Today I hiked along the Causeway Coastal route for 12 miles, from the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge to the Giant’s Causeway. My feet are tired, but my heart is full.
It rained more than half the time, in typical Ireland fashion. (I learned to always carry a rain jacket with me when I first visited Dublin.) After two downpours, hours of drizzle, wading through water, scrambling over rocks, and crossing beaches and cliffs, I arrived at the Giant’s Causeway – a popular tourist destination – entirely soaked and covered in mud and grass (and possibly some sheep poop) up to my knees.
This isn’t the first time this trip I’ve walked passed gaggles of tourists while covered in mud.
At Glendalough, I got caught in rainfall while hiking on the cliffs above the lakes near the popular monastic city ruins. At Mont St. Michel, I decided it would be beautiful to hike around the abbey island while the tide was out. Beautiful? Yes. Muddy? Oh yes. I was the only one out there. (I soon realized why.) Out by the water’s edge it was nice and firm, like a beach. But as I delightfuly made my way back towards the bridge taking the tourists back to the mainland, I hit the real stuff: Thick, bluish, grayish, clay-like mud that just sucked my legs down into. I nearly fell on my face many times. My legs were completely gray, I carried my boots in hand and walked passed all the posh-looking tourists, knowing I had more fun than they did.
In those moments, I think, “This is the difference between a traveler and a tourist.“
When I made it back to the Giant’s Causeway today, I walked passed everyone carrying their umbrellas with their audio guide headphones in their ears. They all still had their makeup on their faces and they looked dry and content. But I was stoked. The Giant’s Causeway is cool (it’s a bunch of basalt columns jutting out into the water), and it’s nice to take a 20 minute stroll from the visitors center to see it. But what they don’t know is the stunning 12 miles beyond.
Maybe they drove passed it. But they don’t know the delight of trodding over it step by step, for hours soaking in the unreal scenery. Because tourists stick to pavement. They go to the places where the tour buses take them. They go where their money takes them, instead of their feet.
I can see why everyone thinks we’re stupid. In general, the international western community sees Americans as a bunch of people who just don’t quite get it. We can be obnoxious, we don’t quite know how to dress, our knowledge doesn’t include what has and is currently going on around the world, and we can only speak English. We’re uncultured, conservative and, frankly, ignorant.
We’re like the homeschool kids of the Western World. Europe is the public school.
It’s not our fault necessarily. We’re babies. Our country is only 240 years old. We live in The New World, fairly alone, on this huge mass of land an ocean away.
Right now I’m sitting beneath the Pantheon in Rome in a sea of sharp-looking multilinguals. Their history and architure dates back to the BC time. They have thousands of years to draw from. We get excited when we see an American structure dating back to the 1800s. Romans can point out their window and say, “Yeah, that was built in 120 AD.”
We’re new at this.
That’s OK. But the problem is that America is not humble. We think we know better than everyone. And all Europe does is laugh at us. Seriously, I’ve had many Europeans tell me that.
I was on a long bus ride with internationals and, related to our conversation, I made a joke about America. “Well, all the people in your countries just think Americans are stupid and crazy anyway.” I laughed in dead silence. A brave one looked carefully at me and nodded, “I’m sorry, we actually do,” he said. That sentiment was confirmed by the Frenchman and the Belge I hiked around with several weeks later.
And the worst thing: Almost every time I tell someone I’m from America they bring up Trump with a laugh and a snicker. They want to know how someone like him is even in the running to be in charge of our country. Honestly, I have the same question. But to them, it’s just another glaring example of America’s insanity, just another reason to keep us as their laughingstock.
My journey has unintentionally turned into a pilgrimage of sorts.
When I started out on my travels a year ago I did acknowledge a spiritual intent. Some people asked me why I was going alone and, among other things, I would say because, “It’s not just a tour to see things, but a spiritual journey.” But what I meant was, spiritual in the sense of me growing and learning as a person – me and myself discovering the world and letting it teach me. I didn’t necessarily mean me and God.
But it turned that way. My internal spiritual state-of-being has run its own course alongside the physical journey, from anger to doubt to numbness to lost-ness to repentance to joy to intimacy with the Creator (not necessarily linear or even in that order). Each place I’ve been has played a key role, from being spiritually alone in Alaska, to being spiritually doused in Madagascar.
Now that I’m in Europe, it’s changed in nature again.
Starting off in Glendalough at St. Kevin’s Hermitage set that mood and started a more direct conversation with me and God. Ever since, I’ve been physically journeying to famous pilgrim sites, partly because of my interest and familiarity with churches and partly because they also tend to be major tourist attractions. Places like St. Kevin’s monastic city, Christ Church, Westminster, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur and Mont St. Michel are incredible architecturally and historically, so tourists flock to them. At each place, there are signs asking tourists to be quiet and respect the people who came to pray and brochures address the pilgrims directly with encouragements, blessings and prayers. Pilgrims have been journeying to these sights for centuries, on foot, walking for months, and some even stayed for the rest of their lives as monks.
I pass through, utilizing the swiftness of modern transportation, but at each site, I sit down and stay a while, to pray, to attend mass, to let the sacredness of the place wash over me.
Sacre Couer in Paris, for some reason, really did something. I had just been sitting on the grassy hill outside in the midst of a hundred or so Parisians and tourists, picnicking and taking in the sweeping view of the city. After finishing my baguette and salad, I went inside the church with a light, casual heart. I expected to be awed at the architecture, be impressed by it’s long spiritual heritage, sit down and pray and leave.
Blindsided, I walked through the door, took a few steps toward the prayer area facing the front-and-center of the church and tears started dripping down my face. Not sadness necessarily. I just felt seen.
I sat down and stared at the painting of Jesus on the forward ceiling – his arms outstretched, surrounded by angels and every race of man in heaven. I have never been affected by a religious painting until then. (And I’ve seen many since arriving in Europe.)
I stayed for four hours. In that same seat, I sat with my eyes open, closed, praying, being silent. The nuns did an evensong and the priest did communion. It was all in French, but I could understand the simplicity of most of the hymns.
I stayed for four hours. It felt like hardly any time at all. I had meant to go to the Eiffel Tower for a night view of the city, but it didn’t matter anymore.
The other day I set out in Paris on a self-guided Jean-Paul Sartre tour. I was so excited. I had found an article online that walks through all the cafes he frequented, places he met with other notable people, the Sorbonne, and his joint grave with Simone de Beauvoir.
It was going to be great. I didn’t have to spend money and I was going to see so much of the city! But right before going to the Sorbonne, about halfway through the trail, I just slowly wound down until I had to sit and I didn’t want to move anymore. I wasn’t excited anymore. I didn’t want to do anything anymore. But I wasn’t tired of walking. I wasn’t bored with the sites. It was like 50-pound weights on ropes had suddenly been slung over my shoulders and I lacked the strength to move under its heaviness.
If you’ve seen Inside Out – the Pixar movie about a little girl’s emotions – it was like when Sadness sunk to the ground after getting lost and Joy had to drag her by her feet through longterm memory.
Often I feel like that. And there was nothing to do, but call it off and go back to the hostel and lay down. At least I wasn’t disappointing anyone, since I was alone.
This is Yudit and she’s from Guadalajara, Mexico. We spent the day hanging out together in Paris. She only speaks Spanish and I only speak English, but we managed to go all around the city, have fun, and have many conversations about school, our jobs, Johnny Depp, where we’re from, and of course Paris.
The theme of the day was a bit macabre. We visited the tomb site of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean-Paul Satre and Simone de Beauvoir’s joint grave, and Les Catacombes, an underground ossuary holding the remains of more than 6 million Parisiens.