Here in the New World, there are Christian American pilgrimage sites. They were part of our colonial history, a legacy of Catholic missions and early settlers from across Europe. There are even some newer Buddhist sites.
But there are a lot more American pilgrimage sites that are historical, Native American, or something of the personally meaningful variety. In both North and South America, there are some amazing places that tell a lot of our early history and sometimes hint at what was sacred to the people who lived there once upon a time.
There are ...
There are smaller American pilgrimages to local sites and historical churches, like the country roads leading to the ghostly ruins of the Old Gunn Church or the Francis Marion Trail …
The Palmetto Trail sections stretching from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the coast in South Carolina, through small communities and historic churches ...
The old corn crib church in Virginia providing Catholic services on the Appalachian Trail for decades …
Healing pilgrimages to sites that remind us of our collective grief, like the 9/11 Memorial in New York or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and other war memorials in Washington, DC or Pearl Harbor memorials in Hawaii, such as that for the USS Arizona …
Meditative labyrinths like the Lavender Labyrinth in Michigan.
There are even American patriotic sites in other places around the world. For instance, France has several American cemeteries for fallen U.S. warriors (not only the famous one in Normandy!) and, further back, the Picpus Cemetery in Paris, where Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette is buried.
It’s about making the journey meaningful. Intentional. Something that brings closure or growth. Something more than just a hike or vacation.
Unlike many of the old pilgrimage routes in Europe, American pilgrimage sites are more self-service. Places of American pilgrimage exist, but this isn’t a hemisphere where formal pilgrimage has been much of a thing. The United States is a young country. As with so many things, we’re kind of making it up as we go.
Partially, this has to do with scale. When I stayed in France, my European friends were astounded that we let 16-year-olds drive independently here. When I looked around at the tiny, crowded roads in places where most things could be walked to or there was public transportation, I could understand how it might seem to them.
But here in the United States, for example, everything is so far apart. Around 18 Frances could fit inside our country. In fact, France is about the size of the state of Texas. And aside from major urban areas, there isn’t a lot of public transportation. You either drive yourself or you have someone drive you.
So here you often drive to the sacred sites and do your mindful walking once you get there. Sometimes you can hike in by trail or road. But aside from segments of the California Missions Trail, you’ll probably need to haul whatever gear you need, unless you happen to be passing through an area with hotels. And there probably won’t be a trail specifically marked for pilgrimage. You may have to walk along regular roads sometimes.
Somehow I felt better about that when I was reading Timothy Egan’s Pilgrimage to Eternity. He mentioned hiking along a single-lane country road for part of his pilgrimage in northern France. Cars honked and people flipped him off. So pilgrimage in Europe isn’t all sunshine and rosy questing paths either.
Sometimes you have to travel the crowded road with cranky, rude people, and that’s the journey for a while. That’s how life works. And we have to make our peace with it.
Think of it as real-world meditation practice.