No doubt it was at summer camp when I was around age nine that I first heard the song “The Happy Wanderer.”
You know the one. It goes “Vaderi, Valdera, Valderi, Valdera Hahahahaha…” Instantly I formed a picture in my mind of someone walking along an Alpine path, striding, breathing deeply, communing with nature. And I wanted it. Not until I was thirteen, though, did I see mountains like those I imagined then. We were on a train to Montana, and somewhere toward the end of the third day riding west I saw the first hint of the Rockies.
I was ecstatic! I was going to go “a-wandering along the mountain track.” I did indeed have a knapsack on my back.
As we climbed up out of the Bitterroot forest – crossing ice cold Tin Cup Creek in our bare feet while holding our still new boots and socks – there were the mountains and I was overwhelmed. It was as though the air itself was a spirit entering my body as I breathed, lifting me toward the sky.
I have loved mountains ever since, even climbed a few, though not the kind with pitons and ropes and stuff. Still, I have made it up as high as 13,700 feet at Warmiwanusca Pass in Peru, to the top of Table Mountain in South Africa, climbed all 6000 steps up Mount Tai in China, and scrambled over unexpected icy rocks on Sandia Peak in New Mexico. Those are each worth telling sometime.
But I digress.
What I want to say is that my wanderlust then was as much ‘flight from’ as ‘flight toward.’
Yes, I wanted to wander like the song, but that song – and that first glimpse of the Rockies – was a dream of escape: escape the teasing I got for my chubby teenage body, escape my unruly emotions that came piling out at the worst moments, escape my crushing insecurity. Mountains were everything I was not – rugged, calm, strong. Perhaps some of that would rub off if I was near them.
It was a long time before I could be honest with myself about that. I mean a very long time; not until I made my first trip toward something in 1992, which was 25 years after that first thrill. Until then I was not a pilgrim but a wanderer.
Pilgrims are going somewhere but wanderers are leaving someplace. In a prior post, I referred to William Least Heat Moon, and his book Blue Highways. Early on, explaining why he went on his drive through the backroads, he says, “A man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go.” No wonder I liked the book so much, right?
Here’s the thing: I now think I had to be a wanderer in order to become a pilgrim, that my real self was the mirror image of the self I was trying not to be.
Yeah, I know, ‘accept yourself’ and all. But that ain’t easy for some of us. Sometimes you need to go a long time running away from something before you discover you are in fact on the way to where you should be. There is a more poetic way to say this, more inscrutable, like Elkhart Tolle or Pema Chodron. But I don’t have that gift, which is also why I was not interviewed by Bill Moyers.
Still, I am saying the same thing, I suspect.
As I tried to make sense of this, I did some poking around. It turns out there is a lot more stuff about wanderers than pilgrims. I counted up 13 novels, 6 poems, seven movies, pop songs, ships, sport teams, and the 1950s pop song hit by Dion.
Then, being a classical music guy, I thought of Franz Schubert’s song called “The Wanderer.” Which led me to Wagner’s “Wanderer” from the Ring Cycle and his “Flying Dutchman” who is condemned to sail onward forever. That was based on a folk tale. Folk stories are full of wanderers, including the awful stereotype of the Wandering Jew. Not unil you get to Tolkien – “Not all who wander are lost” – do you get a popular positive image of the wanderer.
Good or bad, wanderers are interesting. More interesting than pilgrims because they have better backstories, full of sin and sorrow. Or maybe we are all wanderers, hoping to become pilgrims. Maybe the pilgrim life is more about becoming one than being one. I had better stop here before I begin to sound like Eckhart or Pema.