I was in the garden early this morning, weeding before the heat of the day set in, and thinking about how much I’m looking forward to backpacking with a dear girlfriend next week. Our trip to the mountains feels a bit like a pilgrimage, a journey not to a place on the map, but to a place inside us and between us, one we can’t locate before we set out. Not a “major life event” pilgrimage, but the sort where the experience is the intersection of place and meaning and the next footstep.
The idea of pilgrimage seems to be rather a theme these days.
Years ago, I referred to my regular trips back to North Dakota as “the annual pilgrimage”. It was mostly a flippant turn of phrase that I liked the sound of, but there was a kernel of truth as well, and it came back to me on this last trip.
I’ve made that trip so many times, and I will so many more, each one a different journey over the same ground. The ground, of course, just a container for the real journey. Each repeat demanding something different of me, and offering something else as well.
In recent years, I’ve started to understand the ways that the landscape of that place feels important and yes, sacred to me. It’s not any specific patch of ground so much as certain elements of the landscape. I’ve learned to make time to drive quiet highways and wander the backroads that call to me, to breathe it in through all my senses. This trip, I watched a pile of storm clouds roll by miles to the north, and realized I had forgotten what it was to see weather across the open plains. And everywhere I went, the smell of dust and lilacs heavy in the air. Because the parts of me that sing in those places are quiet so often, I can’t help but give them rapt attention when the conditions are right and the songs emerge.
I also spent a day exploring some of the physical landscape of my family history with an aunt and my grandparents on this trip. We drove up and down each street of the tiny town they grew up in, past farmhouses still standing and farmyards that have been completely erased save for the approach off the road. Each little landmark a portal to connect the past and the present, the physical memories held by the land igniting snippets of old stories. A pilgrimage, to be sure. A journey to the timeless space that holds the past, memory, the present, and dreams for the future.
It was one of the best days I can remember. I want to write so much more, but I can’t translate the experience to words just yet. A perfect example of how “the stories that seem most worth telling are the ones that feel impossible to actually tell.” I started writing this post weeks ago, and it has stubbornly resisted my attempts to fit it into a neat container. But today, it feels worth sharing the messy version.
And worth continuing to explore this idea of pilgrimage, this sense of honoring the journey and the places we find ourselves in, in all the forms that can take.