There are some days when I drive in to work and I think: What if I just keep driving? What if I don’t make that left-hand turn into the library parking lot and I just keep going?
I’m a creature of habit and I thrive on my routine. But what if I did keep driving? What if I changed my life by making the decision to drive a few more miles to an unfamiliar place? I’m a slave to my own predictability but I crave something, some event, some place, that will light up my life like the Fourth of July. Or even a 75 watt light bulb in a dim basement.
Harold Fry, the main character in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, is also a man of routine. He worked for over forty years in a brewery and has recently retired. He and his wife of 47 years sleep in separate rooms and barely have anything to say to one another. He has a son named David who he doesn’t speak to. He spends much of his retirement wondering where he went wrong with his son and wife and what he could have done to change the past.
20 years ago he became close to a co-worker named Queenie Hennessy. They weren’t romantically involved but they formed a special bond. She was fired and he hasn’t seen her since. One day he gets a letter from her. She’s dying in a hospice and doesn’t have much time left. Harold writes a letter to her and walks to the mailbox a block away from his house to mail it. He passes it and decides to walk on to the next mailbox.
This simple chain of events sets into motion Harold’s journey. He decides to walk a little further. And then a little further. And further. Eventually he decides he’s going to walk the 600 miles to where Queenie lays dying. All he has are the clothes he’s wearing and his wallet. His first stop is at convenience store where the young woman behind the counter tells him her aunt had cancer. The clerk decided that her aunt wasn’t going to die because she had enough faith to keep her aunt alive. Harold believes that by walking the hundreds of miles Queenie will stay alive, waiting for him.
In the beginning he stays at cheap hotels, dining with the other guests who all start confiding things to him, things you wouldn’t even tell your priest during confession. He hears stories of disappointment and joy, tragedy, triumph, love, and hate:
And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The inhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday. The loneliness of that.
Amen to that.
Soon, his journey becomes news and television stations run his story. People begin to walk alongside him. Many of Harold’s fellow walkers drop away, however, and he begins to deteriorate rapidly. He sleeps outside under the stars. He grows a beard and confuses the present day with the past. He obsesses over being a bad father to his son David and thinks about giving up, quitting the walk and having his wife come and get him. But he doesn’t give up, especially when he hears he’s only ten miles away from the hospice.
Needless to say, the Queenie he finds is not the same Queenie he knew twenty years ago. Then again, if I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in twenty years we’d probably both agree we weren’t the same people anymore. And then we’d say in what’s supposed to be an inside voice but somehow comes out in loud gleeful disgust: “She got fat!”
At times touching, hilarious and downright heartbreaking, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry will suck you in and leave you asking yourself these questions: to what lengths would I go to in order to change my life and how long will I let the past haunt me?
I’m still being haunted by the things I’ve done in the past and so far the only length I’ve gone to to change my life is to cut out all dairy from my diet. It’s a start. Baby steps, baby steps.