Scenic Trails and Pilgrims’ Routes

Posted on Posted in History, Ruminations

I grew up hiking in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Roads and buildings are relatively new in my home state of Washington. A few date back a hundred years. Most were constructed in the last fifty. And so when you go to the woods, you get away from civilization. There really isn’t much of a choice, and we generally don’t mind it that way.

We Americans may complain about crowded hiking trails, ski resorts, and jet-contrails, but let’s face it, with few exceptions the US is mostly empty. The western part, anyway. It was when the Eastern seaboard saw the first threats of industrialization that Americans took Europe’s Romantic movement and realized the spiritual potential of their unspoiled landscape: nature for nature’s sake. The unsullied wilds would fill us with the life bled out by machine-driven urban life.

Americans can’t walk to Rome. Nor Compostela, for that matter. It’s been along time since we went very far by foot, or at least wanted to. And when the peculiar pedestrian movement of the late 19th century swept across the land, its destination was the temple of the body itself (and sometimes the bank!). Amazing feats of moxie for nothing but a little cash, long life, and good old Protestant work.

Our long walking trails are labeled “scenic,” conceived mostly to avoid the stain of human hands. The mere fact that the Pacific Crest Trail traverses the Sierra Nevada without crossing a road for 240 miles is meant to be inspirational. I once hiked an impressively single-minded BaToNa trail through New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. Despite the wide, sandy tracks running parallel just yards away, it stuck to its brushy, tick-ridden purpose to get “Back To Nature.”

So much is the same about going on a Pilgrimage as on a long distance hike on one of America’s scenic trails. You walk a lot. You see beautiful things. You connect with some people. You get lost…and found. You’re at the mercy of the weather. You can even sleep outside, if you want to. But there’s no illusion of getting away from civilization. In fact, you’re deliberately diving into it. Or at least back in time to it.

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