“The longest journey begins with a single step.” (Lao Tzu)
In my part of the world, rumour has it that for a large number of Americans the European Tour is an important rite of passage. Or perhaps you all just come over to try our beer and see for yourself if people really can exist with all that history and culture behind them. Either way, I recommend following an ancient European pilgrimage route as being one of the finest, perhaps most life-changing experiences you could ever have.
Only five years ago, Paul and I were confirmed agnostics and would have prescribed therapy to anyone who suggested we should give the pilgrimage experience a try. But then, quite unexpectedly, early retirement, the need to think about what we wanted to do next and a vague fantasy about riding our horses to somewhere, all morphed into a 1600 kilometre journey along the St James Way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain in 2006, followed by 2000 pilgrim kilometres along the via Francigena from Canterbury, England, to Rome – two very different journeys.
On the St James Way we were cocooned in a comfortable pilgrim vacuum, benefiting from the well established pilgrim infrastructure and meeting literally hundreds of pilgrims – a fantastic experience. But in contrast, the via Francigena, which is a far less well known route, cut across countries and cultures without any of those pilgrim buffers between us and the communities we encountered – a sometimes tough, sometimes humbling experience, during which we learnt more about ourselves and the human race than we could ever have anticipated.
Of course not everything was perfect. Riding long distances can be exhausting and on occasion just plain miserable. Our horses got sick and so did we, but by the time we reached Santiago de Compostela our only question was which about pilgrim route we wanted to follow next. Then, after returning from Rome in 2006, we created Pilgrimage Publications, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the identification and mapping of pilgrim routes all over the world. And in 2007 we cycled the entire via Francigena again, but this time to gather data and produce a GPS trace for our first guide book. In short the pilgrimage has become our Zahir – an object that has the power to create an obsession in everyone who sees or experiences it. I can’t tell you precisely how or why. All I do know for sure is that we hope that our work will enable more people – irrespective of belief, fitness, income or attitude – to follow ancient pilgrim routes and see where the experience takes them, just as we did.
I leave you with words of Deacon Trevor Jones, who expresses the essence of my feeling far better than I can:
Whatever the motive, a pilgrimage is the recognition that there is more to life than just the humdrum daily grind of existing.
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