In this secular age, pilgrimage is on the rise. CA alumnae/i pilgrims share the views that open up along the way.
Ten years ago, when Lindsay Soutter Boyer ’76 visited Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, with her family, her niece didn’t believe it was a pilgrimage site — it seemed an anachronism — until they saw the throngs at the cathedral. “She saw how alive it was,” Boyer says. Over the last decade, the number of pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago has more than doubled; since the mid-1980s, it’s risen over a hundredfold. Last year alone, more than 327,000 traveled this route. When Boyer’s family visited, Americans made up less than 2 percent of Camino pilgrims; now they account for nearly 6 percent.
Why might pilgrimage be gaining in popularity among Americans? Boyer, a spiritual director who works with individuals who are uncomfortable with organized religion, has some theories.“People have a deep need for ritual that is not always met in our culture,” she says. “There’s a hunger to connect with a sense of aliveness and be around others who are searching for meaning.”
Not all pilgrims traverse established routes. Some blaze new trails. Some walk; others drive. Many are not religious. Boyer counts as pilgrimages trips she and her husband, Markley Boyer ’78, take to see the artworks they fell in love with as CA students in Janet Eisendrath’s art history class. While her definition is welcomingly broad, she offers insight into some of the essential elements of pilgrimage. With her as a guide, we’ll consider them in turn.
Boyer: What sets pilgrimage apart is that it’s something people are longing for, yearning toward, preparing themselves for.
Laura Foley ’75 calls her 500-mile pilgrimage last spring on the Camino de Santiago “inevitable.” Her wife, a marathoner, comes from Madrid and had wanted to do it all her life. Foley, a decade older, worried about keeping up with her.
Though they planned extensively — the right clothing kept her from getting even one blister — as she had feared, knee pain plagued her from the outset. Halfway through, after contracting a stomach bug, she began sending her overnight pack ahead. “In everything, you have to negotiate with the body,” Foley says. “That started to help.” So too, perhaps, did the women in a small chapel who prayed for her recovery. “I have no Catholic beliefs,” she says, “but I did feel something.” After 250 miles, her knee stopped hurting.
Foley is a Buddhist practitioner of over 15 years. In walking, she found a state of flow. Still, she was surprised by how the pilgrimage affected her. “There were so many awful days that consisted of one ordeal after another that I didn’t expect to feel so completely fulfilled by it,” she says. “As soon as we were done, I missed it. Ending it was really hard. It took a month for me to be all right not being on pilgrimage.”
A poet, Foley is writing a collection about her experience. She and her wife are planning a walk in Portugal in June and a return to the Camino in the fall. Foley says, “It makes me feel less restless in the rest of my life, knowing it’s coming up.”
Laura Foley ’75 (right) and her wife, Clara Giménez, during their 500-mile walk along the Camino de Santiago in Spain.
Boyer: You surrender your usual controlling attitude and expectations, the routine that locks you into certain ways of being. By going, you’re saying you’re ready to be changed.
Unlike Foley, Sophronia Camp ’67 didn’t have long to prepare for her first pilgrimage. Burned out from working with a volunteer ministry for the homeless, she wanted to clear her head. Romanesque art and architecture drew her — like the Boyers, she had developed that love at CA. Within two months of attending an art historian’s talk on the Camino 18 years ago, she set out on her six-week
Sophronia Camp ’67 finds connection, and freedom, with fellow pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago. “You’re not thinking about the destination,” she says. “You’re in the present.”
“You’re not doing anything but walking, just following the arrows,” Camp says. “You’re not thinking about the destination. You’re in the present.” Her spiritual pilgrimage became a way of life. She has now walked the Camino seven times, both alone and with friends and family, and has self-published two books on different routes. She and her husband will return this fall.
An Episcopalian, Camp wears around her neck a little wooden box filled with written prayer requests from friends. She prays for them in clusters, by topic. “People feel alone and isolated when they’re in trouble,” she says. “Realizing others share their struggles is so comforting. I like the collective aspect of prayer that links people.”
Singing on the trail lifts her spirits, as do fellow pilgrims. “The way you get to know people is different,” she says. “No one cares about your job. You don’t have to identify yourself as a wife or a mother. Everyone is out there for their own growth.”
On her third pilgrimage, she offered a foot rub to a disagreeable Brazilian man and learned his son had died in a motorcycle accident. He was struggling to walk in his memory. Along the way, “he got more open and relaxed,” she says. He was one of the last people she saw as she was heading to the airport. He laughed and gave her a thumbs-up.
“People take care of each other in lovely ways, but there’s no obligation,” she says. “You’re given license to have your own experience, and there aren’t expectations. It’s full of surprises.”
Boyer: Even people without an understanding of themselves as spiritual might still need a transformational ordeal to shake them out of their usual life.
Challenge is what appeals to Eli Walker ’09. Though he’s not religious, “there is something very spiritual about being outside,” he says. “There are a lot of things outside of my control.”
An Outward Bound instructor, Walker has made a career of long wilderness excursions. “It’s a hard job, and I’ve always said that I’ll only continue with it as long as I’m enjoying it and willing to take on the role of student in challenging situations,” he says.
In a senior chapel at CA, Walker came out as trans, but didn’t make plans to change his name until years later. Growing up in Maine, Walker dreamt of thru-hiking the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail, though his mother persuaded him to wait for a gap year before college. In the mountains, in the absence of any gendered spaces, he had a realization that was a first step to transitioning. “It wasn’t a shock to me that I wanted to work outdoors,” Walker says, “but I realized while I was walking that I needed to work outdoors.”
A whitewater canoer, Walker recently returned from the most difficult excursion of his life: a 46-day, mostly upriver journey in an uninhabited part of Quebec, exhaustively planned to require no single-use plastics. “We were all looking for a really hard expedition,” he says, but he and expedition-mates communicated so poorly with each other that they only narrowly avoided a fatal accident. Walker says the experience taught him a lot. “I thrive in challenging conditions, but it needs to be in the context of a healthy respect for nature,” he says. On his next personal journey, he hopes to join up with his mother in the Arctic.
Left: Eli Walker ’09 at age 19, thru-hiking the Appalachian trail alone during a gap year before college. Right: Walker (in red) and his husband, Sage Walker, lining their fully loaded expedition canoe upriver while traversing the Ungava Peninsula in the Canadian wilderness.
Boyer: On a pilgrimage, you’ve readied yourself to be opened in some way. You’re gestating something new in yourself.
If environmental scientist Frances Bothfeld ’08 has sought anything on her journeys, it’s simplicity. She vividly recalls reading Walden for CA English teacher Sandy Stott’s Thoreau class, so near Walden Pond. As often as she can, she has found her own way to live with only the essentials, in the backcountry.
During a year off from college, she worked as a ranger on the Pacific Crest Trail, studied in Tahiti, traveled in Patagonia and Peru, and conducted glaciology research in Alaska. She spent the year before graduate school hiking trails across New Zealand and Europe. All her gear fit into a 40-liter pack.
“Once you’re out on a trail, there’s no choice about entertainment,” she says. “You’ve got three things on your mind: staying alive, being comfortable, and being happy. And you know exactly what order those come in.”
Bothfeld calls these treks “type-two fun” — fun, that is, in hindsight. Hiking through a snowstorm or going days without food, she says, “shifts your concept of adversity and lets you know what you’re capable of.”
It shifts her relationship to technology, too. She says, “When I get back from a trip, it’s so easy to get sucked into my phone.”
Bothfeld’s classmate Fannie Watkinson ’08 considers herself spiritual but not religious. “Exercise and nature are my release points,” she says. In April 2017, she quit her management position at Coursera, an educational software company in Silicon Valley, to travel and get her bearings. She says, “I needed to be away from other voices telling me how I could and should be.”
The capstone to a summer of adventuring was hiking the John Muir Trail in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, which winds 210 miles through national parks from Yosemite to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States. She joined a friend who, unlike her, had minimal wilderness experience, and they ambitiously set out to finish the trail within two weeks.
In lightning and hail storms on 12,000-foot passes, Watkinson needed strength and clarity. When severe stomach pain hobbled her friend for days, she assumed the physical burden of his gear and the emotional burden of making decisions. “It was very scary to carry that weight for both of us, but I did and we got through it,” she says. “Over and over on that trail and on this life journey, I’ve learned I’m a lot more resilient than I give myself credit for.”
Watkinson on her final day on the John Muir Trail.
Fannie Watkinson ’08 overlooking Thousand Island Lake along California’s John Muir Trail.
Boyer: When you’re ready to listen to people in a different way, the things they say can feel very significant.
Kristine Ball ’75 has hiked around the world, but it was the pull of a particular country that made her a pilgrim. For a year and a half after graduating from Williams College, she taught English in Japan, but afterward let her passion for the culture languish. Three years ago, to rekindle that spark, she traveled to Japan for a two-week language immersion class. After she made a brief pilgrimage with her daughter along the Kumano Kodo, she vowed she’d return to Japan every year.
The pilgrimage she made in spring 2017, the Shikoku, is traditionally done on foot, though most pilgrims now travel by car or bus. Ball walked the 750-mile circle that links 88 Buddhist temples in one seven-week journey. Unlike Spain’s Camino, most of the Shikoku is paved. “Some of the walk is not idyllic,” Ball says. “But for all of the sections of the pilgrimage you spend walking along highways, breathing in exhaust, there are many others where you’re in the mountains by yourself with beautiful views of cherry blossoms and the sea.”
Ball had quit her job to train, and the Shikoku gave her a physical challenge as well as time to herself, to live minute-to-minute. “When you have worked all your life, when you have a family, a house, community responsibilities, it is such freedom,” she said. “The only decision to make every morning is to walk or not.”
Defying her expectations, her pilgrimage wasn’t meditative; the people she met along the way made the deepest impression. Ball is not a Buddhist, but she observed the Buddhist value of compassion in locals who ran out to give her beautifully wrapped tomatoes, candies, or statues of saints. “Their warmth and friendliness really struck me,” she says. “They’d walk for miles just to show me to the next place. It really makes you believe in the goodness of humanity.”
Now when she travels or meets people from other cultures, it’s easier for her to imagine how to be helpful with whatever she has. “I know how enriching that is for someone else,” she says.
Left: Kristine Ball ’75 with two other pilgrims on the island of Shikoku, Japan, outside Yoshino Ryokan near Fujidera Temple, the 11th of 88. They were about to head out on the most difficult climb of the pilgrimage. Right: Ball outside of the Okuboji Temple, the final temple along the circular, 750-mile pilgrimage route. Getting ready to walk to the first temple to complete the circle, she was exhausted but shared the accomplishment with fellow pilgrims.
Boyer: After a pilgrimage, it takes a while to digest and integrate it, and you might never finish doing that.
After her husband died a few years ago, Susan Kemble West ’62 reluctantly joined members of her Episcopalian Bible study group on a trip to Jerusalem. “I’m not a good traveler at all,” she says. “My solution was taking my daughter with me.” Though her daughter went as a tourist, West traveled as a pilgrim.
“I thought it would make a huge difference to be in the physical presence of where the events in the Bible took place,” she says, to walk the Stations of the Cross before dawn and feel the ruts in the stones from Roman chariot wheels. Despite the political turmoil in the city and the presence of armed Israeli soldiers, West reacted strongly at certain Holy Land sites, even the nativity scene. “You can say in your thinking brain, ‘This is silly. No one knows exactly where this was,’ but it didn’t make a difference,” she says. “You see the tears of pilgrims from all over the world, and you’re affected as much by the beauty and emotions of other people as by the place itself.”
Involved in supporting refugees, immigrants, and prisoners, the former nurse says her desire to alleviate suffering opened further during her pilgrimage. She’s still on it, in a sense. “There are no real boundaries, except in the intensity of being apart from distraction and everyday life,” West says. “You think it begins and ends at certain dates, but half of the point is to discover that what you were looking for wasn’t really what you wanted, or that you found it but not completely. The search has to continue beyond the space and time that limit the journey.”
Lindsay Soutter Boyer ’76 during a 2004 pilrimage to temples in Tamil Nadu, India. One of the pilgrims in the procession holds a parasol over the head of a Satguru as the group prepares to enter a temple.
Longing for Pilgrimage
Boyer advises anyone interested in making a pilgrimage to find one right for them — whether it’s from a familiar or unfamiliar faith tradition or none at all. Her most overt pilgrimages have been in India. “In the West, we keep sacredness in boxes, but all of India is alive with devotion,” she says. She describes strong physical experiences of being in “profoundly sacred” Hindu temples. “They’ve created environments where you can allow yourself to be different than you are in any other place in your life,” she says. In those temples, she made offerings to a deity. “It’s not because the deity needs it but to create an opening in yourself so that you can receive something,” she says. “It opens you to transformation.”
For people who aren’t able to commit to a long journey but who nevertheless long to go on a pilgrimage, Boyer has advice: “Make a special time in your life — daily, weekly — to be with that longing in a way that is right for you. Make space for fantasy, to imagine what the possibilities could be. Often people need to do what doesn’t seem to make sense. Once you start following your intuition, the next step will appear.”