This was my late autumn pilgrimage. My first in several years and likely my only during the Coronavirus pandemic. It was a “last minute” pilgrimage in that it had only been a few days previous that I discovered that the site would be only a mile and a half from the place where we would be staying for two days. It felt in the moment like a successful pilgrimage in that what little spiritual preparation I had managed to squeeze in did set me up for expectations that panned out in unexpected ways. I took great pride in the impressions and sensations which emerged as we walked along through land continuously occupied by an ancient people for at least a millennium or so, only later to find out that most of those impressions and sensations were based on false assumptions – or at least false according to Wikipedia. As a result I finally decided to donate to Wikipedia in gratitude for their efforts over the years at bursting a few of my bubbles and losing me more than a few trivia battles.
The original intention was, as many an overly romantic pilgrim has framed such a journey, to take a short stroll as deeply as I dared, at least for only an hour or so, into the midst of unfamiliar territory. In this case into an age old culture set deeply into the slightly more familiar landscape that I have called home for only several decades.
The first few steps of our little pilgrimage fell across the carpet of the well appointed lobby of a seven story waterfront hotel richly adorned in Northwest coastal indigenous art which was, as I have grown to expect these days, adjacent to a large casino. Our route then crossed Highway 305, the main artery connecting Bainbridge Island with the rest of Kitsap County. It then seemed a fitting early leg to our pilgrimage, to be hiking along Suquamish Way for a half mile to the musical accompaniment of rumbling truck traffic only a few feet from us. We were, after all, on a journey out of one civilization, one culture, one way of being in the world, and into what we expected to be quite another. Such were my romanticized pilgrim sensibilities.
As we turned off Suquamish Way we were confronted with a no trespassing sign. It had not occurred to us that outsiders might not welcome onto the Suquamish reservation without an invitation. The goody-two-shoes and cluelessly culturally sensitive part of my pilgrim soul was in immediate conflict with my well-laid pilgrimage plans. We paused for some moments in our existential angst before pressing ahead. The convenient theory of the moment held that we had somehow been invited onto the land by virtue of our being current paying guests at the tribe-owned hotel. Besides, in the event that we might be challenged, I could simply explain that we were on pilgrimage to Old Man House. I could even show that I had in my pocket a highly spiritual gift that I intended to leave behind as a token of respect.
Nonetheless, I immediately felt out of place as I passed into the Suquamish community. With each step my rationalizations weakened and my discomfort grew. Mind you, I was not so much the clueless outsider that feared any physical harm. Not here. The kind of fear I experienced as I walked down the asphalt street between the ramblers and split-levels felt much worse. Any real or imagined threat of physical harm, rational or irrational, at least implies some opportunity at bravery. Were I ever to risk any physical harm on some adventure or some random extremity of circumstance I might later be thought well of whether of not I had actually braved the hazard successfully. In this case I feared only extreme embarrassment at being called out for being somewhere I was not supposed to be. After all, what human being who has survived adolescence has not experienced, at least once, an embarrassment that felt worse than death?
We were passing through a typical enough community according to my own perceived standards for these parts, but intense barking of dogs soon heightened my dread of discovery. The dogs were still barking at our ears as we came to a dead end. I pulled out my device to check the map only to find we were still exactly on course. It was then we determined that the “road” on the map was actually a well worn footpath that skirted the dead end barricade and beckoned us downhill through dense woods. We picked our way ahead between thick tangles of underbrush for a short way before the path opened out upon a very different sort of neighborhood – one much more typical of the large posh homes all along the shore of virtually any body of water within a few miles of Seattle. We could see across Agate Passage to Bainbridge Island which is only a short ferry commute for the software millionaires and trudging tech workers just across the sound. In my cluelessness I concluded that these beautiful view homes on the reservation must be evidence of the newfound casino wealth of the Suquamish people. Then as we walked on along toward the site of Old Man House I cringed once more as we encountered folks out working in their yard or taking a sunny morning stroll, but as we were consistently greeted with a friendly “good morning” or a smiling nod we finally began to relax. We assumed we had been officially welcomed by the natives.
We found the site of Old Man House to be about as we expected, a freshly mowed park along the beach with nice recently built restrooms and a shady bench where we could rest and meditate upon this holy site. We found no historical marker to explain the significance of what we knew to be a most unique point on the map of the world, in our own minds perhaps even one of those “thin places” of Celtic lore. Yet it was a sunny cold morning in December and we were glad enough to rest here, meditate, and finally perform our little pilgrimage rituals. The shade of the trees invited us into this space with the soft loam bending beneath our footfalls in a most welcoming way. On the other hand, the smooth and hard pebbles of the beach felt a few steps too far into the sacred for us to dare our step, at least not now, not on this brief morning pilgrimage.
We gently placed our gifts in the knot of a tree and started back. We did have gifts to take away with us, but these had been prepared ahead. We had determined to take only the spiritual, not anything physical, out of the sacred space. It hadn’t occurred to me at the time that a member of the Suquamish might not see much of a distinction between the spiritual and the physical here. Yet we walked on back through the million dollar view homes, up the trail, ran again the gauntlet of the barking dogs, back down the busy highway and finally back into our nicely appointed hotel room adjacent to the casino.
Of course once I sat down later in the day to look through my notes and record my musings I remembered one of my many assumptions which my wife had questioned that morning and finally got around to reading up on a bit of background material. Once I did so I was immediately entirely disenchanted as I found assumption after assumption totally discredited at the trusty hands of Wikipedia. I may yet entertain the temptation to write a fanciful tale of the “Old Man” of Old Man House as I never assumed in the first place that any substantial information, historical or mythical, existed regarding such a person. Nonetheless it was disappointing to find that the best theories available explaining the name involved nothing more unique than tricks of the language in translation between Lushootseed, Chinook Jargon, and American English. Much worse, however, I found out that what I had assumed to be wealthier native dwellings beyond the wooded trail, were not part of the reservation at all, or at least not any longer. The property had been bought by the US government in 1904 to build defenses at this approach to the Bremerton shipyard. The defenses were never built and the land was sold decades later to developers. In my clueless musings I was comparing what I thought to be Suquamish homes near Old Man House to the similarly posh homes across Agate Passage only to find out these homes were merely another extension of the suburban sprawl of the typical modern metropolis. The greetings we had encountered along the way were merely greetings from our own kind. We had encroached after all and I am left now to wonder whether or not I am any the better for the experience.