“Hey do you guys want a ride?”
So asked a friendly driver as he pulled to the side of the road along the rolling hills 50 miles east of San Francisco. He’d spotted the Walking Monk in his saffron robes strolling down the pavement towards him. He was curious and inclined to help.
“No thank you,” answered the monk in a friendly tone, “I’ve walked from New York City and I’m headed to the Pacific Ocean in few days to complete my trek.”
Before he drove off in his SUV, the man, who happened to be Sikh, invited the Monk to visit a nearby Gurudwara. “There’s several around here,” he said, “we’d be honored to have you.”
Bhaktimarga Swami, the Walking Monk (right), and Anuttama Dasa get ready for their first day walking together.
Thus began my four-day excursion with Bhakti Marg Swami, the Walking Monk, as he neared the finish of his historic walk across the continental United States. The Swami began his walk in 2015 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the arrival of ISKCON’s Founder-acarya, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada to the New World and the later founding of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).
In 2015 Bhaktimarga Swami walked from Boston, where Prabhupada first landed in America; to Butler Pennsylvania, where Prabhupada lived his first month in America; then again east to New York City where Prabhupada founded his first temple.
In 2016, the Swami walked from the east coast as far as Nebraska. After stopping to attend to other duties, he continued his walk westward in the spring of 2017.
Walking about twenty miles each day, the 65 year-old Canadian-borne Swami covered nearly 4,000 miles across the heartland of America. In once sense, it’s an easy stroll for him. He’s walked across Canada four times since 1996.
Bhaktimarga Swami, stops at a sign post, in step with his long walk across the continental United States.
The Swami told me the people he most interacts with are reporters and police.
“You gentlemen doing ok?” asked the Deputy Sheriff. We were walking at 5 AM on my second day with the Monk, the road brightened by moonlight. “What brings you out here?” querried the officer.
I knew a few minutes before that we’d soon be seeing the police when we walked by the local penitentiary. Its eerie lights glowed over the ridge and a dimly lit sign confirmed it was there, up a twisty, somewhat creepy road to our left.
“When folks out here see a man walking in orange suits [the color of swami’s robes and California prison uniforms] they get a little nervous,” said the Deputy. After a few minutes of explanation and sharing stories about his mission, the Monk was on his way again. The Deputy called out with a smile, “I’ll let the officers in the next town know your coming, so we won’t slow you down again.”
The Walking Monk pauses in front of a memorial at a local Fire Station honoring the “First Responders” who died on 9/11 at the World Trade Center.
The Swami keeps a tight routine. He and his two-man support team of Hayagriva dasa and Bhakti Marshall, both from Canada (and half and one-third the Swami’s age respectively) rise daily by 3 AM. They shower, pack up, and drive their aged Ford minivan from wherever they spent the night, back to where the walk ended the day before. They employ landmarks, their odometer, and occasionally a GPS to find the exact spot. After a brief in-transit Mangala arati (worship) and Bhagavad-Gita (scripture) reading on the way to the launch spot, they hit the road, sidewalk, or trail by 4:30 AM.
The driver of the van often leapfrogs the Walking Monk by driving 3 miles ahead, parking, and walking back to join in part of the walk. Every three miles (about a one hour hike) the van pulls ahead. After covering a second three miles, the Monk stops for a brief rest. After nine miles it is time for breakfast. And, on it goes mile after mile, day after day, and state after state. Except when the Monk crossed the desert. There a few times they walked all night long to avoid the excessive daytime heat.
During my brief sojourn, the Monk and I walked through astounding countryside. We viewed arched hills of prairie grass, tall forests of eucalyptus and occasional redwood trees, and valleys with flowing streams. We saw the sun rise over beautiful hilltops. We faced off with a 12-point buck (a male deer with BIG pointy antlers) on a path not wide enough both him and us.
We also stopped and prayed for departed souls at innumerable roadside shrines where an auto accident months or years before had claimed another life, and broken the hearts of mothers, friends, and children. We met and helped a young woman at 5 AM distraught that her boyfriend had dumped her. I saw the Swami speak at a senior citizen center to remind the aging baby boomers about the need to be healthy spiritually as well as physically.
The beautiful countryside west of San Francisco. The varied terrain on the last few days of the Swami’s cross county walk was “breath-taking”.
The Monk’s overnight stops vary from ISKCON member’s homes, campgrounds, and roadside motels. The four nights I was there were lucky ones for me. We stayed in (cheap) hotels—with swimming pools. After my successive 9, 12, and 18-mile walks in the 90-degree California sun, I was appreciative of those pools and the welcome relief they provided.
The Swami is a joy to be with. His upbeat and compassionate demeanor impacts all whom he meets. While he finds its more difficult to attract attention in the big cities, the media coverage that accompanied him in smaller towns and villages was impressive. Front page news with color photos. Headlines and appreciative radio and TV interviews.
His messages are simple: Life is too fast. People need to get out and walk more. Cultivate their health. Know that real happiness comes from simple things, from understanding our relationship with the Divine, or God.
He also talks about the one who inspires him, his guru, Srila Prabhupada. He believes Prabhupada has sent him on his many walks across vast stretches of the earth. It was Srila Prabhupada, whose own journey from India at the age of 69 and the message he brought, that turned the Monk’s life around many years before.
Prabhupada gave the Walking Monk a purpose to live, and a purpose to walk.
May 15, 2022
Sunanda Das, Temple of the Vedic Planetarium