The sustenance and life we call ours are born out of the land by one another. Our culture consists of our relationship to the landscape.
The landscape is always people too.
Though once might have been enough, I’ve taken two pilgrimages—two long walks of about 150 miles—with the idea that carrying my own body through the landscape in this self-determined, self-powered manner would alter my understanding of the landscape.* Walking this distance exposed me to a wide spectrum of different horizons, transitions between urban and rural areas, various small towns, industries, people, watersheds and geologies. Traveling on foot has begun to erode the general feeling of entitlement I had toward automobile travel, that speed born of extractive colonialism. Walking in this way poses physical challenges, forcing me to appreciate the vulnerability as well as the strength of my own body. The experiences have left indelible marks on my consciousness. But it would work better if you made a pilgrimage like this too.
It seems to me that this pilgrimage must be possible anywhere in the world, but my particular experience is of doing it in the so-called Midwestern United States, a region often understood only through vague, misleading stereotypes. Too seldom do people attempt to learn about the varied political and social histories for themselves, or ask the different, radically changing groups of people who live there what life is like. A guide to traveling under more extreme climatic or social conditions would require knowledge that I don’t have. Indeed, you may find numerous other assumptions and shortcomings built into the text. These are simply reasons why more people need to embark on this journey. It is a way of practicing the bravery, humility, perseverance, humor, and foolishness we need as we remake the world.
The pilgrimage unfolds in three simple parts, like a song: verse, chorus, verse. In the first verse you mostly listen to research, training, the blessings of supporters. Then, of course, you walk. And finally the second verse, when you sing. You report back to your supporters and friends—which might now include people met along the way—about your experiences, the people and places you witnessed, and what is happening to you.
The First Verse
Walking 150 miles can be grueling. If you are not already a walker you need to become one before you go on this pilgrimage. Work your way up to taking at least a couple 15 to 20 mile walks, carrying a part of the load you expect to carry on your pilgrimage. Walk at least a few hours a week in the months before you head out. The more you prepare, presumably, the less grueling it will be. If you have a job, do your commute on foot. If it is too far, just walk partway. Careful, though. You might become addicted to walking and severely reduce your need for public transportation and cars. As well as building your walkin’ muscles, you will learn useful things like what shoes and socks work well, how not to be alarmed by the minor pains in your body, what it’s like to walk in places you’ve never walked before, and what part of the road feels best to walk on.
Since the walk can be difficult, it will be helpful to form some foundation of psychological and emotional support. Once you decide to make this pilgrimage, bring the news to people you trust. Loved ones, friends, maybe family. It might take them some time to warm up to the strange idea, but any validation you receive will help you along the way. It is important to block out and resist internalizing those voices that are not supportive. Sometimes that emotional support manifests itself in physical ways, for example when people lend you equipment for your walk.
Alone and Not Alone
I have made this pilgrimage both with a partner and alone. Both offer their own advantages and possibilities for powerful experiences. For some people, walking alone will just not seem like an option, due to safety concerns. I don’t want to be euphemistic about this: people of color and women will have very reasonable concerns when it comes to traveling in areas outside of their day-to-day habitat, and may feel particularly vulnerable. Traveling with another person will open up different possibilities for who you can connect with. If you do not already have some knowledge of it, on this pilgrimage you will learn more about your capacities and talents for dealing with strangers. Rest assured that no matter who you are, at times you will feel very vulnerable. Even if you are walking with other people, you could have the experience of walking alone by taking separate routes and meeting up periodically to check in. Presumably though, walking a partner or a group means working with them early in the first verse to plan a route collaboratively.
Path Planning and Navigation
Many pilgrimage traditions follow a set route or bring the devoted to a particular place with spiritual significance. This pilgrimage route is to be determined by those making the journey.
There are three general categories of places you might put on your route: 1) places of historical significance, whether they are officially recognized or, better yet, hidden or marginalized histories; 2) places where people live and work that are normally invisible to you; and 3) places that are just personally meaningful to you, or that you are curious about. Obviously there can be a lot of overlap between these categories. Plot a few points on the map and try to make a route that connects some of them.
DeLorme makes a Gazetteer, a book mapping every road for each state and province (they are about $20 and not hard to find). Your typical highway map will not have this level of detail. Pull the pages you need out of the book and keep them in a plastic bag to protect them from rain and sweat and wear. Borrow or purchase a simple compass. This will help you when you have totally lost your sense of direction. Take these on your training walks and become familiar with them. Getting lost or confused is not that big of a deal. This is not a remote wilderness trek. You will never be more than a few uncomfortable hours from help in the unlikely circumstance that something goes wrong. Paper maps are better than GPS, if only because they don’t require batteries. Literacy with the landscape (people too) is more useful than maps and other technological geegaws.
No matter how much you plan, there will be plenty of improvisation. But to give you an idea of time and distance, both pilgrimages I did were about ten days long, with nine days of walking and one day of resting. I walked between 12 and 20 miles a day. If you need more time, take it. One reason to have a general route planned is to have some idea of where you will sleep along the way.
Sometimes it will seem like all you are doing is struggling to get to the next place where you can sleep. There are several possibilities. If friends and family live along your route, that is wonderful. Ask your friends if they know folks along your route. It is not common in my experience to find strangers who are willing to put you up, but everyone will have different abilities to connect with strangers and different levels of comfort with doing so. For this pilgrimage, for now, when there is no one to put you up, campgrounds and motels work wonderfully. You will need to budget some money for this. In the Midwest, you can expect to pay between $35 and $80 a night. Some negotiation is possible on slow nights, and the further you are from the interstate the better the bargain. Camping is much cheaper. Not all towns have places for people to stay. Obviously if you are going to camp you’ll need at least some kind of bedroll. Which brings us to packing.
Obviously, the less you pack, the less you have to carry. When I walked these pilgrimages, I used a large backpack such as is used by people making wilderness hikes. I think I carried no more than 30 pounds at any given time. It was too much. The 20 pound range would be better. Certainly there are people wandering the countryside who are comfortable carrying almost nothing but the clothes they’re wearing. See the sidebar for my suggested packing list.
When it comes to learning about equipment like tents, sleeping bags, tarps, rain-gear, packs, and all that nerdy crap, I highly recommend Colin Fletcher’s The Complete Walker. Though it is geared toward wilderness hiking, it also has applicable information about footwear, clothing, first-aid, and safety.
Bathing, Shitting, and Pissing
You will probably be stinky, even if you manage to bathe everyday day. Bring a little bar of soap, maybe a bit of shampoo, toothpaste, and all that. A small towel can be nice but is not essential. A hand towel is fine, no need to bring your oversized Martha Stewart bath towel.
When it comes to shitting and pissing, take advantage of toilets along the way. But if you are drinking enough water, you’ll have to piss outside pretty regularly. Just be polite about it. Try not to expose yourself to traffic or piss on other people’s stuff. The occasion might arise that you’ll have to shit in a cornfield or along the roadside. For this you might want to have a bit of toilet paper with you. Leaves and corn cobs work beautifully for wiping your butt, too. But some plant matter, like poison ivy, works very badly. Kick a little divot in the ground and aim for that. Put your leaves or TP in there too and cover your shit. Think of it as making a mini-compost pile and say "thank you" to the micro-organisms for taking care of that for you.
Drinking and Eating
Dehydration and heat stroke, even on relatively mild days, are the greatest real danger you face. But avoiding these is easy by taking in lots and lots of water. Carry a couple of water bottles of at least one liter and fill them up whenever you have the opportunity. Water is free. Don’t buy water. Use drinking fountains, bathrooms, public spigots, and pumps. You can also ask people if you can fill your bottle with their hose. It is not unreasonable to be refilling your bottles twice a day, more on hot days.
Though you will carry some food, I like to eat in a diner or restaurant once a day to add variety to the non-refrigerated energy food in my feedbag. You don’t need to carry ten days’ worth of grazing food and trail treats, but you do need to keep your eyes peeled for grocery stores and take advantage when you find a good one. If you get frustrated by the lack of healthy, fresh food in your city neighborhood, know that it can be just as hard or worse in rural areas, where people sometimes need to drive 30 miles to shop for food.
Another option is to forage for food. This takes some knowledge and you always have to consider whether what you find has been sprayed with pesticides or other toxins. But depending on the season you might be able to find edible greens, fruit, and berries.
The Second Verse
Cleaning and returning the items you borrowed is one easy way to begin the process of reporting back. But the creative and celebratory qualities of this pilgrimage come out most when you report back to the people who supported you. Before you leave and as you are traveling, consider how to share your experiences. Just like the route, the way you share the experience is specific to you. If you are a graphic artist, you might want to make a poster or a zine about your journey. You might want to perform a travelogue for one or more small groups. Maybe start with people you know and try it again for a larger audience. Public libraries, park buildings, community centers, churches, or experimental art spaces often offer up space for events like this. You might even want to contact one of these places before you leave to start planning an event. You could also make an audio presentation to distribute digitally or send to a local community radio station. It might take a few weeks or a couple months or longer to fully report your experience. This can take multiple forms. These reports will form the body of knowledge about this pilgrimage. But beyond that there is the potential to alter our understanding of the landscape entirely— to erode the distinctions between rural and urban areas. In other words, a pilgrimage of this sort has the potential to change how we connect with our culture. Go walk. ◊
I am quite serious that I would like you to take this walk. I have a relative wealth of experience traveling in the Midwest. I would be glad to give personal guidance and am also open to other questions and kind criticisms.
*I gratefully acknowledge Bonnie Fortune, who was my collaborator and fellow pilgrim, brave, strong, and intelligent, on the first of these two journeys.
Please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org or 773-368-5875.
Summer of the Earth Ox, 2009.
Suggestions for Meeting your Basic Pilgrimage Needs
Possible places to connect on your route: migrant worker encampments; intentional communities; public housing projects; progressive farming communities; spiritual communities; Indian reservations; small towns with strange names; powwows; parks; outsider art projects; The Underground Railroad; festivals; historical pathways; monuments; burial sites; desecrations; reputed sundown towns; landfills; geoengineering experiments; quarries;mines; power plants; prisons; industrial ruins; CAFOs; military installations; chemical refineries; waterways; museums; giant fungi; historical societies; ancient trees; animal migration routes
Places to sleep: homes of friends, family, and maybe strangers; campgrounds ($12 to $25 per night); motels ($35 to $80 per night); where else?
What to wear: light, blended fiber, breathable pants or skirt; light, breathable shirt; farmer hat (a full brim is better than a baseball hat); trusty walking socks; trusty walking shoes; sunblock.
Items to Carry: 2 water bottles (at least 1 liter each);dry socks; spare underwear; knit hat for cold nights; wool or polar fleece sweater; rain gear or extra heavyweight garbage bag; small flashlight; small notebook and pen/cil; pocket knife; foot care stuff (moleskin, blister pads, hand sanitizer—refreshes and dries out the feet on breaks); maps and compass; gifts (zines, art, books, buttons, etc.); postcard stamps; toothbrush and paste; little bar of soap; meds.
Miscellaneous useful extras: contractor garbage bags to line backpack; plastic grocery and zipper bags; bandana; nylon cord; duct tape; needle and thread.
Bedroll: tent or tarp (+nylon cord, tent stakes); sleeping pad; sleeping bag.
Optional items (oh it’s all optional by the way): camera; phone and charger; 1/2 roll toilet paper; swimwear; small towel.
Items to leave home: laptop; books (except maybe gifts); pot and other recreational drugs.
Places to find food: diners and restaurants; grocery stores; foraging
Feed bag: fresh fruit; nuts and seeds; dried fruit; hearty crackers; bread; peanut butter; hard cheese; cookies; candy; salty treats; water augmentation (Emergen-C, Koolaid, etc.).
The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher
Dwelling Portably (Microcosm Publishing)
Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons