Monday, October 18, 2010

The Art of Pilgrim (a short personal essay and a book review)

In the spring of 1988, just a week or two before setting off on my first solo-transcontinental road trip, (a journey that would end with me spending a year in Virginia City, Nevada), I read Mark Twain’s Roughing It. As I drove across Wyoming on I-80, Twain’s description of his travels on the Overland Trail, which paralleled the modern freeway, came alive. At one remote interchange, I got off and explored an old stage stop that today is no more the stone ruins. Feeling the warm sun and listening to the wind rustle through the sparse vegetation, I imagined what it had been like a hundred and twenty-five years earlier. Then the wail of a Union Pacific freight train was heard. As the train rolled eastward, I realized it had eliminated the need for the stage line, and that the freeway and airplane had since overshadowed the passenger trains. “Twain was here before all that,” I thought. Later that day, I stopped at Fort Bridger and Salt Lake and toured both spots, thinking about a young Samuel Clemens, who was still a year or two away from claiming the name, Mark Twain. Reading his writings, I felt more connected to the land and to his book. Had I just read the book or just flew down I-80; I would have missed the connections.

Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred (New York: MJF Books, 1998), 254 pages.
This book makes a lot of sense to me. Travel should be so much more than just sightseeing and crossing off places on our bucket lists of sites to see before we die. To me, it is instinctive to learn more about the places I travel in an attempt to connect with the “soul” of the land and the people. In this book, Cousineau draws upon a wealth of pilgrimage literature as he encourages his readers to be attentive in their travels. Cousineau’s book is seasoned with stories and quotes that come from the breath of humanity. He draws upon pilgrims of all ages. Most are religious, but not all. It seems there is an embedded need within our psyche to connect with something deeper. Included in the pilgrims reported on are visits to Jim Morrison’s grave and baseball fans who seek out Ty Cobb’s cleats. Cousineau is familiar with the writings of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhist, and Hindu pilgrims, but he also is knowledgeable about native tribes and the legends of mythic journeys and what they have to tell us about pilgrimage.

Pilgrimages change us. They can also bring political changes as Cousineau points to when writing about the “hill of crosses” in Lithuania. The hill, the site of a Lithuania victory of Sweden, had been an important site for the country since the mid-19th Century. Crosses adored the hill, but after the Soviet take-over in 1917, the crosses were regularly removed. But every time they were removed, they were replaced, often by those who travelled many miles and risked their lives to replace the crosses. Finally, in 1985, the Soviets stopped bulldozing the crosses and a few years later, Lithuanian students began to protest for independence. Looking back on his country’s long struggle, one Lithuanian commented on the importance of the Hill of Crosses. “Just knowing that it was there made the fight for independence much easier.” (44-47)

Cousineau grew up in a family that traveled frequently. His father felt that travel was good for the mind and his mother thought it was good for the soul. (xv) Cousineau combines the two perspectives. “Pilgrimage is the kind of journeying that marks just this move from mindless to mindful, soulless to soulful travel.” (xxiii) The book is divided into chapters that follow a pilgrim’s path: the longing, the call, departure, the pilgrim’s way, the labyrinth, arrival, and returning. He speaks of the pilgrim’s lamp, the tower, the satchel, and the role of the well where the pilgrim is refreshed, and the need to give gifts and make offerings. I recommend this book and include some quotes to tempt you to read it:

“If you truly want to know the secret of soulful travel, we need to believe that there is something scared waiting to be discovered in virtually every journey.” (xxii)

Beauty is a ‘by-product of ordinary things,’” quote from Joseph Brodsky (22)

“Questions tune the soul…” “Ask yourself what mystery is being guarded by your longing.” (24)

The tarot card for a pilgrim is “the fool.” (49)

“’It is not so much what you do,’ wrote Epictetus in his study of happiness, ‘it is how you do it.’” (92)

“The practice of soulful travel is to discover the overlapping point between history and every day life, the way to find the essence of every place… Curiosity about the extraordinary in the ordinary moves the heart of the travel intent on seeing behind the veil of tourism.” (121)

“Do not seek to follow the footsteps of the men of old, seek what they sought. –Matssuo Basho” (173)
“…savored the melancholy beauty, what the Japanese call sabi, the ‘sigh of the moment’” (176)


  1. I read 'Roughing It' after my last trip down that stretch of road. The next time I will have to pay more attention.

  2. I didn't know he wrote about traveling through Wyoming. That one is added to my must read list.

  3. My younger daughter fussed at her older sister when they went to Italy because the older one kept her nose in a guidebook and (according to her sister - didn't see the real places - she only read about them) LOL

  4. need to go read roughing it and this book as well...both sound wonderful...i like the thought of soulful travel

  5. Ed, I will now have to finish his Roughing It travels by going to the Sandwich Islands :)

    Jen, he ended Roughing It in Hawaii

    Kenju, you do your reading beforehand!

    Brian, I think you'll like both

  6. Loved this post as it talked about a lot of things I've been thinking about
    The nearest working train station to here is in Florence an hour and a half west. And once you get there--trains costs much more than flying. That should be changed and quickly, but
    When I get somewhere I walk and walk--my happiest memories of Europe are always days spent walking with some breaks to go into museums, churches and other tourist attractions. I will forgo them but the "most important"or quirkiest if the day is beautiful and the streets are calling
    Soulful Traveling sounds great

  7. By the way, are you in line for Twain's autobiography parts 1,2, & 3 soon to be published?

  8. I will look for this book at the library. It sounds like a wonderful read - and I totally love the idea of getting to know the soul of an area when you visit it.

    One of my favorite books is Blue Highways, by William Least Heat Moon. He takes off driving on state highways and stops to talk to people - I love the idea of doing that.

  9. Connects with a lot in my own "musings." Newcomers on the old west frontier were called "Pilgrim." You hear John Wayne use the term affectionately in some of his westerns.

    I've read accounts of the Hajj - the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. And there are the pilgrims on the way to Canterbury in Chaucer. That a pilgrimage begins with longing is something I hadn't thought of before - but it makes sense if we think of longing as coming from the soul.

    And ROUGHING IT is on my list of "early westerns" to read. Thanks for this post. I always appreciate your take on things.

  10. Makes me think of the Bonanza episode where they had Mark Twain visiting Virginia city.

  11. Thanks for this review. Your story about the road trip and just stopping to soak it in, reminds me of doing similar things over the years. The High Plains are especially good for that once you get off I-80 or I-90.


  12. Lovely post, Sage. I feel bad for people who are forced to travel often for business...I'm sure it's that much harder to sit back and appreciate the journey, much less the destination!

    I both love and hate to travel. Love seeing new places, hate the packing and all that waiting.
    But I do LOVE to travel by train!

  13. Ed, no, I remember reading an autobiography he wrote years ago... in the early 90s, I was really into his western times, but after writing up my findings in an article that appeared in a historical quarterly, I went on to other things

    Lynn, Blue Highways is good and I think several of us on here has read it (at least Ed and Randall)

    Ron, with all the westerners you've read, I can't believe you haven't read Roughing It. Have you read any of the writings of J. Ross Browning--another "early western" (my interest has tended to lean toward mining)

    Charles, I haven't seen that Bonanza episode. Twain lived in VC for a couple of years before heading over to CA and on to Hawaii. He visited VC again, after he was famous, and was present at the execution of the murderer of Julia Bullette, a famous prostitute on the Comstock

    Randall, that big sky gets me every time!

    Kathryn, as my readers know, the train is my favorite way to travel... I travel some for work and don't mind it, but I don't like airports or airplanes (even though I do fly)

  14. The pilgrim tends to have a destination whether Rome or Jim Morrison. And from what you write it seems that he is conflating the central idea in the Pilgrim's Progress where we are all travelling towards God and the actual movement of physical bodies.
    I think there is a profound difference between that travel that has as a destination a central idea and that which is largely mindless. This is the reason I have and will never go on a 'sun' holiday for Sun Sand Sex and Retsina. No, I'm one of those lunatics that can years later plot the lower site at Delphi.

    Have you encountered Pausanias.