On the Road Again

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

| July-August 1997

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.