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.
As Sears put it, U.S. tourist attractions have “yoked the sacred and profane, the spiritual and the artificial, the profound and the superficial, the elite and the popular in a sometimes uneasy combination.” We may not have St. Peter’s in Rome or the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, but we love our Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, and our Fly-Fishing Hall of Fame. If history can’t supply the connection, Hollywood can: Iowa’s tourism business is booming with pilgrims from all over the world who visit the baseball diamond from Field of Dreams and the covered bridges from The Bridges of Madison County. We even like our memorials to have a democratic face: We’ll overlook the bronze equestrian statue of the famous general in favor of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where we can touch the names of thousands of ordinary men and women killed in the war.
Savvy tourist boards have caught on to this notion; they market everything from restaurant tours to treks to Native American lands as “pilgrimages.” Each year more than 100,000 people join the Natchez Pilgrimage—a campy, costumed journey back in time to tour the antebellum homes of a Mississippi River town. For 47 years nature lovers have convened in the spring at Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the Annual Wildflower Pilgrimage. You can make a pilgrimage to Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris (the video tour is just $9.95) or take the Judy Garland 25th Anniversary Pilgrimage Tour to Ferncliff Mausoleum and Cemetery (transportation provided by luxury minicoach).
Of course, these are not real pilgrimages. Traditional pilgrimages were long, arduous journeys made on foot, horseback, or sometimes bloody knees.
After years of preparation, the faithful left material comforts behind for a grueling trek over the Pyrenees to Santiago, a year-long journey to Jerusalem, or a 49-day trip from Canterbury to Rome. Those pilgrimages resonated powerfully because believers spent their entire lives steeped in the stories and images of their tradition. In return for fulfilling this spiritual obligation, they earned a strong renewal of faith and a solid reminder of how they should live.
But we cannot fault today’s pilgrims; at least they are searching. Even if the RVers in Yellowstone neglect to leave their worldly possessions at home, it’s clear—when they jam on their brakes to gaze in awe at a herd of elk grazing in the wild—that they don’t fail to understand the sacredness of their journey. As landscape scholar J.B. Jackson says in The Necessity for Ruins, “The inspiration of tourism is a desire to know more about the world in order to know more about ourselves. If we offend public taste, that is only incidental to our search; the Swiss cuckoo clock, the bumper sticker from Carlsbad Caverns is a type of diploma—proof that we have at least tried to improve.