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April 2023 Issue [Memoir]

Numinous Strangers

The enduring allure of pilgrimage
Collages by Jen Renninger. Source photograph of the Black Mountains by George Masa. Courtesy Buncombe County Special Collections. All other source photographs courtesy Ann Sieben

Collages by Jen Renninger. Source photograph of the Black Mountains by George Masa. Courtesy Buncombe County Special Collections. All other source photographs courtesy Ann Sieben


Numinous Strangers

The enduring allure of pilgrimage

At the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly, in the mountains outside of Asheville, North Carolina, pilgrims gathered. It was the beginning of April 2022, and in the way of that country, the days were warm and the nights were cool, and the morning fog that blanketed the valley below glowed blue. The camp conjured certain romantic and suspect associations, with its historic lodges wrapped in wide porches, their tall, white pillars smudged with the traces of a century of wear. An amalgam of cultural products signaling “the South” seemed to float in on the fog: corsets and crumbling antebellum mansions, or whatever.

The occasion at hand was tradition of an altogether different phylum: The Annual Gathering of American Pilgrims on the Camino—as in the Camino de Santiago, an ancient network of paths taken by pilgrims that ends in Galicia. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make the journey each year, departing from various locations in Europe, following big yellow arrows through the north of Spain to the tomb of St. James, and some onward to the coast. The website of the American Pilgrims on the Camino says that the gathering gives Camino veterans and aspirants alike the opportunity to “share experiences” and to “learn more.” But I had not come to trade intelligence on headlamps or blister care. I had come to meet the pilgrims. Really, I’d come to meet a particular pilgrim. Ann Sieben went on her first pilgrimage over fifteen years ago, and has been walking ever since. She abandoned a lucrative engineering career in nuclear remediation and gave away all her belongings, devoting herself to the life of the pilgrim.

Ann is not one to follow big yellow arrows, and she feels the Camino has largely become a “touristic” venture, in which one is nudged along a track like an “economic widget.” But she is a devoted servant of her God (Catholic), and part of her God-given task on earth is to teach the world about the virtues of pilgrimage. Since her friend Christine insisted on paying for her to attend the gathering, she has decided to use this opportunity to test-drive a set of six inspirational tales from her travels in front of a sympathetic audience.

On the second night of the conference, about a dozen people had congregated near the hearth in the main lodge to hear her speak. We’d just come from a performance of a one-woman show titled “Crying on the Camino,” written and performed by a retired speech pathologist. An hour and a half of bawdy jokes, musical numbers, and a recurrent direct address—“Blessed are you, pilgrim”—culminated in a tearful audience and a standing ovation. But just now, everyone looked sleepy. One silver-haired gentleman slackened in his chair, snoring.

Ann was standing before the hearth with her hands folded, monkish. She is small, just over five feet tall. Her hair is a short, white floof, buoyant as dandelion down, her eyes a blue so pale they shine like ice. She was dressed in her pilgrim best: leather walking boots, a hiking skirt, and a black, medieval-looking tunic she refers to as “the hoodie.” When she’s on a pilgrimage, this uniform is supplemented by a small backpack and a Day-Glo green top of some technical material. I learned that the tunic was patterned, in part, on a Lord of the Rings costume, and was “evening wear” reserved for places of rest such as monasteries, or dinner parties hosted by village mayors.

Ann introduced herself as a consecrated pilgrim who had renounced worldly possessions. “I travel with no money,” she said, “which means, every night when I get to my destination . . . I ask people for hospitality.” Throughout fifteen years, fifty-six different countries, and more than forty-five thousand miles, she told us, “I have never not found hospitality.”

Ann’s talk wove together some of her greatest hits, subdivided into related “couplets.” A story about two men who leveled rifles at her in the Western Desert of Egypt was paired with one about a crew of men who appeared to be narco-traffickers confronting her with machine guns while she “hoofed it” through the Chihuahuan Desert.

In the first case, Ann was walking across North Africa to Jerusalem, on a pilgrimage dedicated to “J.C. and the Boys.” She was the stranger in that story, the enemy “invader of their peaceful oasis.” She defused the situation by asking the men for water. By expressing an elemental need, she explains, the stranger made herself familiar.

The alleged narco-traffickers confronted her while she walked from Denver to Mexico City. “I am a pilgrim headed to Guadalupe,” she told their ringleader. “My pilgrimage will either end there, at the Basilica, or in Heaven with God. For me, it’s equal. You decide.” In her telling, the men lowered their weapons. Some crossed themselves and wrote down prayers for their grandmothers and children, which Ann promised to deliver to “Our Lady.” In this case, the men were the strangers, and their love of family taught Ann to love, in turn, “thy enemy.”

Every encounter with the stranger is an opportunity to create rapport. Ann’s raison d’être is building trust, because trust is the foundation of peace. Though she walks alone, pilgrimage is paradoxically a social project. “It is personal,” Ann told the crowd. “But it is not private.”

And a pilgrim never knows what gifts her needs will bestow upon her host. Take, for example, a snowy night in Romania, when an elderly peasant couple insisted that Ann sleep in their bed while they bunked with the goats. She spent the night tossing and turning with guilt. But in the morning, the couple emerged from the goathouse as flushed and giddy as naughty teenagers. The moral? “More pilgrims, more love.”

Someone must have tapped the dreaming man on the shoulder. By the time Ann finished the second couplet, the whole audience had leaned in, roused by allusion to eros and automatic weapons. Later I asked how she thought it went. Did she get much feedback?

“Just all the wows,” she replied. “With the silence afterwards . . . Spellbound. Speechless. Digesting.”

Source photograph of St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City © Eric Vandeville/akg-images. Source photograph of a statue of St. James, from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela © NPL-DeA Picture Library/W. Buss/Bridgeman Images

I first encountered Ann in 2014. I’d had a difficult spring and felt that my life had become, as they say in twelve-step, “unmanageable.” I thought it might help to take a walk. A friend who was living rough on the Rio Chama told me about a little shrine in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that people sometimes journeyed to, hoping for a miracle.

I’m not religious and my understanding of pilgrims involved bonnets and the Mayflower, but I have been known to pray to indeterminate forces in my foxhole. And I suppose I do believe in a version of divine intercession, though I have no name for what intervenes (nor any evidence to support such a belief).

All the same, I sent an email to the Santuario de Chimayó requesting guidance. A few days later, I received a rigorous reply from “Ann Sieben, Pilgrim-in-Residence,” detailing seasonal considerations, varieties of terrain, gear requirements, and optimal points of departure. One route began, aptly, in a town called Purgatory.

I clicked a link to a Blogspot embedded in her email signature and spent some hours reading her “Winter Pilgrim” archive of adventures. Some entries detailed touching encounters with “the people of the world.” Others railed against the hypocrisy of stingy priests and nuns. Each resolved in the neat moral didacticism of an Aesopian fable. “People are good” was one of her most frequent conclusions, along with, “The world needs more pilgrims.”

While I doubted that I would sow world peace by walking, I did hope to disarm the warring factions within me. Maybe that’s why I detected an alluring subtext in Ann’s fables on the psycho-biological, necromantic power of subjecting oneself to pilgrimage. The pilgrim externalizes a dilemma—projecting divine resolution upon the shrine or sacred relic she journeys toward—then she works through that dilemma, step by literal step, all the while getting juiced on endorphins. Though the wanderer may not be “lost,” her narrative lacks a satisfying structure. Having a destination anchors the pilgrim’s journey, providing a fixed point that both mitigates the anxiety of the unknown and, ideally, delivers catharsis on arrival.

Structure appealed to me. Up to that point, I’d lived much of my life wandering without a tether. Typically, that meant taking a dead-end food-service job, accumulating a thousand bucks—then quitting, breaking up with whoever, stuffing my meager belongings into a backpack, and skipping town. I wandered all over and had my share of fun and dicey adventures, and took my licks with reasonable courage: parasites in Guatemala, dysentery in Myanmar, menacing dudes on the cross-country Greyhound. People frequently warned me that it couldn’t last, that eventually I would be made to pay for my freedom, and at terrible cost. Most likely I’d pay with my ass, though possibly with my life. At the very least I would one day crave stability, and then I would finally understand that I was not, in fact, free to do whatever I wanted. Not at all.

This part of the prophecy came true. As touring musicians, backpackers, Casanovas, and other itinerants will tell you: eventually you dream of collecting cookware, or developing an exercise practice, or raincoat-free coitus uninhibited by the threat of STDs. In this imagined life, you will host dinner parties for friends who don’t leave town in the morning. You will paint your walls a friendly color and hang on them your travel-gathered treasures. For my part, I imagined a child toddling at my feet while I baked goods and prepared whatever it is you prepare in Ball jars.

I hoped Ann Sieben would guide me out of Purgatory, but alas, our schedules did not align, and she soon vanished into her next adventure. Her blog posts petered out, then stopped altogether. Years passed.

Eventually, I cleaned up my act, moved, married, gave birth. It was the spring of 2020, so I held the baby up to the window while his relatives stood on the porch waving through the glass. I helped him learn to crawl, then walk, in the same square footage we’d been stewing in, day after rigidly structured day. (Feed, play, bathe, diaper, rock to sleep, repeat.) It was as total and protracted a confinement as I’d ever experienced, save perhaps for my own immobilized infancy. Like everyone else, I idled in the purgatory between onset and ending.

I had presumed, at the age of thirty-seven—the age, incidentally, at which my father was made a grandfather by my teenage sister—that I had fucked off more than enough to fulfill my lifetime’s freedom quota. I was either ready to trade it in for stability and security or I would never be. I purchased a rolling pin, and used it to make an apple pie that my real-life toddler grasped after, repeating his grunt that means “I want.” Thanks to that child—who is desire embodied, grunting after whatever objet petit a dangles beyond his reach—I saw into a mirror. And from its double vision came a painful clarity: there is no such thing as “enough” freedom. There will never be enough. You do not get used to not having it. You can make no lasting accommodation for its absence.

I began to wonder about the pilgrim again. Was she still out there, walking somewhere? And if so, could I join her?

As I’ve learned from Ann, pilgrims are not especially uncommon, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another like her. To wit: some pilgrims visit shrines by bus, and Ann calls these “bus pilgrims.” The conference attendees were for the most part “walking pilgrims,” though some will sleep in nice inns and pay to have their luggage portered, and these are known as “posh pilgrims.” “Touristic pilgrims” is a general category that covers all those who use money to grease the skids of their travel, believing that they are entitled to whatever they pay for. The “penitent pilgrim” may wear a shirt of hair, or crawl for miles on his hands and knees, or shoulder a heavy cross, or flagellate himself as he walks, whipping away his sins as steadily as the horse’s tail disperses flies. Ann is a “mendicant pilgrim,” a designation for those who walk with few worldly possessions, surviving on charity alone. In my view, the mendicant pilgrim is the most hardcore. Penance, by definition, is payable and therefore finite. Soreness subsides in time. Scraped-up hands and knees scab over, lacerations mend, and shirts may be removed. But Ann’s austerity is never-ending.

In general, mendicancy means begging, surviving by asking alms. The early Franciscans lived as wandering street preachers and were allowed to work or beg for food, but were not permitted to accept money in any amount, even as alms. But as Ann explains it, the Franciscan reason for being, their charism, is to love. The Dominican charism is to teach. The Jesuit charism is to learn. “St. Ignatius was a pilgrim,” she said, “St. Dominic was a pilgrim, St. Francis was a pilgrim—but that was a transitory situation until they transformed and figured out their charism. For me, the pilgrimage is the charism.” Because there was no official designation in the Church for what Ann was doing, and because she didn’t want to “feel like some whack-a-doodle out there walking,” she worked with the judicial vicar of the Archdiocese of Denver to found the Society of Servant Pilgrims under canon laws 731 and 298, the latter of which relates to “associations of the Christian faithful.”

Papist bookkeeping aside, in practice, Ann’s life works like this: she hitches a ride to a point of origin, or someone donates a plane or a bus ticket, then she walks. She prefers winter but has walked in all seasons, in all kinds of weather, and over all sorts of terrain, averaging twenty-six miles a day when walking alone. At the end of each day, she arrives at a farmhouse, or a hut, or a village square, or a monastery, or a general store, and throws herself at the mercy of whoever answers the (sometimes proverbial) door. She has been offered shelter by the very wealthy and the very poor. She has slept on church pews, in a crypt, in mansions, and in a henhouse. She has been turned away by Benedictine priests avowed to greet each stranger as if Christ Himself. And she’s been taken in by a great number of poor people living in tiny shacks. While it may be technically true that she has “never not found hospitality,” neither did she enter every shelter willingly. For example, after she crossed into Panama illegally from Colombia via the Darién Gap, she was passed through a series of military encampments in the jungle, then spent eleven nights in a Panama City detention center. She once slept in an unmarked van as it sped through a conflict zone to the Egyptian border. (This was under orders from both the U.S. Embassy and the transitional Libyan government. She would have strongly preferred to walk.)

Source photographs courtesy Ann Sieben and Lisa Wells

I found Ann again in May 2021. We would meet once a week over Zoom, where she would fill me in on her life. The pandemic had interrupted her most recent pilgrimage, in early 2020, in South Dakota to honor Nicholas Black Elk. She passed four months in “hermitage,” moving into a sparsely furnished cave in the mountains of New Mexico. Every evening, she would heat stones on her wood-burning stove, then tuck them into her bedding for warmth. Once a week she hiked a mile to a friend’s house to fill up jugs with water, and would haul them back in her knapsack over several trips. One night soon after she arrived, a wicked storm blew through and flooded the cave. It sounded pretty much biblical. She scrambled to rescue her notebooks from the water, but some pages bled. Even so, she said, life in the cave was “a lot of fun!”

By the time we started talking, she was staying with her friend Eileen in Denver, where she eagerly awaited her return to pilgrim life: the first of five eighty-eight-day walks dedicated to St. Martin, slated to begin in France that August. Eileen had helped Ann design and sew her many custom garments over the years, including the hiking skirt, the hoodie, and a pair of bespoke wool gaiters. Now they were at work on an anorak to keep Ann dry during the journey.

I was impressed by her ingenuity—by the cave and the custom gear—and told her so.

“I assessed the resources,” she said breezily. With “duct tape and a sledgehammer, I can do a lot.”

“Ann,” I said, “you’re like MacGyver.”

This confused her. “Is that a television program?”

As spring gave way to summer, I began to plan an “assignment” that would justify taking leave of my domestic cloister. Ann was reluctant to participate at first. “On the one hand, a silent pilgrim does the world no good,” she told me early on. “However, I also feel strongly that who I am is unimportant. What I do has to be radiated, but who I am isn’t the thing of it.”

I asked her what “the thing of it” might be.

“Shrouding myself in the shadow of my insignificance in order to arrive wherever the holy spirit directs me—is kind of the thing of it.”

The abrupt appearance and disappearance of the mendicant pilgrim is part of her power. She emerges from a dense wood, in the dark of night, in a snowstorm; or she appears on the horizon in a remote desert; or she’s on your doorstep, with her white hair and glacial eyes, asking for water. Because the experience is singular, it is preserved in the memories of those she meets, never to be dissipated by quotidian updates. Anonymity allows her to become an archetype. The archetype burns in the mind, numinous, and the encounter goes on unfolding after she leaves. That was the hope, anyway.

A pilgrimage begins in the heart, Ann says. You must first desire to make a sacred journey, then you must commit to your destination, “because it’s gonna get tough. You have to need to get there.” Cultivating an “openness to uncertainty” is the third component. A pilgrimage can’t be planned to the minute; you have to get out of the way and make room for divine intercession.

I desired to make a sacred journey. But I didn’t have a destination in mind, and I was having trouble getting my head around the childcare component. Ann was planning to guide a group along the Danube soon, and at first this seemed like a decent possibility. But it wasn’t long before I realized that the cost of the trip—both in terms of cash and in time away from my toddler—made it impossible.

When I mentioned my concerns, Ann said, “He’s welcome along. I would think a stroller would be not inappropriate. We’re not on hiking trails, we’re on wheelable surfaces.”

For a moment, I indulged a vision of me and my son strolling along the riverbank, lunching on baguette and cheese—before I flashed on the last “vacation” we attempted as a family, a short trip to the Oregon coast where it poured rain for three days. Because I am an amateur, and did not so much as scan the rental listing for the phrase “child friendly,” we spent those housebound hours body blocking the toddler as he lunged at precious shells, pottery, and glassware displayed on low shelves while gleefully screaming, “I want danger!”

Scapegoating one’s child is a parent’s favorite pastime. But even if my kid were a placid companion, walking with a group of retirees along a well-trodden path was not the transformative passage I had in mind. I wanted a pilgrimage as defined by the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia: “A traveling on through a strange country . . . [to] obtain some spiritual or miraculous benefit.” At first glance, the miracle might seem to be the objective. But it’s the dislocation from the known, the traveling on through that strange terrain beyond the numbing repetition and habits of ordinary life that catalyzes transformation.

In my daydreams, I became the numinous stranger. A highway specter upon whom no one’s well-being depended. Alone in the hands of the Gods, open to divine intercession, crossing paths with the Other for a moment of brief intensity before moving on. Like most fantasies, mine were not fashioned from pure imagination, but from scraps of formative experience—a version of my dissolute youth, its considerable physical discomforts and mental angst edited out. At first, I’d been drawn to Ann’s discipline and purpose. Now, suffocated by purpose, I coveted her freedom—in both cases making her an avatar of the inaccessible. I longed for the kind of unmitigated connection to metaphysical forces that a life like hers made possible. Beyond freedom of movement, Ann possessed an existential freedom afforded not just by her faith, but by fearlessness in the face of death. (In fact, she once told me that she hoped to be martyred. Apparently, martyrs need proof of only one miracle, not two, to become saints.)

At present, I did not have freedom of movement or of mind. One of the strangest experiences of becoming someone’s mother is that I have never cared so little about my own life, and at the same time, I have never been so afraid to die. Daily, I fantasize about stepping into the path of an active shooter, of using my body as a barricade between my child and a texting driver. Keeping myself alive is of paramount importance, but only in order to serve the single function of keeping him alive. I had to ask myself, what was this all about? Was I hoping to be transformed by an unscripted journey, or was I fleeing my responsibilities? Because the former was not achievable without accepting certain risks. You might even say the risks of such a journey are inextricable from its rewards.

Ann was no help on this front. She has little patience for the handwringing of those denizens of a fear-based reality. Courage comes through doing, not fretting. People are constantly asking her, Aren’t you afraid? After an encounter with a particularly concerned Kansan couple, Ann wrote, “My standard answer, fully from the heart, is that fear and experience seem to me to occupy the same place in the soul. The more experience one has, the less room there is for fear; yet in the absence of experience—even borrowed experience—fear expands to fill the void. It can become paralyzing.”

If experience is the source of Ann’s fearlessness, it is an experience that she cultivated over the course of her life. She was born in 1963 on the Jersey shore, the middle of five children. Her mother was a librarian, her father a professor of English. She describes her family as “somewhat competitive.” When the siblings played Scrabble, they competed for seven-letter words. On Sundays, they filled out the New York Times crossword “with a pen,” she said, “because what kind of loser uses a pencil?”

Though her family was Irish Catholic, Ann cites two secular sources when asked what might have predicted her future as a mendicant pilgrim. On summer breaks, her father conscripted his children in renovating and flipping houses. If the children needed to learn how to repair something, they cracked open a book. The other decisive influence came through membership in the High Adventure Explorer Scouts, a co-ed program run by the Boy Scouts specializing in rugged backcountry trips, wherein she attained skills like orienteering, snow camping, and mountaineering. A life motto began to emerge: Just figure it out.

After high school, an interest in geology drew her out West. She moved to Denver to attend the Colorado School of Mines, where she studied geological engineering. In the late Eighties, she entered the nascent field of nuclear and radioactive remediation, eventually running maintenance and clean-up crews at weapons depots and nuclear power plants, figuring it out as she went along. By her early forties, she had “ticked all her boxes.” She was living in Europe, stacking coin and driving a company Jag—but something was missing.

Like many pilgrims, Ann was introduced to pilgrim life by walking a leg of the Camino. A few weeks later, she walked the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome—less a proper route than a list of towns from the itinerary of a tenth-century archbishop named Sigeric—which she considers her first pilgrimage. Ann started from the cathedral in Canterbury on December 17, 2007, with plans to arrive in Rome for Easter. That meant walking over the Alps in the middle of winter. She had Sigeric’s list and plotted the rest as she went along using “excellent 1:100,000 scale maps” purchased from local bookstores. “Few women had walked it alone, if any at that time,” she later wrote, and people were “generally aghast, often to the point of scolding me like a child for my obvious unawareness—so they thought—of the inherent dangers of a woman alone and in winter.”

She began to learn the ropes of mendicancy, resting her feet in churches and reading up on the lives of the saints. She quickly figured out that “candles in an enclosed chapel put out noticeable and cherished heat.” In France, village mayors often held keys to designated pilgrim accommodations. “As a matter of pride, the towns have to host credentialed pilgrims—at least a lone woman in winter.” The accommodation could be a room in a community center or a cabin in the forest. These little towns had been in the business of hosting pilgrims for centuries. “Always bunkbeds, a shower, an equipped kitchen with a stocked cupboard—pasta, soup, cans of tuna, coffee, tea . . . Who knew?”

Having made it to Santiago and Rome, Ann hoped to complete her personal trifecta and walk to Jerusalem. She looked for accounts from others who’d made the trip and learned that most had traveled around the Mediterranean—through Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon—and used boats. “Not even St. Francis or St. Ignatius had actually made it by foot,” she wrote. “They hadn’t attempted it, it seems.”

For Ann, the potential to become the first in history to blaze a path only sweetened the deal. But there were travel restrictions in the region that would have made it nearly impossible for an American to complete the trek on foot—legally, at least. It seemed likely that she’d have to sneak across borders, and though Ann does not always defer to the authorities, she does tend to observe their laws. It wasn’t the right time to complete the trifecta, but neither was she ready to return to her old life. Uncertain about where to go next, Ann did what she always did when she reached a crossroads: she assessed her resources and consulted the literature.

According to various Christian texts, when Jesus told the apostles to go to the ends of the earth and spread the Gospel, James apparently took this instruction literally and went to Galicia, to the coast where the known world collapsed into the sea at Cape Finisterre (from the Latin finis terrae: “the end of the earth”). And so we have the Camino de Santiago, or “the way of St. James.” Meanwhile, Peter went to Rome, where he was crucified, the story goes, upside down at his own request. Thomas, Jude, and Simon went to Persia. John to Anatolia. But Andrew? Andrew went to Scythia, traveling through what is now Russia, Romania, and Ukraine. He might have journeyed for months or decades, no one knows for sure, but it’s believed that he eventually wound up in Patras, Greece.

“Well, there’s a guy!” Ann thought. “Brother Peter goes to the largest city of the Roman empire,” and Andrew goes on an adventure. It was a badass move, and thus appealed to her.

She would mount a pilgrimage in honor of St. Andrew, she decided, beginning in Kyiv and ending in Patras. Sure, there would be challenges. For example, she didn’t speak Ukrainian or Russian, or Romanian, or Bulgarian, or Turkish, or Greek. Five languages, five countries, five months.

Ann returned to Denver to prepare, reaching out to the local Ukrainian Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Metropolis, and to a Turkish group at the Colorado Muslim Society, in search of language partners. The Ukrainian priest and his elderly parishioners were particularly helpful, eager to put Ann in touch with relatives back home. He prepared a letter of introduction, written in Ukrainian. A reverend at the Greek Orthodox Metropolis was less helpful, according to Ann. He refused to provide a letter, warning that she’d be received as a heretic, “raped, robbed, or worse,” and adding that if, by some miracle, she made it out of Romania alive, she would undoubtedly be trafficked in Turkey.

This man did not frighten Ann, but he did annoy her. “St. Andrew no doubt faced the same challenges and then some,” she wrote, cheerfully. “It’s amazing how much confidence can come from other people’s experiences, even if separated by 2,000 years. He did it; I can do it.”

Ann bought a journal with accordion paper, decorated the cover with an image of the medieval pilgrim medallion, then coated it in boot wax. She cut another medallion from a tin can, punched a hole through it, and strung it on a ribbon to be worn around her neck. She tucked away twenty dollars to purchase a visa at the Turkish border and bought a one-way plane ticket to Kyiv. It had been two years since she’d earned a paycheck and she was nearly out of money.

On Monday, November 16, 2009, Ann walked out of Kyiv and into the countryside. She’d acquired a Russian military map that showed a Roman Catholic monastery within a day’s walk. Every so often, she would ask for help from one of the many people foraging for mushrooms along the path, and they would point the way, though she came to realize that they’d been directing her to a Russian Orthodox monastery—not the Catholic one. It was too late to change course. The pivotal moment had arrived. Would she be denounced as a heretic?

Ann would later credit the events of that day with severing an “invisible tether.” The Orthodox monks welcomed her warmly, as did the majority of people she met over the next five months. The families who took her in were mostly very poor, sleeping together on the floor under common blankets for warmth. It was extremely cold, and as she tells it, these families sometimes directed her to “sleep next to Grandmother, she’s very fat and will keep you warm all night!” She slept with many people’s grandmothers.

“I understood firsthand everyone has something to give,” she reflected, “even something as fundamental as body heat, and everybody cherishes the opportunity to give to those less fortunate. In my case, I was seen as having the genuine and grave misfortune of insufficient body fat to endure subfreezing temperatures.”

Her homemade pilgrim credential wound up serving her well. Hosts wrote the date, their names, and their towns in her book. Often, they’d include encouraging messages that would be read by her hosts down the road. Adults and children alike were fascinated by the “various languages and symbols.” One priest would recognize the name of another and accept her more readily.

In a sense, Ann was learning to engineer her own vulnerability. By laying herself open to lethal temperatures, to unknown landscapes and languages, she occasioned the goodness of others. And the people she met were good, she maintained. “I saw this, because I put myself in the situation to see it.”

Contrary to the warning from the reverend, she was not raped or robbed. And after 137 days and 2,748 miles, Ann finally arrived at the Cathedral of St. Andrew. “With the first step out of Kyiv, I became a pilgrim of faith,” she later wrote. “Anywhere I faced was my future.”

Pilgrimage is not inherently moral. It may be undertaken in good or bad faith, or with no faith at all. That said, certain motivations recur. Pilgrims have always walked in the hopes of being delivered; whether from evil or illness, from a guilty conscience, from the pain of loss, or the pain of paled belief. And there have always been those who used pilgrimage as a pretense to throw off obligations: debt, bad marriages, the burden of children. In the Middle Ages, opportunists on the Camino de Santiago disguised themselves as pilgrims and set about freely sowing oats, or robbing other pilgrims on the road. Then as now, their hosts could never be sure who walked in earnest and who in bad faith. In 1600, this prompted a vigorous condemnation from a subprior in Roncesvalles:

To cover up their wicked lives they toss on a traveler’s tunic and a shoulder cape, sling a messenger bag to one side, a gourd canteen on the other, staff in hand and a floozie for a fake wife, swarming all over Spain on their endless cycle of “pilgrimages.”

But ulterior motives were not always so cynical. For serfs who walked the Camino in the Middle Ages, the perilous journey was often their single opportunity to escape a pattern of cradle-to-grave labor, to encounter the world, to touch the mountains and the sea—ecstatic experiences in their own right. Any freedom afforded by the journey came at the risk of mortal danger. Wolves, wild dogs, bears, and robbers haunted the way, which was already shadowed by the swords of plague, exposure, thirst, and starvation. Many did not survive the trip.

Like her forebears, Ann has navigated her share of hazards: savage dogs in the Greek countryside, crocodiles in Chiapas, a tornado in Kansas, vampire bats in Peru. When she was finally able to begin her walk to Jerusalem in 2011—thanks to a brief window of border fluidity opened by the Arab Spring—nearly every country she passed through was experiencing some level of conflict. But if you’re betting on pilgrim mortality, smart money is on the workaday risks: infection, illness, dehydration, getting hit by a car, slipping on some rocks in a moment of lapsed vigilance. Ann’s policy is to eat whatever her hosts eat (except for pickles!) and to drink whatever they drink, no matter where she is in the world. This has included boiled swamp water, and much meat of questionable age and derivation. She once sipped a bottle of tainted water in Morocco and for the next three days pissed “jet-black pee.” When I asked if she’d picked up any parasites, she said that she’d rather not know. “I’m sure there’s a lot of zoology that’s not standard for a Denverite, but we’re in harmony,” she said, patting her abdomen. “I worked in nuclear. That was kind of our thing. On a need-to-know basis . . . Why start worrying, oh I’m carrying some parasite that might come bursting through the soles of my feet one day. I’ll deal with that when it happens.”

The truest believer eschews all parachutes. If you consult the Society of Servant Pilgrims’ website—Ann is both its founder and its only dedicated member—you’ll learn that this extends to money, because money burdens the pilgrim with “the need to protect it” and prevents engagement with those she’d otherwise seek out for alms. Moreover, if someone is tempted to steal from you, “the sin is owned by the pilgrim” and “sorrows await he who does the tempting.” As for cameras: “a photo only captures a distorted visual snapshot of a moment, not the full sensory experience—the scents, the sounds, the feels . . . the animations.”

Despite these objections, COVID-19 contact-tracing requirements in Europe forced Ann to carry a smartphone on her first walk for St. Martin. She wasn’t thrilled, but decided to use the obstacle as an opportunity to log her daily pursuit of food and shelter. Over the late summer and fall, I received photographs and updates from her “two-thumbs journal.” My own days remained monotonous and confined, and I devoured her descriptions of meals made sweeter by travail: windfall fruit gleaned from the orchards she passed through, day-old baguettes and gifted hunks of cheese, all of it washed down with a bottle of donated table wine. I wandered vicariously through ancient cathedrals and verdant countryside, reveling in her snapshots of the animations and the feels, and my torture was bittersweet.

Ann told the story of St. Martin to everyone she met: a soldier who once sheared his cloak in half with a sword to share with a beggar. Meanwhile, in Seattle, where I live, it was a summer of wildfire smoke and a lethal heat dome, and charity for the ever-increasing number of people who camped in tents and vans lining the streets was scarce. I was raw from lack of sleep. From caring for a vulnerable child in a terrifying world. I felt alternately bereft and enraged whenever Ann was rejected by an unfeeling priest or a condescending town official. And I joined in her celebration when her day was ultimately saved by a kind Samaritan.

I was still hatching plans for my own pilgrimage, but a destination continued to elude me. It would be too tedious to elaborate my brainstorming, but I will confess that one idea involved the childhood home of Jimi Hendrix, and another entailed several days of walking down a busy highway shoulder. Destinations on the short list were selected for ease of execution and had little personal relevance, because anywhere truly meaningful demanded either too much time away from home or too many potential hazards. In my life before, I had taken it for granted that mortal danger was the price of my freedom. But my world had changed. I had changed. How could I complete a pilgrimage if the moment I part from my child it’s as though I draw a length of retractable leash? From that moment, no matter where I go—whether on a morning run, or deep into the Appalachian foothills—its tension pulls me inexorably home. For the sake of expedience, we can call this tether “love.” But I would not characterize the experience as pleasant. More like tearing a vital organ from your body, then anxiously trailing it into a hail of shrapnel. And I had engineered this vulnerability.

Though I could probably get away with one of the shorter and nearer routes, I did not want to walk down a highway shoulder for several days. I wanted the fantasy, to have it both ways. To stay close and care for my boy, and simultaneously to live free of all expectations and attachments. An unoriginal predicament, to be so divided. Perhaps this accounts for the saints’ trick of bilocation.

I could, I did not want, I wanted—sometimes we hear ourselves talking. What a sad parody of the spiritual-not-religious set, spooning a little of this and that tradition onto my tray at the discount buffet of metaphysical eclecticism! Emphasis inevitably on the I. Here was yet another way I differed from Ann. Those of us who journeyed in the hope of some personally relevant intervention or message were mainly in it for ourselves, in order to encounter or to beseech the divine, not to serve it. Ann walked in service of her God, with saints for co-workers, on behalf of the whole world. Like the parable of the drowning man who refuses human rescue in anticipation of divine intervention, I kept waiting for an inspired destination—some supernatural epiphany that would reconcile me to my life. All the while, the example of Ann’s steady, boots-on-the-ground devotion was staring me in the face.

Like most human endeavors, pilgrimage depends on fantasy and projection. Projection of the mercy and power of God upon the object; the fantasy of deliverance upon arrival. Like the shoestring travel guide, with its images of mountain trekkers and seaside cliffs at sunset, pilgrimage suggests rewards that will outlive the adventure or pleasure of the moment. We hope the journey will manifest inwardly, deepen and change us. Sometimes it does. And sometimes it distracts us from the depths of where we already are.

My fantasy of becoming someone else through travel was born long before my son. As was the revelation that no matter where I put my body, there would be no escaping myself. Hadn’t I come to the same conclusion dozens of times? That even paradise can become burdensome if you’re inclined to experience consciousness that way—even if you’re free to blunt that consciousness with drugs, adrenaline, or the seduction cycle’s cascade of dopamine and norepinephrine. Isn’t that why, for two decades, I couldn’t stop moving? Psychoanalysts call this tendency the “manic defense,” an attempt to distract oneself from uncomfortable feelings with frenzied activity. As I see it, the main difference between my manically defended former life and my situation today is that I no longer live in the shadow of my own insignificance. I’ve become significant to others, and this significance demands that I retire my expired distraction strategies.

I don’t mean that my former itinerancy was exclusively an attempt to outrun discomfort—I also widened my horizons, encountered many lovely Others, touched the mountains and the sea, and in so doing experienced flashes of ecstatic communion. I only mean that at some imperceptible juncture, my choices became compulsions, and what had once felt enlivening came to feel like going through the motions. Parenthood, I am learning, likewise depends on fantasy and projection. And from the inevitable erosion of those projections, the dashing of those fantasies, comes both pain and the possibility of growth. Put another way, my son has not deprived me of my freedom so much as he has dispelled the illusion that I was ever free to begin with.

There’s a story Ann likes to tell about a shepherd boy she encountered one day in the Extremadura region of Spain. She crested a lonely hill and came upon the boy and his flock. He was about twelve years old, all alone, cradling a sickly lamb in his lap with “obvious sadness.” Ann offered to share some bread and oranges. He pulled a hunk of sheep’s cheese from his rucksack and together they ate.

She presents this as an example of how her fleeting presence can provide companionship and comfort. “So many times, somebody needs an objective sounding board and bam, I show up out of nowhere, and bam, I leave.” She is the deus ex machina who, passing through, facilitates peace, or love, or else poses a dilemma for the one who answers the door: Will I open my heart to this stranger or turn them away?

Of the shepherd boy, she continued, “Oddly, he never asked about me, where I was going . . . He didn’t inquire about my nationality. He only told me about his sheep, the lambs born in the previous weeks, pointing to the ones he personally helped deliver. He told me the names of some of the ewes and how long he’s known them. Somehow he could distinguish one sheep from another. They all looked alike to me. This boy knew his flock, and it seemed the flock knew the shepherd by the sound of his voice.”

On the one hand, Ann makes herself vulnerable in order to help others discover their own generosity. But it doesn’t seem to occur to her that these numinous strangers might have appeared out of nowhere in order to facilitate her growth, to remind her of her goodness, to supply her with companionship and comfort. Or that there might be more to the story of a shepherd, who knows each of his flock by name; who delivers, and loves, and grieves each one.

Or maybe she does sense this, and doesn’t want to say. As Ann sometimes reminds me, she’s not “a touchy-feely kind of person.”

Pilgrimage is a runaway metaphor, and I know I’ve headed down a shady path. But I can’t help feeling that where I already am, for once, is the only meaningful destination left to me—or at least, the only one I can pursue in good faith. Or that there might be more to the story of the boy, whose vulnerability and need transforms his host. That my charism, for now, is to caretake. Much is made of the parent’s selflessness in this dynamic, but my experience has been otherwise. Becoming a parent has meant tolerating an uncomfortable surplus of myself. Every time I try to flee, my child bars the way, forcing me inward. A strange and uncertain country, indeed.

 is the author of Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World. Her most recent piece for Harper’s Magazine,“To Be a Field of Poppies,” appeared in the October 2021 issue.

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October 2021

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