Pilgrim’s Progress

 

.

by Richard Nilsen

.

I’ve been on many pilgrimages, although I have never really thought to call them that. You probably have, too.
.
The line between what constitutes pilgrimage and what can be called merely travel is impossible to draw in ink. Each of us must decide where one endeavor shades into the other. There are many who walk to Santiago de Compostela merely for the adventure of it, and there are those who may vacation in some spot that has developed, for them, the quality of a shrine.
.
I am not religious and subscribe to no doctrine, but there is still something deeply satisfying about going somewhere, away from life’s everyday concerns, to discover something bigger, more important and more meaningful. That is how I define for myself the nature of a pilgrimage.
.
In some sense, nearly all travel I have taken has functioned as pilgrimage. I go to see something, or I go to learn something, or just to be near something that has meaning. “Meaning” is a squishy term, difficult to define. In this sense, meaning cannot be translated; you can’t always say what something “means,” it cannot be paraphrased, but you feel that it has meaning. Like a dream you cannot parse, but won’t leave you; you know it is meaningful. You don’t always understand meaning, but you recognize it.
.
Some call this meaning “spiritual,” but the word, for me, has too much incense around it. I leave it to the New Age conjurors and the church-goers. I think of it rather in Jungian terms, as our subconscious mirrored in the world at at large.
.
You will have your own meaningful travel; I recommend to you that you consider why some places seem important and others are insignificant, perhaps because of something that happened earlier in your life, perhaps because of something you read and admired, perhaps because of religious belief. Perhaps, even, because it matches some undefined longing deep in your chest.
.
It was such a longing, or empty space in my experience, that led me to Chartres cathedral. It was certainly more pilgrimage than tourism that led me to Chartres the first time. It overwhelmed me. It led, a few years later to a more traditional pilgrimage: An intentional voyage from shrine to shrine, as I traveled west to east in northern France from Mont Saint-Michel to Saint-Samson in Ouistreham; to Chartres again; to Paris for Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle, Saint Denis, and several smaller churches, such as Saint Séverin, Saint Germain l’Auxerrois, Saint Eustache; then north to Rouen, Amiens and Beauvais; and east to Laon, Reims and Noyon.
.
And despite my utter lack of religious faith, there was no denying the power of this architecture and the meaningfulness of its vast interior space as metaphor for both the infinite heavens and our psychic interior — both of them larger and more important than our puny day-to-day lives.
.
I’ve also made the pilgrimage three times to Monet’s garden at Giverny — which is one of my holy-of-holies — first in the spring and then twice in the fall. My life is infinitely alive for my having spent time there.
.
In my freshman year at college, my friend shared his enthusiasm for Cape Hatteras and I’ve been back too many times to count. My first official wife and I took our honeymoon there, although I’m sure she would not remember it as fondly as I do. We camped in the dunes directly under the lighthouse and at night the surf misted the air with a salty haze. The nighttime sky with the roar of the ocean was another mirror turned simultaneously inward and outward.
.
When I have been back, it has usually been in winter or early spring, before the hordes descend. When I first went, much of the barrier islands were empty; now, except for the protected National Seashore, it has become a Manhattan of the coast, with three- and four-story condos lining Route 12, which runs down the curve of the Hatteras Island like the vein on the back of a shrimp.
.
One can make pilgrimage not only to claim something new, but to pay homage to what has become sacred. Every time I visit Maine, I go to Schoodic Point where the waves crash over rocks and wash back into the sea in torrents. It is pilgrimage in so far as each visit reassures me that the world I know survives — both the interior and the exterior. I reabsorb what it gives me and I am remade.
.
With my second unofficial wife, I hiked a good portion of the Appalachian Trail in the mid-1970s, in a more traditional pilgrimage on foot. We never finished that one, giving up because we discovered that unlike what we had imagined — leisurely enjoying the beauty of nature —  the reality was driving ourselves to the next lean-to by nightfall and not losing track of the paint blazes that marked the trail. A trudge rather than a Thoreauvian saunter. Nevertheless, even incomplete the hike has informed who I have become in profound ways.
.
Other pilgrimages I have made include driving the the length of the Mississippi River from its source at Lake Itasca to its mouth on the Gulf of Mexico. I have also traveled the length of the Appalachian mountain cordillera, from Alabama to Percé Rock at the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec; and have driven from Mexico to Canada up the fold in the middle of the map of the 48 states — along the 100th Meridian.
.
Each of these, and several others, have been journeys of intent, that is, trips made with an end in mind, as opposed to a vacation trip, whose whole point it to avoid the work involved in achieving a goal.
.
Another repeated pilgrimage is to Walden Pond in Concord, Mass. I first went there more than 50 years ago, after having read pretty much everything Henry David Thoreau ever published, including his 14 volumes of journals. I fell in love with Thoreau’s prose style, with its biblical heft and Shakespearean metaphor.
.
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.” How can you write better than that? You can’t.
.
I read it all, from Walden to The Maine Woods to The Dispersion of Seeds. But not the poems. Gott im Himmel, not the poems. Thoreau wrote the most poetic of prose, but the most prosaic of poetry.
.
Walden, of course, chronicles his time spent in a cabin he built on the glacial lake of that name, where he lived for a year and a half in an attempt to leave civilization behind and grow his own beans. Thoreau became the patron saint of environmentalism in the 1960s, when I was reading all this, and that despite the fact that in 1844, he personally destroyed a whole forest by, like Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon, “doubtless being careless with matches.”
.
I can not accurately recall the number of times I have made it to Walden Pond; they all blur together. I’ve been there in spring and in fall; I have had the place all to myself, and I have had visits I had to share with busloads of tourists; there were moments when I felt I was communing with the eternity that Thoreau found there, and moments that were bound by the clock — I had elsewhere to get to before dark.
.
But the climax of a visit is circumambulating the pond, i.e., walking the perimeter of the water, a distance of roughly a mile and a half. At the one end is the swimming hole beach used by the residents of Concord, Mass., and at the other end are the railroad tracks of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Fitchburg Line commuter train.
.
On the way, you pass the site of Thoreau’s cabin, marked by stones where the tiny building used to be (a modern replica can be see on the other side of the highway that passes the pond, at the parking lot; yes, there is now a parking lot.)
.
The pond is just another kettle lake in a landscape made by their number into Swiss cheese on the map of New England. But it has a resonance built into it because of its adoption by Thoreau, a resonance that is now felt by countless acolytes for whom Walden is, if not a holy book, then at least a baedeker for self-discovery.
.
As he sat in his cabin, from 1845 or 1847, he spent his time writing a book about his own pilgrimage, 10 years before. He and his older brother, John, rowed and sailed a dory down the Concord River and up the Merrimack. When John died only a few years later, Henry composed the book as a memorial to his brother. It is a discursive volume, mostly about the boat trip they took, but also about pretty much everything else the young writer could pack into it.
.
He had it published at his own expense, and when it failed to sell, he wound up with all the remaindered books delivered to his home. “I now have a library of nearly nine-hundred volumes,” he said, “over seven-hundred of which I wrote myself.”
.
I suppose I did not always think of travel as pilgrimage, but it does not matter what I planned. In that sense, there is but a little difference between pilgrimage and vacation. Perhaps the most salient difference is the goal: For a pilgrim intends to change, while the vacationer usually purposes only to recharge the batteries and come home feeling more himself. But leaving home and passing through the unfamiliar will always change who you are.
.
Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: