In 1953, a 45-year-old woman began New Year’s Day at the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena by stepping out of the crowd, in front of the floats and marching bands, and setting off across America on a walk for world for world peace. From then on, Mildred Lisette Norma became known by the moniker emblazoned across her blue tunic that morning: Peace Pilgrim.
She began her journey with the Korean War raging, McCarthyism sweeping the nation, and nuclear proliferation an ever-growing threat — and for the next twenty-eight years, through more wars and militarization, she never stopped walking for world peace.
Born in 1908 on a New Jersey poultry farm, Norman grew up in a close-knit family. She enjoyed being a fashionable flapper during the Roaring Twenties, before beginning to listen to an inner compass.
She would later recall realizing that “money-making was easy but not satisfying,” And so, one night in the late 1930s, “out of a feeling of deep seeking for a meaningful way of life,” she began walking through the woods near her home.
“After I had walked almost all night, I came out into a clearing where the moonlight was shining down. And something just motivated me to speak and I found myself saying, ‘If you can use me for anything, please use me. Here I am, take all of me, use me as you will, I withhold nothing. That night, I experienced the complete willingness, without any reservations whatsoever, to give my life to something beyond myself.”
From then on, she began to make such wholesale changes as working with old people and people with mental health problems, volunteering with peace organizations, becoming a vegetarian, living on a low income, and getting rid of most of her possessions.
As her unhappy marriage drew to a close, she sent out to hike the Appalachian Trail, becoming the first woman to cover all 2,050 miles in one season. On the trail, she received the vision that would change her life. And so a few years later, leaving behind both her name and her possessions, she stepped out in front of the Rose Parade and began to touch the lives of everyone she met.
On her journey, Peace Pilgrim never used money. She wore the same blue plants and blue tunic each day, which held all she owned: a pen, a comb, a toothbrush and a map. That’s it.
She would later say: “I own only what I wear and carry. I just walk until given shelter, fast until given food. I don’t even ask; it’s given without asking. I tell you, people are good. There’s a spark of good in everybody.”
During her very first year, she was thrown into jail. This happened more than once. But Peace Pilgrim, never minded a short stint in jail. A friend would later say,”She felt that jails were wonderful places to carry on the mission. She would gather the women prisoners together and teach them a little song, a little chant called ‘The Fountain of Love.’”
Once she reached New York, she kept walking. Over the course of her lifetime, she walked over 25,000 miles — seven times across the US as well as through Canada and Mexico. As her fame grew, she was invited to speak in schools, churches and other organizations.
She soon found that strangers would approach her and offer her food and shelter — although she also slept outdoors. She averaged twenty-five miles a day, though she often stopped to talk with others.
In July 1981, the day before she died, Peace Pilgrim was interviewed at a small radio station in Indiana.
The interviewer asked: “Peace Pilgrim, you know, there are a certain number of people who would probably think of somebody like yourself as a kook or a nut. Do you have a problem overcoming this barrier with some people?”
“Well, I’m quite sure that some of those who have just heard of me must think I’m completely off the beam,” Peace Pilgrim replied. “After all, I am doing something different. And pioneers have always been looked upon as being a bit strange.
“But, you see, I love people and I see the good in them,” she continued. “And you’re apt to reach what you see. The world is like a mirror: If you smile at it, it smiles at you. I love to smile, and so in general, I definitely receive smiles in return.”
Toward the end of his show, the host read Peace Pilgrim’s vow aloud: ” ‘I shall remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace, walking until I am given shelter and fasting until I am given food.’ “
He then added, “She appears to be a most happy woman.”
“I certainly am a happy person,” Peace Pilgrim responded.
In her memoir, she had written:
There is a feeling of always being surrounded by all the good things, like love and peace and joy. It seems like a protective surrounding, and there is an unshakeableness within, which takes you through any situations you need to face….There is a calmness and a serenity and unhurriedness – no more striking or straining.
Peace Pilgrim died at the age of 72, in 1981, in a car accident while being driven to a meeting.
She had long believed death to be a ‘glorious transition to freer living’, and ‘life’s last great adventure.’ She left behind a legacy of connection through walking, of believing the best of those she encountered, and of living life to the fullest for the purpose of joy and peace.