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The verb “to saunter” originally referred to idle beggars “who roved about the country… under the pretext of going à la sainte terre”—to the Holy Land. Proposing this fanciful etymology in Walking, Henry David Thoreau connects hiking to pilgrimage. Like a pilgrimage, hiking may lead to significant destinations, but its value develops in passage over distance. The trail, the material underfoot and essential tokens we carry enlarge the experience, no matter where the path might lead.

The great pilgrimage routes of the Middle Ages, to Mecca, Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela traversed long distances over difficult terrain. Pilgrims willingly put themselves at the mercy of the trail, accepting its hardships as essential to their pious exertion. Nevertheless, places of comfort and generosity sprung up along the way.

The Abbasids in 8th-century Iraq built fire signal towers on the route between Baghdad and Mecca, so travelers could move at night and avoid the intense daytime heat. Carefully constructed stone cisterns supplied water, and cool caravansaries housed pilgrims and camels for a day or two of rest. In the early 20th century, the paths disappeared under railways along the same routes. Then pilgrims traveled more easily by train but finished the journey on foot with seven devotional circuits around the Kaaba in Mecca.

Along the routes to Santiago de Compostela, stone-paved paths connected villages and towns, which vied to attract pilgrims to stop and venerate their precious relics—ribs, feet and hands of saints, or fragments of the True Cross. Churches advertised these with high pinnacles and accommodated moving crowds in shadowed side aisles and vaulted ambulatories. Each small village provided water to passing travelers; the fountains themselves—like the small stone “fountain of denial” in Zariquiegui—became reminders of the pilgrims’ calling as they continued westward.

In the US, secular pilgrimages to the forests replaced these religious devotions. Painters of the Hudson River School venerated the trails west and the prospects they offered. Inspired by their sublime landscapes, groups of outdoor adventurers financed and built paths into the hills and mountains. The 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail and 2,658-mile Pacific Crest Trail are the grandest of these, but volunteers and Depression-era laborers of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built countless more miles of trails. Many of these adhere to the principles of landscape designers like Andrew Jackson Downing, who advised that paths should respond to “the genius of the place… being rough where the latter is wild and picturesque… and more polished as the surrounding objects show evidences of culture and high keeping.” The best paths blend the human and the natural: Stone and timber are gathered nearby, formed onsite and assembled by hand.

The path to Lucifer Falls in upstate New York, completed by the CCC in 1942, is an especially fine example. It negotiates cliffs along fast-running Enfield Creek and native schist forms broad steps, culverts, bridges and knee walls wide enough to sit on. These wind under maples, oaks and birches. Ferns grow in the rough joints between stone courses. As the gorge narrows, hikers zigzag breathlessly in the mist under overhanging rocks toward a mossy low-arched bridge. Natural plates in the riverbed follow a similar jagged course; its cascade carries the view back down the valley.

Whether the journey is to a religious site or along the Appalachian trail, special equipment accompanies the travelers. Early caravans to Mecca carried the kiswa, a richly embroidered shroud to cover and glorify the Kaaba. Pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela identified themselves with a cockleshell, a symbol of St. James that was honored with food and lodging at castles, churches and monasteries along the route. Eighteenth-century saunterers used a curious piece of trail equipment called a Claude glass. Encountering a particularly fine prospect they would pull out this framed, convex mirror, turn away from the view, and take it in again, slightly distorted and hazed as if in a misty landscape painting. These days, booted hikers do much the same, slipping a cell phone from a pack and turning to capture glorious self-portraits against a horizon.

Our carefully laid paths connect the rolling and jagged landscapes as they conduct sauntering feet and tired bodies of pilgrims and hikers along the land. Their greatest value, one might say, is that they carry our spirits higher over the distances.

Walking along a well-trodden path can provide serenity—and room to think. Walking has been central to the work of thinkers like Kant, Nietzsche, Rimbaud and Rousseau.

Walking along a well-trodden path can provide serenity—and room to think. Walking has been central to the work of thinkers like Kant, Nietzsche, Rimbaud and Rousseau.


This story is from Kinfolk Issue Twenty-Five

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