It’s that time of year when parents pull out the sunscreen and load up the minivan for destinations unknown. Beaches, zoos, even the land of animatronics and anthropomorphized mice all whisper their siren song of something else.
We Pagans replace our ties and suits for sarongs and tye-dye, let down our hair, and answer the call of the road. We dance and sing and hope to re-discover ourselves. Travel has been said to transform and renew the self. From the beginning of recorded history we know that travel was both dangerous and sacred.
But why are we called to travel at all?
Before we begin to consider this question I need to be completely honest with you, dear reader.
I hate to travel.
Like, seriously. I’m not a good driver, I get anxious about getting lost, what to pack, and what I should be doing. I forget things. I lose pillows relentlessly, and I have to bring them because hotel pillows have horrible stinky laundry soap that makes my head ache. I worry that I will have an asthma attack and will have forgotten my rescue inhaler. I can get lost in a paper sack, because even though I know how to use maps my brain betrays me with its inability to tell right from left. Not knowing the weather patterns of a place I’m staying makes me uncomfortable. No, really, it does. If there is a word for being a hypochondriac of traveling then that’s the word for me.
So that’s my disclaimer. I’ve never had “gypsy feet” or felt the call of the road.
The lure of other lands has crept into my soul, not because of some desire to go visit Disneyland but because I began to think of travel in a different way. This spring I had to take my girls and get out of the house while some construction was underway, so I ended up planning a trip for us to go visit a friend in North Carolina. She suggested that we go just a wee bit farther (in the traveling scheme of things) and visit Charleston SC to see the Atlantic Ocean. My daughters had never seen the ocean. Suddenly this trip had become something more than just my attempt to do something interesting while I was kicked out of my basement refuge.
It had become a pilgrimage to the ocean.
In preparation I read The Art of Pilgramage by Phil Coineau. I made travel journals for my daughters so they could capture their experience in image and word. I asked a friend to come with me and share the experience. I prepared offerings for the ocean and brought my vial of sacred water so that I might recharge it in the ocean. I remembered my pillow.
The idea of pilgrimage brings up an image of dusty travelers walking on foot. I think of Chaucer and of the Muslim Hajj. It was both more interesting and more dangerous than the family vacations that I had been on in my life. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “a pilgrimage is a journey to a holy place or a journey to a special or unusual place,” and therein lies the key.
I am, at this point in my life, a pantheistic polytheist. I believe that the sacred is imbued within all things and presents itself in many discrete forms. AKA: everything is filled with spirits of all sizes and sorts. When I was younger and I was trying to prove my point, I liked to do things like kick a table and tell people it was sacred. Now that I’m older, I know how easily one can forget the sacredness of a table; sometimes it’s hard to hold onto the fact that anything at all is special.
Our brains become habituated to what we see; no matter how awesome our lives are, no matter what we surround ourselves with, we will eventually get used to it. It will become dull, routine background noise. According to the definition, a pilgrimage is a journey to a special place. By my reasoning, all places are special, for one reason or another. It’s my attitude that makes the difference. So here are four ideas for making travel better, more spirit filled, and more meaningful no matter where you’re headed off to.
Gift giving is one of the sacred mysteries of my form of Druidry. Reciprocity is a blessing. Only by building relationship do we exist in this world. Whether we are introverts or extroverts our lives are not lived in a vacuum. We live in balance with all things, trading carbon dioxide for oxygen, working and getting paid, loving and being loved back. The goal is to find a good balance. Too often we think of ourselves as consumers. Instead we need to think of ourselves as partners. When we take, what do we give back?
This can be a challenging concept to grapple with in some ways. As humans we take so much and it can be hard to see how we might actually come into a true balance with other people, let alone all beings. Love isn’t always reciprocated, workplaces can be cruel, and we give far more carbon dioxide than is needed. However, I believe in my heart that by cultivating an attitude of the rightness of giving and receiving we can practice those skills. When is it more appropriate to begin than when one is in an entirely new place?
Giving offerings has helped me immeasurably when traveling. Not only does it help me connect to the spirits of the place, but whenever one travels there is a gift of experience. Seeing new things widens our minds, it breaks us out of old patterns and habituation. This is a gift worthy of thanks. By taking a moment to recognize that gift we strengthen the change within ourselves while building new relationships with the spirit in the process.
Give yourself space to wander places that are not for tourists. You might find that the most spiritual moments are those that are unplanned and unexpected. For me, that was the mountain. I didn’t expect it. We drove through the mountains, and the last time I had seen them I was a child. I drove through them now as an adult and a priestess. I saw great dragons in the spine of those long worn ridges. I found a map at a rest stop because I was desperate to find some way to experience more than driving past them. According to one map, there was a lookout point near one of the exits. We ended up driving a switchback road to the top of the peak. There was a kitschy general store that was closed for the season and a precarious scaffolding that lead to a lookout platform. It seemed abandoned and forlorn. We crossed the street and wandered onto the mountain proper surrounded by jutting rusty rocks and lichen covered trees. I kept waiting for an Ent to appear.
In David Abram’s book The Spell of the Sensuous he talks about the Australian Aboriginal Dream Tracks. These are real pathways through the land that have songs embedded within the pathways of the landscape. Where a person is born indicates the part of the song of which they will be the caretaker. They memorize the songs for that landscape, and it is their duty to walk the land and sing them. He tells the story of an Aboriginal man who is in a jeep as a passenger and the driver notices that he seems to be saying something very quickly and with quiet desperation. The driver realizes that this man is attempting to properly sing songs that were meant for a walking speed while moving at 25 miles per hour. The driver slowed then, and the Aboriginal man was able to sing his way through the landscape properly at a walking speed.
It’s tempting to fill every moment; to suck down the raw oyster of vacation excitement in a desire to maximize every delicious experience. Don’t give into that temptation. Don’t fill every moment with workshops and rituals or with tourist attractions. Take time to be still, to think, and turn inward. Travel is a break from the ordinary. It is a time outside of time, rather like ritual itself.
Eliade writes about sacred time in his classic book, The Sacred and The Profane. He states that there is profane time, which I might call everyday time, and sacred time. Sacred time is what we witness when we call our folk together to celebrate the mysteries of the wheel of the year or when we allow ourselves to be entranced by the beauty of the moon. This sacred time is cyclic in nature and manifests when one has become centered in sacred space. Everything is sacred, but we know that our ability to comprehend that is limited by our attention; we get used to the stuff we are around and it no longer seems special. By slowing down we notice the specialness of the places that we are and we can discover an incredibly powerful emotion: awe.
Awe is wonder. It’s awesome and awful. It’s one of those things that is hard to describe and easy to recognize. Psychologists have attempted to study awe, but what entertained me is that while they weren’t sure how being awe-inspired would change people, they didn’t feel a need to study what would actually inspire that awe in the first place. They used really tall beautiful trees. Things that inspire awe are grand and magnificent. These things are larger than our own selves, things we can only begin to comprehend. The funny thing is that awe is really good for you. Experiencing awe can make you a better, more sharing person. It makes people more altruistic and kinder. It’s an antidote to the brutality of the daily grind.
When I was on that mountain, I felt awe upon me like a gift. When I visited Charleston, we walked past grand houses and ancient trees to the tip of the peninsula that it was built upon. There we found a statue of a grand woman blessing a young warrior. I felt a horrible awe there too, knowing the history of that place. The statue had been commissioned by The United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1932. It had sacred symbols inscribed upon the hem of grain, leaf, and wave. It was set upon a sunburst pattern in the stones. She pointed to Fort Sumter as in blessing and I felt the feathery touch of a death goddess in her gaze. My awe there was of a torn and bloody sort.
The gods themselves often inspire awe. A friend of mine, the Rev. Michael J Dangler has made a map of various shrines and statues around the United States and he was kind enough to let me share it with you, dear reader, so that maybe you can find yourself in the presence of the spirits great or small while going out on the road again. I would encourage you to take a moment in your travels to find the gods of the lands where you are going and to honor the history and spirit of the land. May your travels be blessed and your return full of renewal and wisdom.
If you know of any other shrines or statues of deities or spirits of place let me know in the comments below and I’ll see if I can add them to the map!
Images above courtesy of the author.