Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Pilgrimage: A Vision of the Father on the Path of Faith

When Jarom Thurston looked up, he saw someone ahead of him on the trail. A tall, thin, white man whose bald head glistened in the afternoon sun. The man was running, fading into the distance with every passing second. Immediately, Jarom thought of his father. For just a moment, Jarom couldn't be sure that it really wasn't his father. He had the same assertive stride, a burst of energy that came from a deep well of resolve. A strong and indefatigable family man, athlete, and pharmacist from Payson, Utah, Gary Thurston had always been a hero to his son.

Jarom closed his eyes. He was in the family living room, just a child playing with his toys on the carpet floor. His dad was sitting on the couch, slipping on his running shoes. The beat up pair of old Nike flats were treated almost reverentially. Jarom watched with fascination as his dad tied the laces. Can I come with you, he wanted to ask. What adventures did Gary Thurston have when he went out the front door? Sometimes Jarom would scramble to the window to catch a glimpse of his dad rounding the corner of the street and out of sight, his legs pumping rhythmically like poetry.

When Jarom reopened his eyes, he was back on the trail. The man that looked so much like his father was gone. He squinted into the horizon, which went on forever, but could see no sign of another human being. Jarom rubbed his eyes. His thoughts were getting fuzzy. The world drifted in and out of focus. An undulating pain that echoed through his body brought him back to and made him acutely aware of his surroundings. The heat of the afternoon sun was slowly pounding him into submission. Rivulets of stinging sweat cascaded down his forehead and into his eyes.

And even though Jarom knew that the old man he had just seen on the trail probably was an apparition, a trick of the mind brought on by the heat or by getting caught up in the surreal beauty of the countryside - such things happened out here in the expansive seclusion of southeastern Brazil - even though he knew that the real Gary Thurston was thousands of miles away, Jarom couldn't help but wish that his dad was in fact nearby, maybe waiting just around those trees up ahead, where he could ask him, Can I come with you?

"How you doing, man," came Tony's voice. Jarom turned around. His friends Tony Portera and Chris Roman were just a few feet behind him. They were both walking with a limp. Chris had his head down and was concentrating on the trail, which was covered with large rocks. The trail was actually a stretch of old railroad tracks and the rocks underfoot were dangerous enough to invite a twisted ankle if one didn't watch their step.

"I'm okay," came Jarom's reply. His voice sounded foreign even to himself.

"You're swerving," said Tony.


"You're swerving off the trail."

"Oh. Just a little tired I guess."

"Well, watch your feet," warned Tony.

In the past seven days, Jarom and his friends had slept just a few hours total. They had since traveled a distance of over 300 miles through one of the most breathtaking landscapes in all of Brazil. They crossed mountains and passed through woods of eucalyptus, fields of banana trees, sugarcane, corn, and coffee beans, making their way from city to city to get to to get to Aparecida. The route they were on was the Caminho da Fé, or the Path of Faith. It was created in 2003 as a pilgrimage route to the Nossa Senhora Aparecida Basilica, a magnificent sacred temple.

Accounts of the history of Our Lady of Aparecida date back to the year 1717, when three fishermen set out near the Port of Itaguaçu to catch fish for their village. After hours of scouring the river for a catch, the men came up with nothing. Eventually, they turned their eyes to the heavens and offered up their prayers to God. When they cast their net again, they pulled up a dark brown statute sculpted from clay. It appeared to have been underwater for years. The three-foot tall statute presented an image of the black version of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. After the men hauled the clay figure aboard their vessel, they cast their nets once more into the river. The weight of their catch that day was so great that they returned to port overloaded, in danger of their craft sinking. This is the first miracle attributed to the Virgin. The image is now housed in the Basilica, one of the largest churches in the world.

Every year millions of people make their way to Aparecida to catch a glimpse of the holy image of the Virgin Mary. For many, the journey is as significant as the destination. Each person makes the trip for his own personal reason: to pray for a dying loved one, to be cured of a terrible illness, to offer thanks for the many blessings of life. Each person's journey is special. For those who travel the Caminho da Fé, every step is a sacrifice, a little holy act of endurance offered up to the ultimate goal of the pilgrimage. Some might not even realize the goal until they finally arrive at it. The journey is one of discovery.

It had only been a few hours since Jarom and his friends left the posada in Campos do Jordão. Their legs were still stiff from the rest. Starting back up again had been a struggle, but it was nice to have gotten a few hours of sleep and some good food down. The taste of hot Brazilian pizza still lingered on Jarom's palette. If he closed his eyes, he could almost taste the thin, crispy crust, the creamy, thick melted cheese topped with salty olives, slices of fresh ham, and other lovely toppings. The proprietor of the posada had introduced all three of them to a drink called cachaça (pronounced "ka-SHA-sa"), a hearty liquor made from fermented sugarcane. Cachaça was becoming all the rage in Brazilian bars and eateries. It formed the base of caipirinha, the national cocktail of Brazil. Mixed with lime wedges, sugar, and ice, the drink was a samba that danced on the tongue.

But now the samba was over and silence took its place. An oppressive silence, weighed down by the humidity of a slow-roast Brazilian summer. Even though Jarom loved this country, loved everything about it - the culture, the food, the language, the people, the natural beauty of the landscape - he couldn't be drawn out of his trance. All he could do was count the planks of the tracks underfoot. One, two, three. They went by with each agonizing footfall. 84, 85, 86... Soon, he lost count.

He found himself thinking back over the past seven days. The flight to Brazil. Meeting with Tony and Chris at the airport in São Paulo. The rain. The mountains. Blisters and falls. The Hill of the Broken Leg. Jarom had been ready to call it quits. But, Tony insisted he push on. "We came here together. We're going to finish together," he said.

Jarom felt like he did during his very first race. Ten years ago, he was running the Hobble Creek Half Marathon. Having never run more than three miles in his life, Jarom entered the race to be like his dad. Ever since he could remember, his father had been a runner, competing in marathons and triathlons. There was a mixture of awe and respect in his heart when he saw his dad lacing up his shoes to head out for a run. How Jarom wanted so badly to join him, to have the cool air rushing against his skin, filling his lungs as he raced side by side with his father. For the first six miles of Hobble Creek, all Jarom could see was the back of his father's head, just a hundred yards up. Pride welled up inside. He wanted desperately to catch up to show him how far he'd made it, to tell him he was still in it, still running. Always, always running. Never mind the pain in his legs or the light-headed feeling that swept over him like a blanket in the wind. Jarom felt alive. He was his own man. And he felt closer to his dad than ever before.

By the time Jarom, Tony, and Chris got to the street that leads to Aparecida, it started to rain. In a matter of minutes, the winds gathered enough strength to blow them off course. The roar of the water pouring down in sheets was deafening. Cars were pulling off to the side of the road to wait out the storm. Jarom and his friends looked around for shelter, anything to shield them from the force of the downpour, but none was to be found. In other circumstances, the storm might have been welcome, beautiful even. Instead, it made the weary travelers shiver with cold as they struggled against nature. In a sense, this was the essence of Brazil, the very heart of that old and mystical land, delicate as a flower, lovely as the promise of new life, cruel as the inevitability of death.

"We might as well keep going," Tony yelled.

With just two kilometers to go, they made their way to the church. A profound quiet filled the air, even deeper than the silence on the tracks. Each man was lost in his thoughts. With every footstep, they drew closer and closer to the end of their journey. Jarom looked around. The sun had set and the streets were like black glass after the rain. There were no cars out. No people cheering them to the finish. The world was motionless. Jarom could hear his breathing in the still air. Their footsteps clapped and echoed throughout the city. For all they knew, the world did not exist. The only thing that was real was the certainty of their pace, that relentless march to get to the end.

"We're here," said Tony.

They walked through the parking lot of the church. Designed in the form of a Greek cross, the massive architecture lay sprawled before them, a mecca of the soul. The dome of the building towered over them as they approached. The large blue and gold clock adorning the steeple read 8:30 pm. The place was empty. Our Lady of Aparecida, that small statute that symbolized for so many the end of a life-changing odyssey, waited inside on a gilded throne. Jarom looked at his friends, wanting to say something, anything, but couldn't find the words to convey what he was feeling. After a full seven days and fourteen hours of constant forward motion, the men had made it. Three hundred and forty miles. They were pilgrims. And their pilgrimage was now complete. Jarom turned and walked back towards the truck, ready to go home, eager to rest his tired legs, anxious to call his dad and tell him that he made it.

In the picture above, from left to right: Chris Roman, Tony Portera, and Jarom Thurston.

Click here to read Jarom's interview.


  1. Thank you Jarom. That is a special message coming from you. I always hoped you would feel some of what I felt in the great outdoors. Now I know.
    Gary Thurston

  2. You've rubbed of on me and Heath both, dad! :o) Thanks for your amazing example and love! JT

  3. Thank you Jarom, for sharing your heart secrets. Thank you Gary, for being a father who inspires. Both are blessings upon the human soul. Please, (!), continue to share and inspire. The world can be changed from such acts of honest loving.

  4. What an amazing story seen through your eyes. love, Tara