There is the geography we know and can trace topographically, made up of distance and terrain and movement. For instance, knowing it is about 14 miles (22 km) to the next town, there is a mountain in the way, and a pub and a pint await us there. But there’s another geography as well, one that exists off the maps even though it overlaps them, a geography of uncertainty, of bodily ache, of imagination and story and solitude, and sometimes, if we’re fortunate, of wonder.
Since the Romantic era at least, wonder is the most gratifying of reactions to a view, natural or human. The walker cannot plan on wonder. But there are ways in which we open ourselves up to it and make ourselves available. In my experience those ways start with being silent, and with not over-planning a walk. That’s the way I felt when I woke up in Hayfield, in England’s Peaks District, the morning of the Kinder Trespass hike. Ready, but not completely prepared.
‘Pilgrimage’ is such a tired metaphor it’s hard to remember sometimes that it’s based on actually doing something. “Let’s go on a pilgrimage to my favourite restaurant”. “Life is a pilgrimage from birth to death.” Yes, sure. But…But what keeps me interested in not just studying journeys, but also walking them, is the way the brain unhooks at 5 km/hr. Without even trying to, you begin to notice geography, and your own body, and the relationship between the two (as you walk up a long prairie hill, for instance, or start to sweat in the sun). You pay attention in a different way to nature. Or better, nature presents itself to you, when you are available: coyotes sleeping in a burrow, badgers running ahead along the fallow-line, the meadowlark calling from a grey fence-post, a family of otters playing as they cross your path from the river, some old abandoned buildings, the soil at your feet. This is almost impossible at highway speeds. When you walk, you begin to think emotional and philosophical and spiritual thoughts – not because you plan to, but just because of the leisure and the rhythm, maybe even the slight boredom. For those fortunate enough to be able-bodied, the fact is that walking is one of those conscious activities closest to being unconscious, freeing the mind up for contemplation and surprise intuitions. Walking journey connects landscape, body, story and movement in a unique way. For those of us who try to allow space for the spiritual, walking pilgrimage is a gift. It’s meditation for anyone, like me, too undisciplined or lazy to meditate in other ways. Rebecca Solnit puts it this way: Pilgrimage is premised on the idea that the sacred is not entirely immaterial but that there is a geography of spiritual power…. it reconciles the spiritual and the material, for to go on pilgrimage is to make the body and its actions express the desires and beliefs of the soul (“Wanderlust” Penguin Books, 2000. Page 50).
Bare details don’t tell it all: Bær to Lundur, 17 km, Oddsstadir to Fitjar, 12.2. There is a map, but no obvious trail. Elínborg, Hulda and Floki, with few others, dream of a trail walked by Icelanders and others, to mark faith, and history, and friendship. They have planted posts over the years to help guide the way. But unlike the Camino, unlike even St Olaf’s, here there is rarely a visible path. A Spanish poet wrote that “the way is made by walking”. And isn’t that the way it is with life? The way is made by walking. And so is the trust, and the faith, and the community, and the hope. And the pilgrim.
Somewhere between Hvalfjördur and Thingvillir (the double ‘l’ pronounced with a d/t sound, thus Thing-vit-leer) we were drenched in mist, rain, and mud. And, since our day ended up being an almost 30 km scramble over what the Icelanders call ‘leg-breaker trail’ (Leggjabrjótur), by the time we were done we were sore and wet and cold in every possible way. And dirty. When my daughter looked at some of the clothes we’d been wearing, she coined the term: pilgrimage-gross.
Which got me thinking about appearances, pilgrimage, Icelanders and North Americans. Nowhere we stayed had the kind of full-length, or even half-length, mirrors so common in North America. There was a kind of self-acceptance and natural toughness to the Icelanders with whom we walked, an easy gracefulness that seems to come from closer contact with the natural environment. What’s more, I noticed that the folks we set out with became more handsome and beautiful as we shared the trials and the trail together. So even though our clothes (and especially our boots!) became progressively more ‘pilgrimage gross’, a kind of ‘pilgrim beauty’ shone even more through the mud, mist and cold, and was everywhere present in the people and the land.
I was feeling somewhat exhausted when CBC Radio One’s All in a Weekend called me on the trail for a follow-up interview while we were high up on ‘bone-breaker’ trail after having been briefly lost in the clouds (by the way, Gabriel had to shout out to me how to say “bye” in Icelandic, but they cut that part). The “troll” comment was a reference to the big, happy rock-and-roll guy! #thingsyouwishyoucouldtakeback
Day two of our pilgrimage through Iceland: We’re sitting, eight Canadians and ten Icelanders, at one long table. Our host, Hulda Gudmundsdottír, who has put us in her renovated barn (barn being a word that hardly describes the luxury of the place) comes around as we finish our meal of lake trout, potato salad and greens. Did you like the fish? She asked. I went out and caught it with my son in nets, three days ago.
The fish is only one of the wonders of this place. Elínborg Sturludottr led us along the prestergatta today, the priests’ path from the small church where we had our matins (morning devotions) to the even tinier church where we had our vespers (evening devotions). Our other priest guide, Floki Kristinsson tells us that the morning church was built on the site where Rudolf, the English monk who had accompanied St Olaf up to his death in 1030, came that same year to Iceland and started the first monastery. The Icelanders are a fun group, their humour in contrast to the starkness of this land. For the first time today, we came across what we Canadians call real trees. The Icelanders told us: what do you do if you’re lost in a forest in Iceland? Stand up. At which they laughed uproariously. We climbed up and out of the fjord this morning, 1000 feet, and came down the valley to this beautiful lake setting. In passing we were offered an unexpected afternoon coffee and some sort of sweet flatbread, by an Icelander who is interested in our pilgrimage. This place, including the people, is truly a place of wonders.
An extra treat on this blogpost: fellow pilgrim, Ata Camilla Gylfsdottir, reads a short Icelandic folktale titled: The church builder at Reyn. Click on this link for her lovely diction and accent!
July 20 afternoon coffee traditional Icelandic cottage