During nearly every summer adventure, there is a moment when I realize what I am going to do the following summer. On day 2 of a 2001 trip to the south of France to try to revive my language skills, I stood in my room in my host family’s house, looked out at the Mediterranean, realized that French was useless, and decided to devote the next summer to learning Spanish. While I was learning Spanish in Guatemala during the summer of 2002, I became fascinated by indigenous culture. That led me to Ecuador in 2003. By 2006, I was interested in Spanish, indigenous culture, and moving my body, so I found my way to Machu Picchu by way of the Inca Trail in Peru. Last year, while talking to another traveler about the Inca Trail, I learned about the Camino de Santiago in Spain.
This year, I spent a couple of months walking through Spain, struggling along in Spanish, trying to reach Jimbo's bones. I walked across a country I know nothing about, speaking a language in which I'm not fluent, devoted to a cause I don't especially believe in. I loved it. Still, I sometimes felt like a bit of a fraud when people called me a "pilgrim." Pilgrims travel in hardship and sacrifice for some cause or belief. The pursuit of a tasty chocolate croissant barely qualifies.
Next year, though, things will be different. Next year I'm going to be a real pilgrim; I'm going on a real pilgrimage. I'm going to walk in my own country, speaking English, devoted to a cause I care deeply about. I'm going to spend the summer of 2008 walking around Virginia, talking to and listening to other Virginians as we discuss how our swing state can elect a good president to the White House. I plan to paint the Commonwealth with blue arrows.
While walking in Spain, lugging around my Obama-stickered water bottle and enduring criticism of Bush from people from all over the world, I was regularly reminded how ashamed I am of my country. I was also reminded of how desperately I want to be proud of my country. I don't have much money to contribute to a presidential campaign, but I do have time, passion, two feet, and a profound faith in democracy. On the morning of November 5, 2008, no matter what the outcome, I'm going to look at myself in the mirror and know that I tried my hardest.
Flying over an ocean to speak a foreign language while walking toward a saint I don't care about struck me as a perfectly safe adventure, but it seems like absolute madness to walk out my door and talk to other Virginians in my native language about something that is deeply important to me. No more albergues, beds, paths, or yellow arrows. My new pilgrimage involves a tent, a sleeping mat, busy roads, and lots and lots of maps.
It's a whole lot easier to meander along a marked Camino and make fun of someone else's faith in Jimbo's bones than it is to create my own Way as I seek the dream of America. The very idea of doing it terrifies me. I can't wait.
- ▼ August (14)