To Be a Pilgrim

Who would true valour see, Let him come hither
One here will constant be, Come wind, come weather.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent His first avowed intent,
To be a pilgrim

John Bunyan

Pilgrim – person who journeys to a sacred place; a traveller or wanderer.

Lightfoot Companion to the Via Francigena

symbol for the Via Francigena

Retirement is a funny thing. After decades of defining oneself by an occupation, the time comes where your definition needs to come from somewhere else. It is a different journey with fewer signposts.

After two and a half years, I think I am putting some of the pieces together. While there is work from time to time, retirement for me is becoming defined by the sojourn. This was not the plan, but it seems to resonate.

Two years ago I climbed to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro and entered the world of thin air and extreme trekking. Later, I travelled the old military roads of the Scottish Highlands with my daughter Colleen. The following year, on our first Climb for Kids trek, we climbed the sacred ground around Ausangate in Peru.

Colleen finds the Braveheart Car Park on the West Highland Way

My son Liam and I followed this up by walking the Pathway of the Gods in Amalfi. We also traced ancient Roman ruins at Pompeii and Rome. Very soon, our second Climb for Kids group will be trekking 170 km around Mont Blanc.

Liam and I starting another trek on the Amalfi Coast

Now I am starting to plan for my longest journey, part of the Via Francigena next October. We are also actively planning for Year III of Climb for Kids. The next trek will be an epic climb, but we won’t announce this one until the end of the summer.

I think what is happening here is that in my retirement I am becoming a pilgrim. There is an ‘avowed intent’ that is linking all of these walks. I think the most important intent is to connect or reconnect with people. On my treks in Scotland and Italy, I had the wonderful privilege of travelling first with my daughter Colleen then with my son Liam.

There is a true beauty in reconnecting with your adult children. We all change as we grow older and we all need to take the time to make sure our relationships stay vital and fresh. You can do this really well by walking and talking or sometimes just travelling in silence.

Climb for Kids is a wonderful experience for all sorts of reasons. I wrote about Year II last week and you can see that post here – Communities Move Mountains. This trek is about connecting too. Most importantly I get to travel and plan with my wonderful partner Heather Swail. We did our first high-altitude trek together last year in Peru and we experienced the beauty of the mountain together. After so many years together, it is still possible to learn things about your partner, especially when you are trekking under conditions of high physical stress.

Heather reaches the high pass at 5200 m with her buddy Beth

We have a great group this year and we will learn a great deal about each other as we travel around the highest mountain in Europe. Mountains take you to another place. They help you to hold others who travel with you in higher regard. They help you to gain a greater respect for yourself and for what you are able to do. The mountains truly make you a pilgrim.

There is a really good story that John Muir told about trekking. He never used the word hike and neither do I. He liked the word saunter because of its connection to an ancient practice.

Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, “A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.

John Muir

A Parable of Sauntering

So this is my saunter. It is defining much of what I do these days, although until now I didn’t know if I had put this together. I still have to start writing about the Via Francigena and I will either soon or after the TMB. There is so much to learn and a world to saunter in. Each journey takes me to another holy land and I guess that makes me a pilgrim.

Acclimatization camp on Mt. Kilimanjaro
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