One pilgrim’s progress: Island travel writer talks trio of spiritual journeys

Carla Mackey’s favorite band may not be The Proclaimers, though she has walked 500 miles — and is determined to walk a whole bunch more.

Da da da da!

The island author, membership program coordinator at Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network, and experienced modern pilgrim was set to visit The Traveler back in March for a presentation comparing and contrasting three of the most popular European walks — the Camino de Santiago (in Spain), the Via Francigena (Italy) and the Via Podiensis (France) — an event which was of course ultimately postponed due to the ongoing health crisis.

Still, with the world now beginning to edge back toward some semblance of normalcy, her thoughts about the importance of travel, modern pilgrimages, and the rewards of struggle are as relevant as ever.

However, keep your black hats and shoe buckles at home. Erase from your mind any thoughts of stooped masses trudging inexorably toward some dismal ruin and a moldering pile of suspect bones (stay your hands, would-be self-flagellators!) because we’re talking about a very different sort of pilgrim here.

In fact, the entire concept of pilgrimage (historically, a journey to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion) has evolved. Modern pilgrimages, which have soared in popularity of late and whose practitioners include many agnostics and people who consider themselves nonspecifically “spiritual” now typically involve a challenging journey to a new or foreign place where a person goes in search of self discovery.

It’s also, apparently, a lot of fun, as Mackey, author of “Via Francigena, A Tuscan Pilgrimage,” an illustrated guidebook that recounts her 2017 235-mile walk on a section of the ancient pilgrim route that stretches from Canterbury, England, to Rome, will attest.

For her, pilgrimming was love at first sight — or rather first step.

“Back in 2015, I walked the Camino de Santiago and that was the first pilgrimage I ever walked and that’s the one everybody talks about, it’s really popular and it’s fun and I loved it,” she said.

During that walk, a newfound acquaintance she met on the trail, an Italian, told her about the Via Francigena.

“When I got home I decided I’d like to do that, because I wanted to do more,” Mackey recalled. “But there are no books in English … so I decided to walk it and then I would write the guidebook that I wished I’d had.”

*This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

BIR: Was doing a pilgrimage something you’d long been prepping for? How does someone set aside the time to undertake such an endeavor?

CM: I’m fortunate in that here at BARN I job-share with someone and they know that every year I leave for five weeks to go do these. For people that don’t have that kind of time, you have to pick a section and just do a section.

BIR: Would you say five weeks is a pretty average completion time, for somebody hoping to walk the whole route?

CM: I’m not sure how to answer that because there are two things that people do when it comes to long-distance walking in Europe. There are people that go just for like a walking vacation, where you walk for five or six days someplace and you enjoy it and it’s beautiful. But then there is the whole nation of going on a pilgrimage, which is something a little more intense … It’s maybe a little more spiritual, but you walk for a long distance for a longer period of time. A lot of people, and I would say I feel this way, find that walking for long periods of time has a spiritual element to it – not necessarily very religious, although the genesis for these [routes] are based in religion. But now these pilgrimages are just a way to step away from life … and just have this really simple life that’s mostly outside and it’s beautiful and you’re immersed in a different culture. It can be so rewarding.

BIR: As more people than ever before identify as atheist or agnostic, I understand more than half of recent walkers say they are doing it for cultural reasons rather than strictly religious ones.

CM: Yeah, there is that … The other thing about the Camino de Santiago is that it’s become really popular and a lot of Americans are doing it but still it’s mostly Europeans and there is a pretty significant portion of people that are doing it for Catholic reasons.

BIR: Are there disagreements between people who are there for very devout reasons and what they might look at as a cheapening of the experience in the form of secular tourists?

CM: I think that’s a very good question and no there is not. Catholicism has gotten weakened a lot in the last 20 years, so the Catholics that are doing it I think are actually trying to hang on to their Catholicism. They’re not like walking down the road whipping themselves and paying penance and they’re not judgmental at all of other people — not at all. There is a huge sense of camaraderie and nobody really cares about your religion on any of the pilgrimages I’ve been on. They don’t ask about it, it’s not really talked about.

The one thing that sometimes does get talked about in Spain – but not in France or Italy — is a lot of people go … and a lot has been written about going on this pilgrimage and thinking about something you want to work out in your personal life. Maybe you’re overcoming the death of a child, or you’re overcoming a divorce, or you’ve just retired and you don’t know what to do with the rest of your life.

There is a lot of talk among the pilgrims about why are you here? And what are you working out and stuff like that. The religious component is there, but in a very gentle, background kind of way.

I think the bigger commonality is finding people that are interested in taking themselves away from their home and the comforts of home to go someplace and just walk. And if you do these pilgrimages the way most pilgrims do them, it’s not terribly comfortable … You’re staying in lodging that is co-ed, and quite often it’s bunkbeds, and it costs anywhere from 10 to 20 Euros a night to stay there. It may or may not include a meal. The mattress is no more than 6 inches thick and you quite often don’t have your own sheets and pillowcases, you have to bring your own sleep sack or something. A component of it that people seek out is a little bit of a hardship. Believe me, it’s not terrible hardship because you’re still in Italy, France and Spain and it’s a beautiful place that’s really safe, but it is exhausting.

BIR: Are there any other similarities among the people you’ve met?

CM: In Spain you see a fair amount of Americans. I would say 20 to 25 percent of the people you see are American or Australian or British — English speaking … But when you go to France and Italy, no Americans. There are no Americans at all.

In all of them, there are two really common age brackets. It’s young men and women that are somewhere between 20 and 30, and of those I would say they’re probably 75 percent men and 25 percent women … And then the other demographic is people, men and women, I would say it probably leans a little bit more toward men, that are 55 to 70.

BIR: Is there a modern cultural equivalent in America of the traditional pilgrim experience? Maybe Ground Zero in New York or the Lincoln Memorial or Graceland?

CM: It was a huge sacrifice to go and pay homage and get whatever you may have gotten from the church or complete forgiveness of all your sins. Is there anything like that here? I wouldn’t say it’s going to a destination the way we think of it because it’s more like the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail. Even though that’s a much more arduous experience, I think the compulsion is kind of similar.

There aren’t any ways to walk like this in the United States. A big part of why this works in Europe is because you can walk from town to town and there’s lodging and food in every town and all these little towns are walking distance away from each other and in the United States we don’t have anything like that.

I think the things that you mentioned that would be sort of a little bit of a spiritual destination for people, they just get in a car or fly there. There’s no sacrifice. A big part of what makes a pilgrimage a pilgrimage is there is an element of sacrifice and there’s nothing like that here that I know of.

Carla Mackey photo | Pilgrims walk through a vineyard in northern Italy.                                 Carla Mackey photo | Pilgrims walk through a vineyard in northern Italy.

Carla Mackey photo | Pilgrims walk through a vineyard in northern Italy. Carla Mackey photo | Pilgrims walk through a vineyard in northern Italy.