Pilgrim's Progress:
One man's journey to the millennium

By George Gamester

Toronto Star Columnist

Have you ever felt . . . That you were drifting in life? That you should be I more? I more? Living more? But instead, you're just sitting there. Watching TV. And experiencing what Ernest Hemingway called: The sadness that comes at the end of every wasted day. Well, sure you have. It's a common feeling. Even Austin Repath has it now and then.

You'd like Austin. He's like the rest of us in many ways. Still, there's something different about him. Something good. You know that inner voice you hear at times? The one urging you to follow your heart instead of your head because it feels right? That sweet whisper you so often ignore?

Well, Austin is one of those rare individuals who actually heeds that voice. Let's find out where it's taken him . . . We begin at a Bloor St. bookstore, where a newly retired humanities professor from Humber College spots a paperback called The Pilgrimage by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. On impulse, he buys it.

Later, while watching TV, he idly picks up the book, reads the introduction. It tells of an ancient 800-kilometre pilgrimage in northern Spain called The Saint James Way, still walked by pilgrims today. After reading three pages, he has tears in his eyes. His wife asks: ``Austin! What's wrong?''

``Nothing, Marilyn'' he replies softly. ``I've just found something I want to do.''

``Well, then,'' she says. ``You better do it.'' Wise woman, that Marilyn. She knows that once Austin's inner voice has spoken, she'd best stand back and let it happen.

Like when he had this urge to climb the Matterhorn. Never mind that he'd never ascended anything steeper than the Avenue Rd. hill. It was a painful struggle. But he got it done.

Or his resolve to take up the violin at age 45. Too bad he was tone deaf. But he tortured those yowling strings for years. When he finally got to play third fiddle in a square dance band, it was a major breakthrough. Today, he still hits sour notes. He's working on it, though. Get the idea? The man doesn't always succeed. But he won't quit.

So, after months of ``training walks'' around his St. Clair-Christie neighbourhood through the summer of 1997, our self-confessed agnostic ``couch potato'' is off to the Basque country to follow in the 900-year-old footsteps of Saint James along the ancient El Camino de Santiago.

Think of it. A 62-year-old pensioner, who grew up near Roncesvalles Ave. in west-end Toronto, trudging alone over rocky mountain paths to the original Roncesvalles - the fog-shrouded Pyrennes pass where the medieval hero Roland made his legendary stand.

During that five-week trek, hiking with his bamboo staff, he has plenty of time to reflect on his own life path. He thinks about his happy 1940s and '50s youth as the son of a cheery bartender (Ernie at the Rondun Hotel, Bloor and Dundas) who taught him the necessities of life: how to bet horses, catch bass and shoot craps.

He thinks about his hard-earned education in philosophy and literature at U of T, leading to a rewarding teaching career at Parkdale Collegiate, Brockton High School and Humber College. He thinks about his loss of faith in organized religion, about an earlier failed marriage, about the struggling street people he feels close to. And he thinks about that difficult thing that worries so many of us: what to do with the rest of our lives after retirement.

How did Lord Tennyson put it in Austin's favourite poem, Ulysses?

How dull it is to pause, to make an end. To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

Near the end of his exhausting, exhilarating journey, he receives a sign: "One morning after a storm, I opened my raincoat just as the sun came out and looked down. Hardly believing my eyes, I pulled out my camera and took a picture of my shadow cast upon the road with the morning sun at my back. It was the image of the pilgrim, complete with hat, staff and cloak. It was as if I was seeing myself for the first time.''

Yes, a wonderful moment - because that is how Austin Repath has seen himself ever since: The Millennium Pilgrim. Returning home, he excitedly explains his new mission to Marilyn: Why not seize the coming of the millennium as the focal point for a new pilgrimage? Hit the road. Meet people. Share the vision!

``Well, Austin,'' she sighs. ``You better do it.''

And so he has. Revving up his 16-year-old motorhome, Austin sets out to criss-cross the continent asking people how they feel about the millennium, how they will celebrate it, and about their hopes and dreams for the New Millennium

``I started in Ithaca, New York,'' he reveals, ``because that's where Tennyson's Ulysses began his last voyage:

Come, my friends. Tis not too late to seek a newer world. . . .
Some noble work of note may yet be done . . . .

So, off he went. New Orleans, Galveston, Albuquerque, Kalamazoo, Fargo, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary, Green Bay, North Bay, Laramie, Cheyenne and many places in-between.

``I had my doubts,'' he recalls. ``I have been a pretty cynical guy, not much of a do-gooder. But as I continued to roll down the road, and the sun came out, it began to feel right, you know? Just like the walk in Spain.''

And, for Austin, it was right. Making contacts via word of mouth and the Internet, he's been invited to speak of his mission and tell stories at churches, schools and gatherings from Vancouver to Corpus Christi. ``People have been very receptive. You know, we get such a negative image of certain places via movies and TV. But you get there and they're just regular folks. Interested. Wondering what it's all about.''

Sure, some view him with suspicion. But for every detractor, there have been many who've wished him well, invited him for dinner, shared their dreams about the future. ``One of the best moments happened on a farm in Iowa. This sweet old lady told me she planned to gather her family around her in the living room on Millennium Eve, Dec.31, 2000 and tell them the story of her life. This would be her millennium gift to them. `Then she plans to have her grandchildren gather around to tell of their plans and hopes and dreams for the 21st century.

``Lovely idea, isn't it? The matriarch of the family on the threshold of the new millennium, reaching across two generations to share her life with the youngsters. Then asking them to open the door to the future with their young eyes to share their visions with her.''

So, what do you think? Is this guy a weirdo? Or has he achieved something precious any of us could if we lived life more intuitively? If we listened, once in awhile, to our inner voice. Who knows? Some day we might experience a moment of bliss like the one that struck Austin one night, parked on the prairie, admiring the full moon and the winking stars:

``Suddenly a wash of forgiveness swept over me. I forgave myself for everything I'd done wrong in my life. And I forgave everyone who'd wronged me. It was one of those rare, magic moments when all seems right with the world.''

Look for him on the highway, in the mall, at the street corner and on the Internet (www.austinrepath.com). And if you see him, say hello and wish him well on his Ulyssian journey.

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.