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Interview with Cristina

A wide range of thoughts on pilgrimage, from the way space creates thought, to an Australian nun’s summons to a new field.

https://vimeo.com/145929829

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An ancient guide

ancient pilgrim stone at stream ford

Images arise of our way through this lost wood: grainy scenes of leaf and thorn, rock and shadows dappled with mid-day sunlight, the colours everywhere we look overly-rich and lush, the earth moist in our nostrils, the movements of my fellow pilgrims as we descend through the understory of the wood truncated and choppy, like characters in one of those films already ancient by the time it was shown us in high school. The six of us step carefully under a few large oaks casting their great shadows, after which are clearings floored by dead leaves under ash and alder, some of the saplings garlanded with bushes of holly of an impossibly deep green, leaves sharp, glinting like glossy plastic. Where there is shade, there are deep ferns. Most reach our waists although some reach up into blossoms at nearly head-height. At the bottom of the valley the ferns clear and the stream, having changed direction long before we did, meets us once more, this time running south through the ferns and high grasses. We do not know where we should be going, but there is a wooden step-bridge here also, and this time, something else. “Look, look!” shouts Sara, leaning in and pointing in excitement at something half-hidden in the grass on the far side of the planking. It is a boulder, placed on its end so that comes up to her waist, moss-covered, and with paint-like blotches of thick white here and there across its face. The moss covers but doesn’t quite conceal cut marks. “A cross!” Sara traces the ancient lines so we can see, “it’s a pilgrim marker. We must be on the right path.”

There in the upper left quadrant of the standing stone is the cross, cut clear and deep. It’s a sign from others, medieval pilgrims perhaps, or travelers across the moors from centuries past. There’s nothing like a sign to bring speed to our step. The others have already started up the slope. I hesitate. The stone looks old, and there are other cuts there, less distinct. On the top of the boulder cup-marks, and to the right of the cross another line, and then another below it, like a peaked hat or a bird in flight. Britain is full of carved stones, and a medieval pilgrim cross, old as it is, would be a relative newcomer to the long history of rock art. Cup markings and rings can date from the Neolithic or the Bronze Ages.

The others have moved quickly through the deep ferns. This time there is no hesitation. We may not know where the trail is, but we do know the top of the hill. I’m trailing the group, who shout down their encouragement to move on. The moors await us.

 

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Waiting for a Sign

while finding our way

Walking a partially sign-posted pilgrimage trail is a bit like living out Kierkegaard’s leap of faith in miniature, a hundred times a day. While walking the trail, there is a process that you go through between signs, a crisis of faith and doubt. When the arrow or the sign is first spotted, you feel a natural sense of relief. You launch yourself out and away from the waymarker, your feet sturdy and your mind at ease, but only for a moment. Soon enough comes a fence corner, a split in the path, a field empty of indications or a stile that is unmarked, and you must decide: is it that you have missed a marker somewhere, that the marker was never placed where it could have been useful, or was perhaps lost or knocked down (over the years I have found many markers in ditches, knocked down by sheep or cattle, or behind overgrown bushes), or is it that you have somehow unwittingly strayed from the path and should retrace your steps?

This is the moment – or rather, one of the many moments in a pilgrim walker’s day – of decision. Paths are rarely uniformly sign-posted. From the point on the path where you hesitate, it could well be that the anticipated marker is just over the horizon; at the next junction or field corner. Or it could be that somewhere, a hundred or two hundred paces back you have missed a sign or a deviance in the trail that you should have caught. The slowness of walking, which is normally, I would argue, one of its advantages, begins to work against you. Any decision, whether to push forward or to backtrack, is an investment both in time and in precious energy. In a ten-hour walk on a secluded trail, too many bad investments can mean the difference between success and unpleasantness, discomfort and perhaps even in some rare cases, disaster.

Modern technology, and especially the nearly ubiquitous smart phone with its built-in GPS location systems, would seem to have made the pilgrim’s Kierkegaardian dilemma obsolete. Even if a sign-post is missing, the map function of a phone should be able to show the pilgrim where he or she is, at least closely enough to avoid much more than a few fields’ length of detour. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending upon one’s view of such things) there was no mobile phone coverage in the Rosedale valley. We were on our own with terrain and map.

We passed a farm that we thought might have been Northdale Farm, but was not. Now we knew we were seriously off the trail. We looked at the maps, but they made little sense. We talked, but never argued. Six cooks and still the stew was okay. The trail continued on through a field north of the house and barn and then petered out in the second field, turning into what seemed to be only an animal track. We spread out, all six looking in different directions uphill, and down. In the downhill far corner of the field closest to the wooded gully was a gate. It looked like there may have been a sign there; certainly there seemed to be a trail. We headed downhill.

There was no sign. Then again, there never had been any St Hilda signs per se. On the other side of the valley the earth rose up again to the heights of the moors. Our trail was on that other side. We knew that much at least, and that to get there we’d have to cross the valley. There was no sign, but there was a path. The woods were thick with underbrush, the trail overgrown. The sounds of water came from somewhere down below. We decided to risk it.

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Winter Walking

img_3002.jpg

I love a public road: few sights there are

That please me more – such object has had power

O’er my imagination since the dawn

Of childhood, when its disappearing line

Seen daily afar off, on one bare steep

Beyond the limits which my feet had trod,

Was like a guide into eternity,

At least to things unknown and without bound.

                                                                                                            Wordsworth

 

 

The snow is falling. Ice has formed on the sidewalks and walking is becoming, if not impossible, at least treacherous. My 4 km path from home to office has been transformed into an obstacle course. Not so much harder, I guess, than some of the summer’s more difficult wanderings, but requiring much sturdier dress. And even in its warmth, the city was harsher than Norway and Scotland’s hedgerows and mountain trails. There are no wild flowers along the way, no trout rising in any stream through Verdun, no herons kicking into the air to greet my passing. Now there are gusts of needle-sharp air around the frozen concrete corners of walk-ups. There is the way the wind plays a winter song on the wires, calling the pigeons out to find the bread crumbs someone left on the snow. And there is N-, the homeless man on the bench he stubbornly, nonsensically prefers to a warm bed, his nose dripping even as he speaks to me in the most reasonable, cultured, and educated of tones about his degree in English literature. “I can’t leave,” he tells me, “they asked me to be here in this place when they come, which should be any day now.” He shifts his legs and adjusts the plastic bags around him. I look at his boots. Such is mental illness. But then, it was a kind of rootlessness I aspired to not many months ago. I buy him snow pants and worry about him on nights like last night, when it drops to 28 below. I think of my sons and know he is someone’s. Calling the police is an option.

There is garbage in the gutter, the smell of oil and tomato sauce unexpectedly tinging the vacuum of air behind the pizzeria, the hiss of the plastic Frosty the Snowman who lifts out of his inner tube once every thirty seconds as the air pump builds him again and again to greet a street that is empty except for me. Later a car rolls slowly by, a foreign creature, windows shadowed, the sound of its tires compressing the snow loud in my ears, muffled bass beating like a heart buried deep within.

Peregrination seems far away from this winter world. Against the cold and dark of the city, life has settled into whatever warm niches it can find, leaving little above the surface. But there is life nevertheless. Different eyes are needed for walking this way, different rhythms to keep from falling on this pilgrim route. There is a different loneliness and a different cost.  In my doorway I take off my gloves and the back of my hands is red and raw, the skin threatening to break open from dryness. The only hand cream I can find stings.

 A Verdun Christmas 2012

 

 

 

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The Likes of You Walking

Singing Donkeys Hostel Kirk Yetholm

As I leave the village of Kirk Yetholm, striding up toward the bare yellow hills of the Scottish Borders, I walk past a sign announcing The Singing Donkeys Hostel and Soup Kitchen for the Soul. It is hand-drawn. I stop despite myself, and think about singing donkeys, trying to remember if I’ve heard anything overnight that might be a braying animal. All I can visualize are the Bremen Town musicians, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t mean that. The sign, and the motley collection of boots underneath, conjure other images between memory and imagination, that I realize are probably not accurate even as they keep floating to mind: a young man in Rasta hat and beard, stirring soup in a communal kitchen, long and lazy afternoons in the sunlight with indistinct plans, someone playing guitar in another room and the sweet-sour tang of pot drifting in an open window, the feel of sex in the air, dream-catchers and crystals and Buddha prayer corners. A part of me wants to knock on the door, tempted by whatever “soup kitchen for the soul” might mean. But it’s too early in the day to begin detours, real or metaphysical. I wasn’t a hippy even when there were hippies. Although my bed at the Borders Hotel was too soft and the beer too tempting, it felt more like home. I take a photo and move on.

Months later, back in Canada, I read in a book about the St. Cuthbert trail that the hostel in Kirk Yetholm was, centuries ago, built as a schoolhouse for gypsy children.

As I’ve discovered on pilgrimage, morning inevitably means climbing. It’s 8 am and the sun is already feeling just a touch too warm for what I had only ten minutes before decided would be perfect wear. Upset with myself, I strip off a layer of merino wool and add it to the weight in my sack. This portion of the trail coincides with the Pennine Way. Probably because I’ve read accounts from those who’ve walked the Pennines, and every story stresses how difficult the path is, I keep expecting to be overtaken by long-legged, weathered, grim-eyed hikers, a different, hardier species, even though I’ve been averaging 25 km a day myself. There is a Pennine Hikers’ Inn, to my surprise looking much more luxurious than my Borders Hotel, and then a corner marked, mysteriously, Halfwayhouse. Half-way to where, I wonder? And where is the house? There are sheep everywhere, unfenced and curious, but no sign of human life. And oddly enough, no walkers, even though this is supposed to be one of the busier parts of the route.

Something happens in the mornings when you’ve been walking day after day: you begin to get eager – almost impatient – for the rhythm that sets itself up in your body after a kilometer or so on the trail. It’s something that stays on, most evenings, even when you’ve dropped your pack for the night and had your solitary meal, when you’re lying in bed trying to remember what day it is and why you were so stressed back home. Maybe it’s a rhythm of breath, or of the feet, or of both. There’s something in it of feeling your lungs tighten under the pressure of taking ever-larger breaths to handle the climb, or noticing the increase in heart-rate, knowing without any doubt that it will drop again as soon as you’ve taken a moment to rest. I’ve read that happiness is doing what you’re designed to do. Humans are designed to walk.

It’s probably that happiness that leads me up the first big hill of the morning, an imposing bare challenge of a knoll planted right in front of the road. The hill is called Green Humbleton on the map, had I been smart enough to look at my map. It’s only 268 meters, but when what I’d thought was the trail becomes indecisive and finally peters out about three-quarters of the way up, I assume that the cairn of stones I can sort-of see is my next marker. The way goes neither left nor right, and so neither do I. The top quarter of the hill is steep, so steep that at times I’m forced to scramble on all fours, burrs and seed spears digging into my soft palms. Bottle flies sit in black swirling columns of air that I pass through, forcing myself to breathe in through my nose so as not to inhale too many insects at one go. Horseflies discover the exposed flesh of my arms and legs, wet with sweat and red with exertion; I swat as best I can, but each swivel, because of the weight on my back, threatens to tip me over. When finally I stand at the summit of the hill, the warm gusts of wind are a blessing.

But there is no trail down. I sit for a second to catch my breath and scan the hills for the trail from which so clearly I’ve strayed, but sitting is just an invitation for more horseflies, and I’m bitten twice. So I stand again, and begin the descent. I’m a bit jittery, the way the weight of the pack jolts with each footfall, and with a mild curse at myself for almost making a mistake even worse, I slow down. This would be the way to lock a knee, or step in a hole. Eventually, I spot a sign to my right. The path has wisely sidestepped the hill. I’m happy to be on it again, even though it rewards my happiness by leading, honestly this time, straight up yet another rise.

In the morning, setting out, I’d asked an older woman where the path out of the village began. She’d looked at me in silence for a second, as if debating whether to answer, and then stretched out one arm, almost like a curse, to point at the hills. “That’ll be for the likes of you, walking,” she’d said. Then she smiled.

I remembered that when I reached a gate in a stone fence. There’s a sign. It reads, on one side “Welcome to Scotland” and on the other “Welcome to England”. I open the latch, and step through to another country.
heather and wall
the border

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Leaving Kongsvold

alpine pond near Dovre

For most of the morning, despite the signs saying otherwise, there really is no trail, just the steep side of the mountain. The grass is thick and slippery with overnight rain. The going is difficult: two of our group fall, one badly, somersaulting down the slope and rising painfully with an egg-sized bruise on her shin. We struggle along, unusually quiet. There are two more falls before lunch. No one says anything but I’m sure I’m not the only one worrying there will be an even more serious accident if the trail doesn’t soon improve. We’ve only gone two kilometers out of 25 planned for the day. Later, we find out that many pilgrims just skip this section of marked trail because their German or Norse guidebooks suggest going by the highway. We have no book.

“The best maps are conveyed orally and by gestures, occasionally with a pen and a scrap of paper…just where the road makes that imperceptible fork, that difficult turn” (Tomas Espedal, Tramp). But there was no informal guide to show us the secret, safe path. We are alone, six Canadians under a Norwegian sky. We manage in the only way, the old way, step by step.

When it’s safe to lift our heads, there’s a beautiful pass stretching before us. The trail, such as it is, perches us high above the highway, which is itself above a train track, all three thin parallel lines etched like afterthoughts into a narrow notch between steep granite. On breaks to catch our breath or adjust our boots, we scan the rock-face across from us, and especially the meadows between rockslides. If you want to see muskoxen look for boulders, said one of the Norwegians. Boulders that move.

It’s the end of June and there are still banks of snow on the upper flanks. Every hundred meters or so we meet another rushing mountain stream. Is there a bridge? Someone calls out from behind. There is? Thank God. Pilgrim prayers are increasingly simple. Thank God for goretex boots. Here there’s a larger stream, jumping and frothing and swollen with spring run-off. No bridge, but fortunately there are flat rocks and A moves a few into place to stand on. Two of our group take position, mid-current, to help support the others across, water coursing and spraying around our ankles. Crossing water has become routine. No one thinks much more about it until we round a switchback and come face to face with the fact that the gushing current we just traversed flies out the side of a cliff and drops fifty feet through empty space, only yards after our fording. Later that day a Norwegian pilgrim falls and manages to get out, but loses items from her backpack over the precipice.

There’s animal dung of every variety on the path. At first it’s a game to try to imagine the various creatures who have passed. But at one point just before a steep ascent it’s so thick we have to make a detour. The sheep and reindeer are smart, smiles G grimly, as she pushes up the incline; they know how to drop weight when a hill is coming. Yet climbing is easier than a descent. Your heart hammers and the moisture pools at the base of your back where most of the backpack weight sits. But there is none of the shock to your knees, the chance of slipping. And anyway, climbing is hopeful; it means going somewhere.

Eventually we emerge onto a huge flat table-plateau, where we’re rewarded by the high Norwegian landscape: moss-covered rocks and grey-green lichen stretching out in all directions to a treeless horizon. Without a mid-range, distances are deceiving. We see a cabin in the distance, perched on a giant, solitary rock. It takes forever to walk there. In front of the door is a grey mass that turns out to be a waist-high pile of reindeer antlers. We look around but there is no sign of human life, no one to explain the carnage. A flock of sheep approach and retreat, wheel around us in a spiral and disperse, alternating between curiosity and fear. For a few seconds we are two groups completely still, examining each other across the divide of species, before one of us makes a sound and they bolt away again.

After another hour or so under the huge vault of sky, someone calls for a stop. We find spots in the lee of boulders, sheltering from the increasingly cold wind. K pulls her hood up around her ears and falls back into the pillow of lichen. S, who was busy picking greenery in the lower altitudes now adds garnish from the wilderness to our bare sandwiches: leaves and flowers and herbs, edible evidence of where we’ve been. It’s late and there are still many kilometers to go before we sleep. But we pull our hats over our ears and pass the sandwiches and the tea. How long have we been walking? Four days now? Five? No one seems to remember. We lean back into the lichen, and enjoy a view we cannot name, looking out over this strange world like house-guests who are lost but can’t yet admit it.
Hjerkinn Fjellstue to Kongsvold Inn

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The Phantom Bomber

starting out

Where the long, hot, dusty path finally drops out of the Cheviot Hills into the town of Wooler, Northumberland , every B&B and hotel room is booked. Eventually I manage to get hold of someone at the Youth Hostel. A voice on the other end of the phone answers my by-then desperate plea: “Sure, we have a place.” As if it were a silly question to ask. My room is spartan but fine, and there’s a shower at the end of the hall.

Being a youth hostel, I expected youth. But in the morning I find myself at table with an English man and a Scottish woman of at least my age. Although separated by the length of the table, they are already deep in conversation when I sit, perhaps not wisely, in the middle.

There is a small map on the table between them. The Pennine Way starts here, declares the man, pointing to it. I know; I’ve walked it. You’ve walked some path, corrects the woman. But it wasn’t the Pennine Way. That starts here. She jabs her finger on another spot. I try to find a place for my tea that is not on the disputed piece of paper. Well, I know what I walked says the Englishman. You’re wrong, answers the Scot, and they both lapse into what to me would be charged, but seems to them to be a comfortable, silence. I wonder if they’re a couple.

Edinburgh is a lovely city I volunteer. I was there in 2006. Loved the old town. The Scot answers back crisply. It’s nice to look at. But I grew up there and I’d never move back. They all ask what schools you’ve been to. As if that’s what’s important. First thing they want to know. It’s not a pretty place. She shakes her head as if to rid her mind of some memory. Dark local sandstone, pipes up the English man from his end of the table. That’s what makes Scottish buildings ugly. Northumberland too, he adds after a pause, with a nod to her.

When the Englishman finds out I’m walking the St. Cuthbert Way to study walking pilgrimages, a discussion ensues on the decline of long-distance trail-walking in England. Foot and mouth disease, he pronounces. That’s what killed it. Ever since then the trails are less busy. And the hostel movement has suffered too. The Scot nods. Yes, foot and mouth. It’s a pity. We need the social movement of hostels more than ever in this world.

This world, the Englishman repeats, with feeling. As if that says it all.

I tell them about the World War II vintage bomber that surprised me in the hills, coming up out of nowhere and then gone again as I struggled to pull out my camera. Was that the ghost bomber, asks the Scot? There’s silence for about 30 seconds while I try to digest the question. Umm. It was real enough, I say finally. Loud and low. Just not what I was expecting, you know, in a long day of walking by myself. Oh yes, those low flying fighters, says the Englishman, looking up from his book. They’re over you before you even hear the sound. Scares the hell out of the wildlife. No, I heard this one, I insist. The fighters – I’ve seen those too, the last couple days. RAF. This was different. Some hobby pilot I guess. It was an old prop plane. It came around the hill and banked right above me. By the time I got my camera it had flown over the next hill. It was beautiful.

The ghost bomber repeats the Scot. I was in the Cheviots, the summer before last, and I saw it then. Passed right over me, low. I never heard a thing. Just saw it. That’s when I knew it was a ghost.

The Englishman looks down at his tea and says nothing. I start thinking about the trail ahead. Can you pass the marmalade, I ask?

east hill

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Going Nowhere Fast

Blake's pilgrim sketch

By about 2 pm on the first day of walking through the Scottish Borders it was becoming clear I’d been wrong imagining the dots on my map to be quant Scots villages full of local eccentrics, well-crafted beer and heavy, happy northern food. The two areas of settlement I’d passed were small clusters of squat and shuttered houses, grey sandstone window frames, darkened slate roofs and doorways offering no welcome. They were perhaps bedroom communities for Edinburgh. Whatever they were, they were barely inhabited: there would be no conversation of any sort, quaint or otherwise. Likewise no cafe or store to pick up lunch.

Long-distance walking into unknown or lesser-known territory means reaching a series of decisions without full information. You expect to make some mistakes, and hope they’re neither major nor cumulative. You trust to luck and the kindness of others, if others happen by. Going a bit hungry your first day isn’t the worst that can happen – by far – although in that moment my stomach didn’t necessarily agree.

What was worrying was that it was already the middle of the afternoon, and my guidebook told me I had 15 or so kilometers still to walk before arriving at a closed tourist centre from which I might, if everything worked, be able to contact a ride to come pick me up for my hostel. All of which probably meant a very late meal indeed, should there be anything to be purchased at all by the time I got there. In the bottom of my pack I found the broken remains of a two-day old baguette given to me in London, and some packaged cheese I had forgotten to throw out. The cheese was long past sweating, but my hunger convinced me it might still be okay despite hours in the heat.

Dryburgh Abbey was further off the route than I had expected, a set of foundation stones and half-walls all that remains of an important medieval structure. The detour had already cost me a couple of kilometers and an hour or so and my feet, unhappy with asphalt, needed liberation from the boots. So I took them off, set my socks in the sun and stretched out my toes.

Where we choose to sit and eat can say a lot about us. There was a bench on the grass beside a very low stone wall with a plaque that read “transept side altar”. Barefoot before the altar, feeling the grass between my toes, squinting at where the monks would have filed out from their dormitory to perform the first office of the day, I felt more at home than I had in days. The river Tweed flowing slowly by, the sweat-sweet wetness of my tee-shirt drying on my back in the yellow sun, my stomach happy for, literally, crumbs: part of the joy of walking pilgrimage is the re-sizing of what is needed in life. Even home is re-defined, a sacred flagstone to sit my plastic bag on, in that moment, was enough.

Maybe it has always been so, but it seems to me that the starting point for modern Euro-North American pilgrimage is almost never a sacred destination. The starting point is somewhere and everywhere along the unfamiliar trail, in the awkward freedom of being able to go left or right and not knowing exactly which is best or how long to tarry, in the slowness of footfalls in a motorized world, and in the unfamiliar Google-free uncertainty of a path where the next way-sign might be knocked down or misleading and the next person encountered might forever remain a stranger or perhaps become a dear companion. The world shrinks and expands at the same time: we smell the greenness in whole fields of clover, feel each raindrop in a translucent summer shower, and curse the nail clippers we forgot to put in the Velcro pouch under the flap of our bags, or the single black seed pod that, rolling beneath the sock, turns to a blister on our foot. I ate in a hurry, packed up and walked quickly back over the bridge, striding back onto the path.

One of Blake’s drawings shows a pilgrim striding purposefully forward, walking stick in hand, much as I was walking toward my unknown future. At Blake’s destination awaits a monster, Death, whose maw is the final destination of no escape.

What if he is right?

I was not bereft; anyone who has a Visa card and money in their wallet, a mobile phone and a road nearby is never truly in danger. But I’m more and more convinced from my own experience and from talking to others that there is something in the practice of smallness and absence that is part of the appeal of modern walking pilgrimage. Something very powerful happens in practicing the stripping off of the layers of who we are and what we own. Maybe it simply gives us the chance to see what might be there, in us, at the nub.

In the last pages of Tomas Espedal’s ode to a vagrant life, “Tramp”, after all the poetry and late nights, the alcohol and the sex, the solitude, the philosophy and the history, he writes these words: “the path takes off to the right, through a wood, you cross an electric fence and suddenly find yourself in a clearing, you have to stop; I am brought to a halt by the sudden, soft light and the stillness.”

Maybe, I hope, that is what it might be, at the nub. That would be a nowhere to walk to, fast.

walking to Holy Island

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The birthing of a pilgrimage

Allen ponderingThis hostel is accredited, begins the promotional blurb for Meso Gård , and recommended by the National Pilgrim Centre. It has met the same requirements, and holds the same standard, as the pilgrim accommodation along Camino de Santiago. But a Spanish pilgrim who comes to Norway will find themselves, not in a bunk room in barren and dusty Castrojeriz, but in a typical sod-roofed, log-cabin style Norwegian hostel in the Rennesbund district along the St-Olaf’s Way, where a river rushes by, birds are singing, mountain flowers bloom around you and everything is green. Meso is a world away from a Spanish albergue. And the differences aren’t just in the lack of Rioja and dust (the first to better deal with the second).

Those who planned the St-Olav Weg have tried to make it familiar. The elements are as standardized as the boarding procedure at airports. There is a passport, obtained from an official pilgrim centre and sized appropriately for tucking into a backpack, local business stamps validating one’s walk along the trail, trail markers along paths and roads and paint slashes on rocks to guide the way, ‘pilgrim meals’ offered at some local restaurants, and several revitalized ancient routes (traceable on a smart-phone app) toward a cathedral city celebrating a medieval saint.

Yet the similarities between the two pilgrimage routes are overshadowed by differences as high as Norway’s mountains. The mountains, in fact, may be the most obvious initial difference, at least from the Camino Frances part of the Spanish trail. It’s been less than two weeks since I walked with five other Canadians from Dovre, in the Dovrefjell district of Norway, 250 or so kilometres to Trondheim. As far as I know, we were the first group of Canadians ever to walk this way as pilgrims. Unlike my experiences on the crowded Camino Frances, there were very few others we met. Those we did echoed our experience of a satisfying but extremely tough walk through conditions more like the high Rockies than the Meseta. In part because of an unusually late, cold and wet spring, we forded swollen mountain streams, jumped from hillock to hillock through kilometres of bog, and in sections of the trail found ourselves going days without seeing other human beings, much less a store to purchase supplies. We fell down, we froze, we saw incredible beauty, one of our group broke her ankle among the endless tree roots. It may be ancient, but it was not an urban walk. Café con leche? Forget it, unless you have a thermos, some farm experience and can catch one of the abundant sheep or goats.

Because it is still early in the redevelopment of the St-Olaf Way, one of the most fascinating parts of the walk, for me, was how we met those still trying to put their mark on how the trail will develop. I felt like we were there at the beginnings of something important. We met chapel builders who want to make sure there will be a spiritual component to the walk, officials who seek the ‘new spirituality’, walkers interested primarily in ecology and environment, and others who are developing their businesses in hopes of increasing numbers of high-tech backpackers showing up at their doorsteps.

All of which raises some interesting questions. What gives a particular pilgrimage its unique character? Is there such a thing as a more or less authentic pilgrimage? It seems to me that the inevitable conflict of values in this birthing of a European pilgrimage route is useful, because it helps bring about something that, however it borrows from the past, is new. As my friend Allen Jorgenson noted, the role of land, and of landscape, is more important than some of us have realized. Maybe we should be talking about pilgrimscapes, and how the outer journey influences the shape of the inner one.

Whatever the medieval St-Olaf route once was, there is now a struggle for its modern identity. It is definitely not the Camino. What it will be remains to be seen.
Alpine shelter