On the Road Again

As the 21st century nears, people are rediscovering the art of pilgrimage. So what is everybody searching for?

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The pilgrimage of old was not a trip to Disneyland. In the Middle Ages, writes Dutch author Cees Nooteboom in Roads to Santiago, “people simply set aside their lives to walk halfway across Europe in dangerous times.” Unlike today’s traveler, he adds, yesterday’s pilgrim “was a truly different human being, with different preoccupations. His society was spiritual unity; the importance that he attached to the relics of saints and martyrs is beyond modern comprehension.”

Although spiritual diversity may better describe our society, the role of transformative travel is no less important today. In fact, travel that fulfills some sort of spiritual quest, whether or not it relates to established religion, is definitely on the rise. Call up “pilgrimage” on the world wide web; you’ll find 20,000 site references. A decade ago, only 3,000 to 4,000 brave souls each year journeyed to El Camino de Santiago, Spain’s fabled pilgrimage route. Last summer alone, 95,000 made the trek, most of them on foot.

But was it really a pilgrimage, you may ask? Didn’t they get to Spain by plane, wear Nikes, and drink Evian?

What is intriguing is how little, really, pilgrimage has changed. Common to all religions, it was traditionally considered a rite of passage that involved separating from one’s normal life, embarking on a journey full of hardship and encounters with the unknown, arriving at a sacred site and participating in the prescribed rituals, and returning home, transformed.

Those who went sought various things: to fulfill an obligation, to be healed, to seek a blessing. But their journey was marked by progress both physical and spiritual.

Allow for some liberal interpretation, and the same aspects are relevant today. We still set out in times of plague and war. We still encounter hardships, be they long waits for passports, broken air-conditioners, or overbooked planes. Ancient seekers worried about being robbed by “false pilgrims”; we have to watch out for unscrupulous tour operators and overambitious T-shirt and icon vendors. Bad water still makes us sick; blisters still hurt.

Some adjustments for modern times have to be made, of course. At Mecca, the traffic gains speed crossing a dry riverbed called Wadi Muhassir, in keeping with the tradition that the Prophet spurred his camel through this pass. In Mexico City, pilgrims visit the Basilica of Guadeloupe to see a cloak on which the revered image of the Virgin reputedly appeared in the 16th century. They approach the basilica on their knees, but once they’re inside, they view the sacred object from a moving walkway.

The pilgrim boom has also raised environmental concerns. Take the Indian Wheel, a sacred circle of stones 80 feet in diameter, in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains. Created some time between 1200 and 1700, it is a spiritual destination that attracted fewer than 6,000 people annually before 1990.

But in 1991, after a burst of publicity, 14,000 people came; then 30,000 the next year, then 70,000. As they walked around the wheel, their feet hollowed a trench a foot deep. Indian leaders are concerned. It is a place for spiritual seekers who want to pray, they say; if you’re simply curious, please don’t come.

Yet like those before us, we are compelled to seek. Our view of what is sacred may differ from that of our ancestors. What we revere as ritual may repeat ancient patterns or create new ones. But what really matters is thinking about where we’re going and why, and discovering something about ourselves along the way. The need for a place and a time to reflect, to contemplate, and even to pray is as crucial as ever. As Martin Palmer writes in the new book Sacred Journeys, “True pilgrimage changes lives,” whether we go halfway around the world or out to our own backyards.

Disneyland? Perhaps.