The year 2015 marks the 62nd anniversary of the first of seven cross-country walks for peace undertaken by Mildred Lisette Norman Ryder, between January 1, 1953 and July 7, 1981. At the age of 44, after a spiritual journey of 15 years in which she transformed herself completely, she embarked on her “calling” to be a pilgrim for peace. For the next 28 years she walked over 25,000 miles, travelling penniless and without any organization, fearlessly calling for international as well as personal disarmament. She walked until given shelter and fasted until given nourishment. Her message was a simple one: overcome evil with good, hatred with love and falsehood with truth. To do this, she said, various stages of maturity must be reached, starting with the self: inner peace first, then peace will be attainable among individuals, the community, the nation and the world.
While she lived, those who only heard about her legendary pilgrimages, wondered if she was a little crazy. Those who met and observed her, however, knew that she was one of the most practical, clear thinking people they had ever known. The only startling-even disconcerting- thing about her was her willingness to live exactly what she preached and to walk her talk. To put her teachings to the test today would only sustain, not settle, the question of who she was. Was she a 20th century anomaly, or one of this century’s truest prophets for peace? Did she have a new – even unique – message to share, or was it the visible enactment of an old, well-known religious script practiced en route, over 25,000 miles, that was her genius? Should she be left in obscurity, or should her spiritual legacy be examined for what it may have to say to us today?
In 1952, the year before she began the pilgrimage, Peace Pilgrim, then known as Mildred Norman Ryder, set out on another memorable journey. On April 26 of that year, in the company of fellow Philadelphian Richard Lamb, Mildred began the 2050 mile walk north from Mt. Oglethorp in Georgia toward Mt. Katahdin, in northern Maine. Mildred’s passion for walking and her deep love for the beauty, inspiration, and peace she found in the natural world had lured her to the trail. By the time she completed the journey in October of that year she would become the first woman to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in one season.
Only three other hikers had previously completed the 2050 mile Appalachian Trail in one calendar year. Earl Shaffer was the first in 1948. Three years passed before Earl’s feat was repeated. In 1951 two other men, Gene Espy and Chester Dziengielewski completed the journey in one season.