"Life is a pilgrimage," Swami Sivananda once wrote. "The wise man does not rest by the roadside inns. He marches direct to the illimitable domain of eternal bliss, his ultimate destination." These days, however, when Google Earth can peer into every patch of our planet, finding solace off-the-grid on those "illimitable domains" has become something of a novelty. That may explain the recent flurry of public interest in modern-day pilgrimages, both fictional and real.
Many of these pilgrimages involve people who've been driven by grief; some by a desire to buck the status quo and radically change their lifestyles. In Emilio Estevez's film The Way, Martin Sheen plays an American doctor who, after the tragic death of his son (played by Estevez), embarks on the Camino de Santiago, an 800-kilometer pilgrimage that people have taken for over a thousand years in the Spanish countryside. This year, Cheryl Strayed's bestseller Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, chronicles her 1,100 mile solo hike across the Pacific Crest Trail as she comes to terms with her life, which unraveled after the death of her mother.
Others embraced the wilderness with different motivations. Kirk and Cindy Sinclair walked 6,800 miles across the American Discover Trail and raised funds for housing, hunger, and health along the way. And Charles Baird, a former oil worker, quit his job to spend a year in isolation in the Alaskan wilderness with a dog, a goat, basic staples and a camera. When CNN asked Baird what motivated him, he replied: "I've always been intrigued by the explorers and pioneers of the old days."
The latest addition to the recent canon of modern travel pilgrimage tales comes from Paul Stuzman, author of the recently released Hiking Through: One Man's Journey to Peace and Freedom on the Appalachian Trail. When his wife of 36 years died of breast cancer, Stuzman, 57, spent 138 days hiking 2,176 miles along the Appalachian trail.
Stuzman journey was the realization of a life-long dream, an attempt to heal from grief, and an exploration of his religious convictions. "I was born into an Amish family," says Stutzman, "and raised a very strict Mennonite with lots of dos-and don't rules. For many years, I thought that being a Christian meant adhering to a set of rules. Alone on the trail, though, I couldn't go to church. I met other folks who lived by rules different from mine, and I experienced a relationship with God."
Hiking Through chronicles how Stutzman reaffirmed his religious convictions and processed his personal grief through the transformative and healing power of nature. Like many people who've taken similar journeys, Stuzman had little hiking experience and gear. He did not belong to a trekking intelligentsia. He left behind a career as a restaurant manager to seek his own brand of personal solace in the wild.
When asked what is one thing he knows now that he wished he knew growing up, Stuzman replied: "Not to fear the unknown. Growing up, I was always worried about what my job would be, who I was going to marry, what the future was going to be like. Fear of the unknown keeps us from taking the first step toward our dreams and goals. Most often, we cannot know the outcome; we just need to step forward in faith."
Check out the slideshow below for Stutzman's images from the Appalachian trail.