Not Quite a Pilgrim, But Searching

When I think about travel, it’s hard not to think about the friends who first inspired me to realize that I not only could, but certainly should, see more of the world. The picture at the top of this post is on a tree outside their door, a constant reminder that they are explorers, and while I will never quite match their travels, I’m certainly indebted to them for giving me the inspiration to try and the confidence to make it happen. Of course, if I am ever killed on a trip, it’s their fault, but let’s not dwell on that.

Thinking back on that first, easy trip to Ireland, and now getting ready for three months in Europe with just a backpack to carry my possessions, it’s certainly been a remarkable transformation.

Part of the trip I’m about to take will lead me to Spain, where I plan to walk for 14-20 days on the Camino de Santiago. It’s a series of paths that have been in place for centuries, and the walkers (and bikers) are known as pilgrims. In the earliest days of the Camino, the pilgrims were seeking spiritual enlightenment and redemption while those who travel today have many more motives.

Pilgrim is an interesting word. Though it has come to be known as a synonym for those seeking something new, some new land, or some new sense of peace, the Latin origin of the word is peregrines, which means “foreign.” In old French, the word was peregrin, meaning “pilgrim, crusader; foreigner, stranger.” Other than in Iceland and a very brief stay in Southern France, I will certainly be a stranger to these new places, but I have to believe that every chance to see some new shore is a chance to make it less foreign, and maybe make ourselves a bit less strange.

Pilgrims seek. And while this trip is about rest and reflection and the chance for new experiences, at its core, it’s about finding something in myself. While I won’t end up in an abandoned bus in Alaska after two years of difficult wandering, it’s hard not to think about what Chris McCandless wrote about his journey:

An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shalt not return, ’cause “the West is the best.” And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution.

Melodramatic? Sure. But real. Our world, with its pressures, many self-imposed, its electronic tethers, often self-chosen, and its noise, frequently self-created, can seem overwhelming, and make it easy to lose sight of the person that we want to be and are capable of being. A three month journey certainly isn’t enough to “kill the false being” or to “put to rout at that is not living,” perhaps, but it might just be enough time to begin the fight in earnest.

Closer to my experience, I’ve always found comfort and challenge in Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection, in which a well-fed, comfortable man named Nekhludoff realizes that he must change his life. Tolstoy writes:

More than once in Nekhludoff’s life there had been what he called a “cleansing of the soul.” By “cleansing of the soul” he meant a state of mind in which, after a long period of sluggish inner life, a total cessation of its activity, he began to clear out all the rubbish that had accumulated in his soul, and was the cause of the cessation of the true life. His soul needed cleansing as a watch does. After such an awakening Nekhludoff always made some rules for himself which he meant to follow forever after, wrote his diary, and began afresh a life which he hoped never to change again.

Time for a little cleansing of this soul, I think.