How to Travel Like a Pilgrim, Not a Tourist

Finding meaning in your wandering.

The grass is green and the sun is shining. Tomorrow I leave for an out-of-state wedding, and my airline just emailed me a friendly reminder about the long security lines at this time of year, recommending that I be at the airport at least two hours early for my 6:20 a.m. (yikes!) flight.

Forget green grass and my ensuing allergies. Those long lines at the airport are how I know it’s summer.

Summer is when we shake off the winter cobwebs and get moving. Family vacations. Camping. Road trips. Lots and lots of weddings. Given the excitement that accompanies seeing new places and visiting old friends, why does travel so often feel like a tiresome chore? Is there anything we can do to make it more meaningful?

I doubt much can be done to make the chaotic, circus-tent security maze waiting for me at the Denver International Airport (a.k.a. purgatory) more enjoyable, but when it comes to finding meaning in travel, it might help to look to an earlier age that didn’t have to deal with TSA (though admittedly, the bubonic plague was a bit of a nuisance).

During my graduate study of Medieval History, I became fascinated with pilgrimage—a concept that has made a lasting impact on my imagination and followed me into my fiction writing. I do not want to sanitize or romanticize this popular mode of travel during the Middle Ages, but the notion of “going on pilgrimage” has seen a resurgence in recent decades, which suggests there’s something about the pilgrim mindset that modern people find attractive in our world of fast food pit-stops and kitschy gift shops. So what does it mean to walk through life as a pilgrim instead of as a tourist, even if our travel excursions have little to do with religion in the traditional sense? Here are a few guideposts to help us mark the difference:

Tourists Escape, Pilgrims Experience

It all starts with intention. The tourist is often seeking an escape from reality, whereas the pilgrim is seeking a deeper experience of reality. Spiritually speaking, the medieval pilgrim was in pursuit of Ultimate Reality (God). Yet pilgrimage isn’t about finding God somewhere else, but about learning how to see, just as a weekend getaway with our spouse can reawaken emotions buried beneath routine—reminding us of why we fell in love with this person, our lifelong playmate, in the first place. Sometimes, there’s nothing like a change of scenery to help us recognize what’s been there all along.

Tourism, in contrast, is typically about getting more of the same. Sure, tourists want to transcend the 9-5 and all the obligations that come with it, but that “escape” better take place in an environment that looks, smells, and tastes just like good old America (if you’ve ever been on a Caribbean cruise, then you know what I mean). Instead of setting out on a path where we are sometimes forced to experience vulnerability and discomfort (a.k.a. the seeds of growth), tourism is about being as cozy and secure as possible. It’s the difference between reading a novel that stretches you, but makes your heart ache with joy and sadness when it comes to an end, and reading a page-turner that was a blast while it lasted, but will quickly be forgotten.

What does this look like in practice? Start small by putting yourself in the position to better engage with the distinctive aspects of a place–the ones that force you to see, compare, notice, and appreciate. Instead of having dinner in the same chain restaurants you can find in every strip mall in the United States, download an app like Foursquare to discover where the locals like to eat and drink. Rather than staying at another Holiday Inn or Motel 8, book a room or apartment via Airbnb, VRBO, or (if you’re brave and ideally not traveling alone) Couchsurfing.com. These simple changes are easy ways to cultivate a more meaningful experience that puts you in the path of people eager to share what they love about their city or country “just because”—something far more rewarding than limiting human interaction to those in the tourism industry whose job depends on making you happy.

The next time you travel, instead of focusing on all you want to escape, how might you experience your destination in ways that make room for both discomfort and depth?

Tourists Over-Plan, Pilgrims Wait on Whimsy

I’m definitely guilty of this one. I love, love, love planning trips. At times, I even enjoy the planning phase (typically a week-long love affair with TripAdvisor) more than the travel itself. Sometimes, I go so far as to make day-by-day itineraries. My husband (the more spontaneous half of this pairing) will be the first to admit that we’ve seen and done a lot of cool things because we’ve known in advance where to go and what to look for. But I won’t kid myself; this overly strategic tendency is far from a pilgrim way of being–especially when I try way too hard to stick to our schedule. I can also recall several occasions when things not going according to plan resulted in chance meetings and other significant experiences of serendipity.

There’s nothing wrong with having a map; the key here is to remain open to taking a detour. Medieval pilgrims knew their final destination (Rome, Santiago de Compostela, Iona, etc.), but they simply walked as far as they could that day, with little concern about where they’d stay for the night. And when you don’t have everything figured out in advance, you’re more willing to accept the hospitality of strangers, who might just be waiting to entertain an angel such as yourself.

So explore. Get lost. Wander the backstreets and see where you end up. Make room for providential encounters and serendipitous discoveries.

The next time you draft your travel itinerary, where can you leave some space for whimsy?

Tourists Consume, Pilgrims Connect

Put down the Smartphone. Now back away. Slowly.

I love taking photographs when I travel as much as the next guy. It’s a great way to interact with the beauty of a place and really notice details you might otherwise miss. But it’s also easy to live through the camera lens, instead of allowing an atmosphere to work its full magic on you. There’s also a difference between taking photographs as an act of creative expression and taking photographs as just another means of consumption.

And tourism is all about consumption. Eiffel Tower. Check. Westminster Abbey. Check. Van Gogh Museum. Check (and I even got this creepy self-portrait T-shirt).

If you’ve ever stood in a crowd of ferocious tourists swarming the Mona Lisa, all trying to capture the same crappy shot on their iPhone (a picture of a picture, might I add), then you know what I’m talking about. This need to consume even with our eyes is, at its core, driven by fear. The fear of missing out. The fear of not having a new pretty picture to post to Instagram. The fear of not capturing the same image everyone else has stored away on their phone, never to be printed or framed.

Speaking of social media, if you really want to be a radically traditional pilgrim, one of the best things you can do is turn off notifications while traveling and wait to share your experiences until after you’ve actually lived them. By all means, take beautiful photos, but consider taking them with that old-fashioned, single-function device: an SLR camera. The delayed gratification of a hundred “likes” might just make photography a way to connect with your surroundings, not consume them.

How else might you make travel more about connection and less about checking off a list?

At the end of the day, there’s not much we can do about TSA. But if we try to cultivate a pilgrim mindset in even the smallest ways, perhaps we’ll become more aware of the sacred Presence that is with us both at home and abroad. After all, the point of a pilgrimage is not to escape, strategize, or consume, but to “arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”

Ashlee Cowles
Ashlee Cowles is the author of the Young Adult novel “Beneath Wandering Stars” (Merit Press, August 2016), the story of a teen girl who walks an ancient pilgrimage route on behalf of her wounded brother. She blogs at The Wandering Writer. (Photo credit: Lancia E. Smith.)

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