Land of the Pilgrims?

Why Graceland’s as good as it gets


| July-August 1997



graceland

Image by Flickr user: betseyweber / Creative Commons

To some Elvis fans, Graceland is the mecca of pop-culture kitsch, but to many of the 2,500 tourists who arrive there each day from as far away as California and New York, it’s the hallowed shrine of a distinctly American saint. Looking around for someone to snicker with, I was surprised to discover that most of my fellow tourists were filing past Elvis’ sequined jumpsuits and shag-carpet-covered walls with hushed reverence before stopping in the Meditation Gardens to commune at his gravesite. As its name indicates, Graceland fulfills the function that Lourdes or Mecca served for traditional pilgrims: It offers the possibility of sanctification to the devout fans who journey there.

It’s not surprising that tourists such as these have become the modern-day pilgrims: Religious pilgrims were, after all, some of the world’s first tourists. Some of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales pilgrims sought to renew their faith, but others set out to have a convivial good time after a long winter cooped up indoors. Rustic inns and even whole towns sprang up along medieval pilgrimage routes, and markets and fairs marked popular pilgrimage sites. By the 12th century, popular guidebooks to Santiago de Campostela and other pilgrimage sites were available, and the first tourists offices opened in Rome, Egypt, and Palestine to serve the hordes of pilgrims tromping around the world.

In the United States, though, we didn’t have time-honored sacred sites, and the Protestants who colonized this country rejected the idea of pilgrimage.

(The first settlers may have called themselves Pilgrims, but their difficult journey to the New World was their first and last pilgrimage.) Yet the human yearning for spiritual renewal through travel remained. As Victor and Edith Turner wrote in Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, “Some form of deliberate travel to a far place intimately associated with the deepest, most cherished axiomatic values of the traveler seems to be a ‘cultural universal.’ If it is not religiously sanctioned, counseled, or encouraged, it will take other forms.”

So in this country, according to John F. Sears’ Sacred Places: American Tourist Attractions in the Nineteenth Century, natural wonders like Yosemite and Niagara Falls and Mammoth Cave became our sacred sites. Gazing at these popular attractions, the traveler was reminded of God’s glory—as in the great cathedrals of Europe. And just as legends about miraculous events and healings reinforced the power of Lourdes in the minds of the faithful, stories about such New World tourist spots as Niagara Falls rapidly accumulated. Newspapers and travel books recounted tales of tightrope walkers performing miraculous stunts over the falls, and of martyred souls who drowned or were rescued from the raging waters. Artists and writers helped capture the sublimity of these sites and created a central place for them in the popular imagination. In fact, John Muir’s photographs were so successful at evoking the spiritual in natural formations of the American West that they inspired Theodore Roosevelt to create the world’s first national parks.

From the beginning, Americans have taken a democratic approach to what qualifies as a pilgrimage site. Whether we’re traveling to Walt Disney World or Williamsburg, Yellowstone or Yosemite, we spend $467 billion a year seeking transcendent experiences heavily packaged in the commercial.