How to Make Any Trip into a Pilgrimage

With the right preparation, you can transform even the most ordinary trip into a pilgrimage.

July 28, 2015    BY Phil Cousineau

I have been on the road all my life. When I was only two weeks old, my parents bundled me into their 1949 Hudson and drove 30 straight hours from the army hospital where I was born, at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, to Detroit, where I grew up. That early journey set the peripatetic pace for my wanderings. 

My family’s adventures were wide-ranging, from nostalgic visits to the ancestral family farm in northern Ontario to weekend drives and long treks to faraway museums, homes of inventors, and tombs of famous authors. Our visit to my pantheon of heroes—the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York—was as powerful as later journeys I took to Delphi, Ephesus, or Jerusalem.

Over years of traveling since then, I’ve come to believe that it is possible to transform even the most ordinary trip into a pilgrimage. The first step is to slow down and prepare for the journey. My most memorable experiences on the road have come about because months or even years of contemplation, reading, and journal keeping had made me alert enough to be ready for the moments that make travel worthwhile.

I’ve come to believe that it is possible to transform even the most ordinary trip into a pilgrimage.

Does preparation spoil the chance for spontaneity and serendipity? No more than discipline ruins the opportunity for genuine self-expression in sports, 

acting, or the tea ceremony. Here are some simple acts of intention and attention that can help you turn your trip into a soulful journey.

Be Alert to the Call

One of the methods I’ve used through the years to “call” my journey closer to me as my preparations are underway is to find myths, short stories, poetry—the sacred writing of the land I am about to visit. It helps me begin the inner adjustment, the creating of a new world to explore. For my travels through Turkey, I read two books of Sufi poetry, one by Rumi, the other an anthology of the great Sufi mystics. Each morning in the months before leaving, I read a page of poetry and teaching stories; by the time I landed in Turkey, my soul was already there waiting for me. Every day of my journey, from The Mystic Tea and Smoking Garden in Istanbul to Rumi’s tomb in Konya, I continued to read the great mystic’s work, and each time felt his ancient presence.

One of my fondest travel “calls” was the moment I opened a large envelope with a postmark from Ottawa, Canada. I was mystified. Inside was a six-page program for the 1995 Monette Family Reunion, to be held at Lake Nipissing, Ontario. Still confused, I read on, only to discover that Cyril and Odile Monette were my great-great-grandparents on my grandmother Olive’s side. A startling black-and-white photograph of them graced the front page of the announcement, a kind of Canadian Gothic image of two stern, backwoods ancestors posed in front of a log cabin.

To prepare for the adventure, I found a book called Les Voyageurs, a history of trappers in the French Canadian wilderness that my great-grandfather Charlemagne had been part of. Shortly afterward, I found a tape of “paddling songs” that the voyageurs sang on their long canoe trips. By playing it for months before the trip, I coaxed the pilgrim soul out of me. 

Six months later, my partner, Jo, and I were canoeing down the French River with 17 of my cousins, reenacting the original voyage of my ancestor settlers. When we arrived in Monetteville, 50 miles and three days later, there were 1,500 relatives huddled in the dawn fog. In the few minutes it took us to come ashore, it was as if a hundred years of family history unspooled on an enormous movie projector. Returning to the lake my father took me to as a boy, coming back to the source of my family history, as with all pilgrimages, brought home for me, in every sense of the word, that I was part of the continuum.

See Your Destination

In the weeks before leaving on my own long journeys, I find it an exhilarating and challenging exercise to visualize the road unfolding ahead of me. As art lore would have it, Michelangelo was able to see the finished sculpture while gazing at unhewn marble. I feel, alternately, like a painter contemplating the shock of white canvas or an author trying to imagine the finished book in the hand before setting pen to paper. I imagine myself where I long to go: at Café Contrescarpe in Paris, canoeing upriver in the Amazon, walking the moors of Scotland, until I can see the destination in my mind’s eye. Then I ask myself: Were you prepared for this moment? This is what physicist Stephen Hawking calls “remembering the future.”

In the weeks before leaving on my own long journeys, I find it an exhilarating and challenging exercise to visualize the road unfolding ahead of me.

Create a Clear Intent

After one of her trips to India, Trish O’Reilly, a professional photographer and yoga instructor who, sadly, died a few years ago, explained her ritual of departure to me: “I start to download a few days before leaving on an important journey. For me, it’s important to put everything in order before I leave. It’s a sort of ritual. I touch every piece of paper, put each in its right place. When I leave I want to leave free, unencumbered. To do that means breaking the rhythm of home. To really feel complete about leaving, I need to feel that when the door closes on the airplane or train, I have the ability to disconnect from the pressures, tasks, and responsibilities of home.”

Without creating a “clear intent” before your departure, you’ll have your “home” eyes, your ordinary sight, which is not enough, she would say. To do this, she used to isolate her intention with a combination of meditation, music, reading, and running.

Get the Blessing of an Elder

One of my rituals of preparation is a phone call to someone I consider my esteemed elder. Before departing for Paris in 1987, I called Professor Joseph Campbell to wish him well with his work on his Historical Atlas of World Mythology and simply to evoke what was for both of us our favorite city. His voice took on a shimmer of delight as we talked about his years in Paris in the late 1920s, his friendships there, his discovery of modern art. His hearty bon voyage felt like a blessing.

On the eve of my departure for the Philippines in 1981, I rang up a friend who had been stationed there during the Vietnam War. Before my 1993 Amazon adventure, my call was to Robert A. Johnson, who first made me promise to be careful and take care of myself, then told me a marvelous parable about a dangerous journey he once took on a fourth-class train across India. In his own way, Robert was giving me the nod of approval that there are young men’s journeys and old men’s journeys.

Each of these conversations helped me focus on the upcoming journey and lent each of them a pleasant weight. For me, they acknowledged the ancient belief that I would not be alone on my travels if I had the blessing of an elder.

Sit on the Suitcase and Think Awhile

Author Alexander Eliot has described one of his family travel rituals as the “Russian way.” After family members agree they’ve packed everything, they simply sit on their luggage for a half-hour. “It’s a way of leaving with peace of mind,” he said. “If you’ve forgotten anything, it comes back to you as you sit there; if you’ve actually packed everything and taken care of your responsibilities, the extra time allows you to relax before setting off.”

If you don’t take the time to sit and reflect before you leave, you’ll surely be remembering what you’ve forgotten when you’re on the way to the airport or on the plane. By then it’s too late. This tends to be true for what goes into your bags as well as what goes into your heart about the purpose of your journey. Like the medieval pilgrim who picked up her staff for the long walk to Santiago, each of us will find our own rituals to prepare for the upcoming journey.

From The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred, by Phil Cousineau. With permission of Conari Press, imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, 800-423-7087.

Phil Cousineau
Phil Cousineau is an author, tour leader, teacher, and documentary filmmaker. His lifelong fascination with art, literature, and the history of culture has taken him on journeys around the world.

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