It can be dangerous to travel. A strong reflecting light is cast back on “real life”, sometimes a disquieting experience. Sometimes you go to the far interior and who knows what you might find there? — Frances Mayes, Bella Tuscany
I had it in my mind that I needed to go on a pilgrimage. I needed to walk. Somewhere else. For many days.
If we drop the religious definitions of pilgrim, we can define a pilgrim as ‘one who walks in foreign lands’. I believe there is also some deep personal motivation involved in a decision to walk in foreign lands. Maybe there’s the desire for novelty and adventure. A yearning to see beautiful places, and really take the time to absorb them in a way that you can’t when you’re on the two-week-21-city Euro-tour. Maybe there is also a desire to step out of your life, and out of time. Even if just for a short while.
I have walked in many foreign lands, but not necessarily with intention. Not usually with the goal of ‘traveling’ from one place to the next while I walk. The one exception to this was a walk along the West Highland Way in Scotland nearly 10 years ago. My first long walk that involved moving from one town to the next each day along some spectacular countryside. I wanted to do it again.
But why now?
I think we all experience moments, sometimes seasons, in our lives when it feels as though we are turning the page to a new chapter. Sometimes, that new chapter is very clear: graduation, marriage, children, divorce, illness, death, a lost job, a new job, and, oh yes, a global pandemic. All of these are clear indicators that life is shifting in a new direction, often quite quickly. But there are other times when that shift is gradual. It sneaks up on you, until you suddenly realize you are in a new chapter, without having seen yourself turn the page. This kind of thing happens through subtle shifts in the focus of your career, changes in your body, dawning realizations about the nature of your future – or the future of the planet – and the fragility and short-lived nature of the present moment.
I was burned out at the end of this past spring semester. I’ve been at my job as a college professor for 17 years, and even through all-consuming personal challenges – my divorce, selling and purchasing a home, the illness and death of my mother – I can’t say I was ever quite as burned out as I was this past spring. It was not just one thing. It was more like a crescendo of multiple things all happening at the same time: the pandemic, increasing pressures from our university to do more with less and less help, the loss of my cat, and all of that coinciding with changes in my health and my body that left me utterly drained, and unable, at times, to get out of bed in the morning.
This was demoralizing. I lost confidence in my ability to stay on top of things. Confidence in my ability to take care of myself. Confidence that I would ever be able to do what I wanted again.
While summer gave me a chance to heal, and travels with loved ones contributed to that, I knew I needed to travel on my own again. I needed to restore my travel mojo. I wanted to go someplace where it would be easy to travel, but where I didn’t know the language. Or, at least, I wanted to visit a place where people speak a language that I have never studied. Italian is new for me, but as it turns out, has a lot of similarities with Spanish, so it’s fairly easy to get by.
I’ve had The Rough Guide to Italy sitting on my bookshelf for 17 years. Clearly, it’s out of date, but it gives you an idea of how long I have been considering a trip to Italy. When I bought it, I never imagined that I would live in Ecuador, stand on Antarctica, sail French Polynesia, hike in the Arctic Circle before visiting Italy, or that there would be a time when we wouldn’t need guidebooks because we’d carry around little computers in our pockets. But that’s how life goes.
So where does a modern pilgrimage really begin?
I decided it begins with a line: the security line at Denver airport in my case. Long lines, confinement in a narrow seat for the duration of a night across the Atlantic, then more lines at EU border control, more security lines, a line (if you can call it that) to board another flight. And eventually you find yourself on the metal steps that drop you at the tarmac in a foreign land, and, as the orange sun sits low in the sky, you need to learn how to find your way across town to your AirBnB.
That was the beginning. I spent three full weeks in northern Italy this September and October. For one of those weeks, I followed the pilgrim’s trail, the Via Francigena, through Tuscany, where I walked long hours through olive groves and vineyards, and sometimes through industrial suburbs, in sun and wind and rain, just to experience travel as it once was: a slow immersion into another rhythm of life. Time to live completely in the moment and come face to face with your own limitations (for me, those involved blistered feet!). This part of the trip was a pilgrimage in a more traditional sense. But I also spent time walking extensively in Italian cities (Florence and Venice), and hiking precipitous trails along the coastal trek between the villages of Cinque Terre.
I did all of this solo. When I tell people this, there are a couple of responses: some people are amazed and surprised that I would embark on a trip like this alone. Their minds fill with dangers of the world and wonder if I’m a bit crazy, putting myself in a vulnerable position. The other response I get is one of extreme envy. Women, especially, who long to put aside day-to-day responsibilities and just take off on their own, for time alone.
I think I’ve always known I needed time alone. Anyone who knows me, knows that this trip was FAR from the first time I’ve journeyed solo. In 1995, I spent three months traveling around Australia and New Zealand. Alone. Just for me. Just to get to know myself and the world. Now, every so often, I feel the need to do this kind of thing again, to take time to get to know myself and the world. Sometimes my work gives me a chance to travel alone, but sometimes I need to create these opportunities for myself, and leave the work behind.
The fact is that we are all always changing, and the world is always change. Traveling alone is a great way to get to know who you’re becoming again in a world that is constantly shifting. Although, it’s harder to get away now, with those pocket computers. There was no internet following me around in 1995.
So maybe this is what it means to be a modern pilgrim: taking the time to get to know who you have been and who you are becoming, and what the world is evolving into. It means spending moments in deep passing connections with others, and letting the camino (the path) provide whatever it is you need to grow into your most authentic self, to live your most authentic, full life. A pilgrimage gives you time to let new and foreign landscapes reflect in your soul, and then go deeper to find something new in yourself.
In a time when the world is in crisis in ways we have never seen – climate change, rising authoritarianism, renewed threat of nuclear armageddon – more than ever, I think it’s incumbent on each of us to go deep into ourselves and see what we find there, what is motivating us, what is driving us, and what little things we can do to make the world a better place. This is how we move the world forward.
I’ll be posting more about my Italian expedition in the coming weeks!