I’ve started reading about hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) again. In doing so, I’ve found other trails about which I want to read – the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the American Discovery Trail.
It’s a topic that periodically resurfaces for me. The AT has a unique appeal for me in that I’ve actually been on part of it (the nearest section is, roughly, 90 minutes from my home town by car) but I’ve not done more than day-hike two or three miles of it and that was a long, long time ago. I used to long to hike the entire trail, based on a sheer love of hiking. Lately, though, my interest in hiking a long trail (any trail!) stems from a need to actively seek out a journey of some kind in order to undergo transformation.
I have a feeling that I’m going to end up going on pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage, for any who aren’t aware, is a journey undertaken in search of moral or spiritual significance. Intrinsically, the journey is one of hardship and end result is always some type of transformation. It’s an alien concept for many, aside from mentions of Muslims on hajj or Buddhists making the rounds of temples in places with names that are difficult to pronounce. For lots of us, the first time we learn of it is when Chaucer is forced upon us in high school in the form of The Canterbury Tales. Without a decent English teacher, though, the concept doesn’t come across.
(I happened to have a decent English teach and like Chaucer, to the point that I own both John Gardner’s book The Life and Times of Chaucer and a book of Chaucer’s love poems…but that’s neither here nor there.)
I’ll push the envelope on the definition a bit by suggesting here that the journey doesn’t have to be a physical one. In fact, an author I know said only today that “…going through depression is a journey that takes place only in your head. You have to go THROUGH, you can’t back out…” As anyone who deals with mental illness knows, the journey through is arduous and cannot be completed without some form of transformation.
The idea of seeking transformation through a journey isn’t dead in the modern age, although few would call it pilgrimage. Many thru-hikers of the AT talk about being “called to the trail” when they’re asked why they choose to undertake such an arduous task. I’ve read at least one account where this calling was attributed to the Christian God – the hiker felt as though God’s plan for her was to hike the the AT and that she wouldn’t have been able to do it without Him. I assume there are others that either feel this way and don’t discuss it, or don’t realize it until they’re done and the change has happened.
Doing what my gods want of me inevitably involves transformation through journey, and I believe that both physical and mental components will be involved in order to cement the changes. I think I’m going on pilgrimage of some sort, and I think I may be going soon.
Have you been called? Have you gone? Have you come back changed?