Originally published a while ago …
Often I have asked the question of my readers, my twitter followers, and my friends in real life, Why do you travel? No one ever answers me. I usually get dead air, or blank stares, as a response.
They look at me as if to say, What kind of a question is that?
No one ever seems to know how to answer that question. Even I have some difficulty in sorting out my thoughts in advance about a trip. But for me my travels usually take on some sort of theme or have a particular destination in mind, or maybe a project of some sort to work on. Whether I was Chasing Caravaggio in 1986 or Chasing My DNA in 2005, there has always been a deeper goal to my travels than just the journey, even if I don’t know it at the time.
I’ve been known to cringe when someone who doesn’t know me calls me a tourist. I put the word tourist in the same word category as the word hobby – that word that people use to categorize non-famous artists – useless words that describe nothing. A tourist (as well as a hobbiest) is someone who needs to be protected. Protected from threats, real or unreal or imagined or not. Protected from their surroundings. Protected from thinking. So protected from bad experiences that they are not quite sure if they are having good ones.
So I’ve always classified myself as a traveler when someone wanted to stick a label on what I do. An artist who travels. But even that is a word that doesn’t quite describe how I make my journeys. There is another word, one that gives meaning to a journey, that is deeper even still, it’s sitting on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t quite get it out …
Last night I went to a talk about The Art of Pilgrimage at the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference in Corte Madera given by author and traveler Phil Cousineau. I was expecting a talk about, well, pilgrimages. You know, the religious kind. But from the very first words of the talk, I knew I had found a kindred spirit.
When someone says the word pilgrim they are usually talking about a person who is taking a spiritual journey to pay respects to a person, place or thing that has some sort of religious or spiritual significance in their lives. Think of The Hajj, or Shirley MacLaine on the Santiago de Compostela. Religion has sort of owned the words pilgrim and pilgrimage for centuries. But it wasn’t always so.
Pilgrimages don’t have to be religious or spiritual in nature, although a journey can be enlightened. And that’s what the talk was about. How to be present in your travels. That a pilgrimage can be about anything. Standing in front of a Van Gogh at the Musee d’Orsay, or visiting Cezanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence can be pilgrimages.
But that’s only the teeny-tiny-tip of what this talk was about.
I had always thought of my travels as pilgrimages. Paying homage to my creative ancestors, or looking for my family’s roots. But I only called them pilgrimages to myself, just in case someone might get the wrong idea and think that I was starting the church of photographing ancient doorways. (I like to take photographs of doors, and the subject of doors also came up in the talk.)
There were so many parts of this two-hour talk that were intensely interesting to me, for the most part because Cousineau spoke of the things I do before, during, and after my travels, that I think I may mull them over and write on them from time to time. But in the meantime, there’s a book: