For more than a millennium,, seekers have made spiritual pilgrimages on the Way of St. James, beginning at their chosen point in Europe, winding westward and ending in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. Today, as portrayed in the 2010 movie, The Way, the core route continues to attract both secular and devout trekkers. It’s fair to say that every pilgrim derives something from the journey, although it’s not always what they expect.
Alyssa Machle, a landscape architect in San Francisco, imagined that walking The Way would be a quietly contemplative and solitary experience. Instead, she spent weeks bonding with fellow trekkers: an Ohio schoolteacher trying to decide whether to become a Catholic nun, and a German woman in her 30’s unsettled by falling in love with her life partner’s best friend, a war veteran in his 70s.
“Inevitably, each person had some internal battle that he or she hoped to resolve,” Machle found. “My own ideological shift was about setting aside preconceived ideas about how I would experience the path, and focusing my energy on the community that I suddenly was part of.”
The diverse goals of the people Machle met on The Way speaks to the power of adventurous treks. From the Bible story of Moses and Israelites crossing the desert for 40 years to young Fellowship of the Ring members hiking across Middle Earth, we like the idea of walking long distances as a way to get in touch with ourselves–and often with something larger. In America, there are as many trails to hike as there are reasons to do it.
For Cheryl Strayed, author of the 2012 bestselling memoir, Wild, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail at age 26 allowed her innate courage to blossom. A rank novice, she took to the trails solo, grieving the early death of her mother, and discovered a new kind of self-reliance. “Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away,” Strayed relates. “I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. It wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.”
Other people on such journeys are inspired by their love for the environment, like Zen Buddhist priest and retired psychotherapist Shodo Spring, leader of this year’s Compassionate Earth Walk, a July-through-October protest of our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels. It has engaged a “moving community” of shared prayers, meditation and yoga along the path of the pending Keystone XL pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta, Canada, to Steele City, Nebraska.
Spring emphasizes that the walk is intended to connect participants to the land and the people that live on it. “We’re going to small towns,” she says, “where many residents make their livelihoods from oil. There’s a deep division between such people and our group. But when we listen to each other, that division gets healed.
Activist David Rogner says that long distance walks don’t just raise awareness of political and social issues–they also give people hope. He spent 25 months walking across the United States in the first coast-to-coast roadside litter program, Pick Up America.
“As we walked and picked up trash, we inspired people to believe there could be change,” he says. His trek gave him hope for his own future, too. He now believes, “If you commit your life to the healing and restoration of community and yourself, you are going to be wholly provided for.”
Whatever the purpose, there are many scenic long-distance walking trails to choose from. The Pacific Crest Trail, from the U.S.-Mexico border in Southern California to the uppermost reaches of Washington State, offers stunning views of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. The Appalachian Trail, which winds 2,200 miles between Georgia and Maine, provides 250 shelters and campsites. In Wisconsin, the 1,000 mile Ice Age Trail offers awe-inspiring views of glacial landscapes. Starting in North Carolina, the Mountains-to-Sea trail extends from the Great Smoky Mountains to the crystal-blue waters of the Outer Banks. In Missouri, the Ozark Trail sweeps through mountains, lush valleys and tumbling waterfalls. Plus, overseas trails await, as well.
Sarah Todd is a writer and editor in Brooklyn, NY. Connect at SarahToddInk.com.