This week I received an email from Mountain Travel Sobek (an adventure travel company) that featured some of their European trips. One of them was Spain's Camino de Santiago. The trip they offer takes a group down the length of the Santiago de Compostela Camino in ten days. It's a combination of hiking, driving, touring historic sites, and staying in hotels over the whole five hundred mile route. I'm sure it's an interesting trip at over $5K plus plane fare per person, but I would not consider it to be "making the pilgrimage."

I won't be making that MTS trip, but just seeing the ad reminded me that I've written a good bit about pilgrimages and journeys of self-discovery in book reviews and in these journal entries. I'm even writing a fictional account of such a journey for my coming short stories anthology. It's apparently a major theme for me, but then, it has long been a major theme for storytellers since Homer. Characters making a journey where they end up being different from when they started, is just too powerful a metaphor for the journey of life for the storyteller to ignore. When the journeyer's change is for the better, their story is an inspiration. When it's for the worse, it's a warning. When people purposefully enact the journey in their lives by deliberately going somewhere for the sake of spiritual discovery, then the journey becomes a pilgrimage.

Such journeys, by definition, involve the pilgrim's finding a higher reality--God, nature, spiritual powers, the oversoul. Indeed, that finding is the pilgrim's very purpose. In literature, it often involves tests of the pilgrim's resolve and mettle that he must pass before being rewarded with the reaching of his goal, or the solving of his problem (often via a new insight). Such testing implies refinement so that the pilgrim is a better person by journey's end (or has reached a "higher level" in one way or another). Such testing and refinement with reward is seen in the classic journey-tales of The Odessy and The Lord of the Rings, and is a large feature of Paulo Coelho's account of his journey down the Spanish Camino in The Pilgrimage.

It seems that people of a certain level of thoughtfulness reach a point where they want answers or insights that have eluded them so far. Whether young or older in age, they have often been challenged by events that engender loss and deep questioning. I described this prompt for pilgrimaging in my review of Cheryl Strayed's book, Wild, as:

In such a work, you won't find definitive answers or endorsements of anybody's dogmas. But in looking at the collective of such works, you'll find a literature that is spiritually infused. And that spirit is simply asking the question: "What the Hell is this all about?"

The answer is not usually a definite one, such as "forty-two" in Douglas Adam's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Rather, the answer revealed by the journey is an enlightenment that guides the pilgrim through the remainder of her life journey. Even when there is a definite solution found or act performed in the journey, such as in LOTR where the goal is to throw the ring in Mount Doom's fires, the pilgrim is left for the better (so the hobbits are able to "scour the Shire" of ruffians when they return home).

These are the attributes I've observed in the "journey" stories (fiction and nonfiction) I have reviewed and pondered. Whether the pilgrimage is one involving esoteric trials and communion with powerful spiritual forces (re: The Pilgrimage, The Camino), or is a more mundane hike that produces insight very personal to the pilgrim through the physical challenges of the journey and opportunity for introspection (re: The Way, Wild), it is in its very essence the meeting of the pilgrim seeker with the wider world, from which, up to this point, she has been estranged.

Though I have found much inspiration in the works I've cited so far (even Douglas' comedy), I think Wild is the most definitive of what I'm talking about because it is so very gritty and down-to-earth. Ms Strayed was prompted to her pilgrimage by life problems she was failing at dealing with, and her resolution-journey was a pause, or reset, that brought her to a point of enlightenment where she became able to cope. Her insight came from the physical challenge and communion with nature that represented her engagement with the wider world. My question, though, is whether such a journey today is even possible.

Ms Strayed's journey was up the Pacific Crest Trail, which is a 1000+ mile trail that follows the ridge of volcanic mountains that span the western coast of the US. She made the trip in 1995. How different would such a journey be today when California is suffering a monstrous drought with no break in sight? Would the higher elevations have less snow but be more treacherous where the ice is there but thin? Would streams and lakes be so toxic from SAG-sprayed aluminum, barium, and mercury to render purification systems useless? Would intense UV levels from a depleted ozone layer make extended time in the sun too dangerous? Would the vista of Crater Lake be marred and choked of inspiration by persistent SAG lines overhead (assuming the pilgrim is awake enough to see them)? How would all this alter the pilgrimage's potential for insight?

These questions are just as applicable to any of the classic pilgrimages, such as Spain's Camino, and to any engagement with the wider world. Beyond a lack of resources, my basic hesitancy about making any "bucket list" travels (such as to Machu Pichu) is the anticipation of sorrow from seeing the geoengineering happening at a sacred place, and being subjected to concentrated levels of the aerosols in airplanes.

So where does this leave the seeker? Is the pilgrim's path to God forever obscured by a haze of toxic nanoparticulates?

I think these questions lead us to the larger consideration of humanity's struggle with evil. It is simply a struggle that has become so pervasive on earth that we cannot avoid it. We can pretend it does not exist, so that even as we suffer from its relentless destruction, we live (or fail to live) in the consequences of that thing we refuse to name.

Even so, I believe that humans will continue to pilgrimage because their drive for understanding and need for insight is so strong. In the face of evil, and in the spite of it, they will make their journeys because they reach a point where they just can't go on as before. It's just that now, if the pilgrim is honest, she will find in addition to her insight that there is a struggle that has been brought to her. She must deal with it, or else the meaning of her pilgrimage will be lost.

I think it is my fate that my pilgrimage be a literary one. If so, then I hope it is a trail that is helpful to others making a more physical journey. It is no less daunting in scope and just as prospective for insight.


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