Pilgrim on the way

A pilgrimage is usually a journey  to a sacred site. It is done with a purpose and often is a spiritual quest.   It involves separation from home and ordinary life.  Frequently a pilgrim walks to the destination, living simply.  Popular pilgrimage sites, for Christians anyway, include the Holy Land, the Camino de Santiago in Spain, the holy city of Rome, or the mystical “thin places” in Ireland where people through generations have sensed God’s presence.

My walk is still a pilgrimage although there is no holy destination. In fact the trail I’m walking has nothing to do with any religious purpose.  It travels along the spine of the ancient Appalachian mountains, starting at the top of one mountain and ending on the top of another, with a few hundred mountains in between.  It is a recreational trail, a conservationist trail, a proof of endurance trail, but not a spirtual pilgrimage trail.  And yet, after doing much reading, I have learned that many people seek time on this trail for spiritual reasons…or at least in hopes of improving themselves personally or finding direction in their lives.

My hiking companion and I will start unceremoniously where the trail crosses highway 7 in Virginia.  Heading south we will continue until we reach the last trail town in the state—Damascus. There is nothing significant  about either of these places except that Damascus claims to be the friendliest hiker town on the 2000+ miles of the AT.

So what makes the journey a pilgrimage if I am not going to a special “holy” destination?  Well, I have to leave home for two months to do it.  I will not only have to travel very lightly (in terms of weight and environment) but also will have to live without a lot of creature comforts—a sort of spiritual and physical fasting from the conveniences in life.  The hike will involve mental and physical stamina, and there will be days I want to quit. There will be a spiritual practice that I maintain  as I stop five times a day, everyday, to pray through yet another Psalm.   But still, I wondered, what quasi-holy sites there could be on the AT?

What about McAfee Knob?  There thousands of people have gazed in awe at creation—and even prayed if they believed in a Creator. Maybe that has become a “thin place.”


Or maybe White Top Mountain where a folk music festival    was held during the 1930’s.  One year as many as  20,000 people, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt,  gathered on this spot for the love of Appalachian music and celebration.



Or perhaps it will be on the Grayson Highlands where the (relatively) wild ponies roam.



Or maybe crossing the James River (Powatan to Native Americans) where baptisms have occurred.  Perhaps its waters are a holy place for some.


But ultimately one of the great things about an AT pilgrimage, at least from my perspective, is that the whole trail (or at least the portion we are doing) will be the holy site, not just one final destination point.  One’s whole life is sometimes referred to as an earthly pilgrimage.  The trail journey is a microcosm of one’s life, an opportunity, like in ordinary life, to be open to God’s presence along the way.  God’s presence can be discovered in a conversation with a passing hiker, in help gratefully received or given, in finding a faucet with treated water, or in an amazing sunrise overlooking the eastern Piedmont.  Who knows when and where I will be most aware of  God’s gifts or God’s calling for compassion and trust along the way. After all, Christians were first known as “people of the way.”  That’s the adventure for this pilgrim of the way.  Yes, I am taking scraps of paper to journal what I discover.  I’m sure that the God-given surprises of this pilgrimage will journey home with me and find their way into blog posts and sermons for months to come. But I’m hoping for more than that. I am praying that those gracious discoveries of God’s presence, those thin places along the trail where I learn to trust God’s leading, will take up lodging in my heart and change me in the way God intends.

Next morning P.S.: 

“Blessed are those whose

strength is in you,

who are pilgrims with hearts

on a journey to you.”

      Psalm 84:5 as sung by Sons of Korah on the album “Rain”




  1. I am becoming increasingly drawn to the concept of pilgrimage. I’m looking forward to learning about pilgrimages through your writing and experiences on this journey, and am praying for your heart to be made and kept “thin” to be sensitive to all the promptings and teachings of His Spirit. I’m really excited for you! And, if I’m honest, a good bit jealous! 🙂