Journeys, Road Trips, Treks and Pilgrimages

As I wander through the streets of Lisbon and the coastal towns that follow the Tejo river south toward the sea, I occasionally come across signs like this one:

They are pointing the way for two pilgrimage routes, one on the well-known Caminho (or, in Spanish, Camino) de Santiago and the other to Fátima. The two are among the most famous and well-traveled religious pilgrimages in the world.

A few nights ago in the Metro station I saw a man going down the escalator, wooden staff in his hand and a scallop shell hanging off his backpack. Immediately I knew he was a pilgrim traveling the Camino de Santiago.

The scallop shell, often found on the shores in Galicia, has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago.

I am a big fan of the road trip in its various forms. Perhaps one of my favorite vacations was last fall, when we loaded up the car and traveled the “Mighty Five” National Parks in southern Utah. Some of the hikes were very challenging, and pushed me to the edges of what I thought I could do.

One of the scarier hikes I’ve ever done, which required grabbing on to a chain attached to the cliff edge.

Another of my favorite hikes was to the top of Pico in Açores, taken with some of my closest friends. The 2,351-meter climb was not technically difficult (we had a guide), but it was physically challenging. We all felt a keen sense of accomplishment at the top of tallest peak in Portugal.

Hikers in the Mist. Photo courtesy R. Cambridge. All rights reserved.

But there is one kind of hike that is special. I’ve done a lot of hikes, but I have never done a so-called “through-hike.”

Although I am intrigued by the Pacific Crest Trail, I’m not prepared to take six months of my life to walk from Mexico to Canada. I certainly don’t have the time, the wherewithal (or, most importantly, the calling) to do the Triple Crown.

These physically grueling, months-long hikes represent a mental and emotional challenge. It’s perhaps why so many people are drawn to them, to test their meddle.

The kind of journey I’m referencing is way more than a physical or mental challenge. It is a pilgrimage, a physical expression of a spiritual journey. The word pilgrim is rooted in the word peregrine, or wandering. It’s a derivative of the word peregre, to mean through or beyond the borders of. A pilgrimage is more than the destination, but about exploration of the borders beyond yourself.

There is something about a pilgrimage that is emblematic of the human experience — the drive to seek. Paths and destinations are found in all the major religions. In fact, a pilgrimage doesn’t have to be affiliated with any religion. The final destination may hold a special power or energy for the pilgrim beyond faith tradition. It can be deeply personal. World War II veterans, for example, have journeyed to the sites and beaches that marked D-Day. Often, these journeys can mark a reckoning, or a closure.

I am drawn to the idea of a pilgrimage, and seeing these signs generates a wanderlust, a desire to explore — physically outward and spiritually inward. I am not sure what path would be best for me, and I’m not even sure what my purpose would be. But it’s something that seems to beckon, and I find it’s often worth answering such a call.

“Traveller, there is no path.
The path is made by walking.

Traveller, the path is your tracks
And nothing more.
Traveller, there is no path
The path is made by walking.
By walking you make a path
And turning, you look back
At a way you will never tread again
Traveller, there is no road
Only wakes in the sea.”

Antonio MachadoBorder of a Dream: Selected Poems

Books and movies about journeys and pilgrimages:

And finally, a beautiful poem by David Whyte.

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