 121, NIV

One of my favourite trail races is the West Highland Way Race. Normally it takes place on the nearest weekend to midsummer in June. The trail is approx. 95 miles (152 km) long with about 14,700 feet (4,480m) ascent and descent. It begins in Milngavie on the outskirts of Glasgow and ends in Fort William at the foot of Britain’s highest mountain. If interested you can read detailed accounts of previous years I have run this race here. I had a place for 2021. Sadly it has been cancelled for the 2nd year in a row due to pandemic (I am hoping however to do another version). A race tradition is competitors can choose their race number. For several years I have requested and received no. 121. Psalm 121 is a poem I reckon captures the inner resources needed to run a long distance trail. One of a group of psalms known as ‘songs of ascents’. It’s said ancient Israelites sung these ascending the hills on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. What you would sing when exerting yourself climbing. As such it captures my endurance running imagination. It’s the hills and the trails that I love to run on and these big races are like a pilgrimage to me.

The psalm opens with a reminder of the mountains. 20 or so hours into the race I reach Glencoe 114 km into race. I’m fatigued, chilled, probably nauseated and generally not feeling so well. Buachaille Etive Mòr* is a majestic, imposing mountain that broods over this famous valley. However in my physical and mental state and with the shadows lengthening such a mountain does not inspire or comfort. Rather it threatens and underlines my physical vulnerability.

At such times recognising the Creator’s help is my prayer. Leaving Glencoe I climb up over the ominously named Devil’s Staircase. At this stage I have often started to hallucinate. Deprived of sleep, suffering exhaustion and about to enter a second all night run I am starting to fall apart. I have been so grateful at such times to have competent and alert support runners with me.

Faithful support runners Don (L) and Andy (R) at Lundavra during 2nd night of 2014 race.

It has been known for me to beg to stop and sleep in the rain and want to lie down in a stream. Losing my grip on reality I tell myself that these fanciful coloured rocks are illusions and that the pebbles moving at my feet are not mice. At these times I am barely aware of the fact that HE does not sleep and that my foot would not slip. Talking about feet during my first race in 2011 my support runner and friend Don washed my feet. There must be a message there! One thing I do know, there is such a thing as happy feet. My feet have never been happier before or since. Thanks Don.

Don washing my feet in Glencoe ski lodge (2011)

That neither the heat of the day or the moon by night will harm. Holding on to the fact that God watches over me is an assertion. In extreme situations such a truth might not bring much joy, gladness or comfort. However as the night passes into daylight in the last stage of the race another truth from another psalm enters my consciousness “Weeping may endure for a night, But joy comes in the morning(Psalm 30 vs 5). Light dispels the fears and hallucinations of the night, forgotten in the glory of a new day. Replaced with the renewed joy and wonder of being alive.

Of course the sensible reader will be asking why put myself through such a tortuous experience when you don’t have to. Nobody is forcing me. And why do such things over and over again, not just once! To avoid misunderstanding it is not these painful experiences themselves that I long for. Indeed I try everything possible to mitigate them but with limited success!

Looking back these are experiences incidental to something else going on. Something deeper. Not easily explained but life affirming. Like experiencing love, rapturous music, a glorious sunset, poetry or beautiful art some things are better ‘felt than telt’**. 

The poet of psalm 121 finishes reflecting on the Lord watching over our ‘comings and goings’ now and forever. An older translation uses ‘going out and coming in’ which appeals to the race imagery I have used here. I ‘go out’ at the start in Milgavie and ‘come in’ at Fort William at the end. As in the race so throughout all of life’s perplexing journey it is the Lord who is my help.

*    The mountain’s name is Scots Gaelic, meaning “the Great Herdsman of Etive”

**   Better ‘felt than telt’ is a Scots saying ‘telt=told’, and means you gain more insight from experiencing something than being told about it.