Everyone has their own version of pilgrimage, though we might not all call it that. A couple years ago I had the opportunity to join a group of actual religious pilgrims and took the opportunity to reflect on my own pilgrimage thousands of miles away. Sadly, the following year, a failing bridge cancelled the ride. On Friday, May 13, group of road bikers got together for the 44th annual Pacific Coast Century Ride. I guess that’s its name. Honestly, I have no idea what to call it. Ever since I was a kid, we just called it “The Ride.”
It started back in the 70s with a guy named George Andrews, who was a passionate biker and peddled throughout Europe and across the United States looking for the best rides on Earth.
Today, this kind of thing is commonplace and it even has an official name: Bike touring. But back then, Andrews was a bit of an oddball, leaving his law practice for months on end to just … ride.
Anyway, he eventually found his stretch – the best 100 miles of open road he had ever seen – and began returning to it every year. Pretty soon, other began coming along too and before long it was an institution, or so the story goes.
The Ride begins in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, and traces the famed Highway 1 all the way south past Big Sur, Hearst Castle and eventually to the sleepy town of Cambria. Along the way there are redwoods, lighthouses, elephant seals, endless wildflowers and the most stunning coastal views on Earth.
My father first did the ride in 1983 and fell in love instantly. From then on, the second Friday in May was a holy day – the day of The Ride. My dad loves Christmas and Easter and all holidays in between but the family knows these just to pass the time as he waits for spring and his favorite day of the year.
I did my first ride at the age of 12. I only managed the last 25 miles, which are completely flat (and yet I was still so exhausted I fell asleep on my plate that night at the congratulatory dinner). Even so, I felt like I had accomplished something. This was something special and mysterious that grown-ups did and suddenly I was one of them.
I had been baptized with sweat, Gatorade and bike chain grease. In a couple years I was riding the whole thing and every year since I try to go if I possibly can. It’s more than just a day of exercise, it’s an epic journey and a rite of passage. Taking that first turn onto Highway 1 at 7AM, I’m 12 years old again, with nothing ahead but the mountains, the sea, and the open road.
I haven’t been on The Ride in a couple years and I couldn’t make it this year either. I was on assignment for National Geographic, working on a story about the science of belief in the modern world. It’s a topic I’m passionate about and the subject of my upcoming book but it broke my heart not to be able to go on The Ride.
My reporting took me through Italy and southern Germany, following pilgrims as they traced ancient healing road towards sacred places, reaffirming their faith and bonding with the people around them in a shared adventure.
The pilgrimages were exhausting, lasting up to three days of singing, chanting, carrying heavy crosses, and of course walking. But they were also kind of wonderful. The paths crossed bucolic countryside and stopped in little villages out of step with the modern world.
It’s exactly the kind of experience that we never get any more in our society and that we so desperately need. It didn’t take much for people to spot me as a foreigner and a non-Catholic but everyone smiled and welcomed me and told me about their lives.
Some were walking to give thanks, some were walking to ask for grace and some were walking to remember a loved one since passed away. They sang, laughed, gave confessions to walking priests, and occasionally went pee behind the hedges of passing farms.
Walking with a group from Munich on their way to the Chapel of Grace in Altötting, I fell to the back of the line where a cluster of young people walked and sparked up a conversation with a 21-year-old woman named Darya on her 5th year doing the pilgrimage.
As we passed rolling green hills, I asked her how walking for 20 miles a day reaffirms her faith in her church. Surprisingly she said she wasn’t really a believer and didn’t really like the church. Mostly she came for the sake of her parents. Disappointed, I asked if she planned to come again in the future.
“Oh yes,” she said, “I’ll come for the rest of my life. I’ll bring my own kids someday.”
You see, she didn’t come to affirm her belief, she came to explore it. And because in Southern Bavaria, this is who you are. This is where you go to be with people like you and this is where you find God, whatever that might mean to you. It made me wonder which came first, faith or affirmation of faith.
Damn, I thought, if church had been more like this as a kid, maybe I would go more often.
After a bit, she turned the tables on me and asked what I believed. A simple question with a complex answer. I did the best I could, talking about some vague sense of spirituality and love for my fellow man but I could tell she wasn’t buying it.
What I wanted to say – what I should have said – was “This!” I believe in the open road and the open air and people together on a journey and sore legs and a rejuvenated spirit. I believe in the mountains and the sea and little Medieval villages and canola fields and the sensation of seeing it all with people who feel the same way.
I guess I believe in the pilgrimage, whatever form it may take.
I said goodbye to the group at a little pub in a village that probably doesn’t even show up on a map. Clouds were gathering and the afternoon would be a stormy one. No one seemed to mind and Darya even helped carry out the table-sized alter to the Virgin Mary.
I looked off over the German countryside, rays of sunlight cutting through the clouds on the fields and little churches, and made a promise to myself. Next year, no matter where I am in the world, I will not miss The Ride again.
Photo Credit: Sandy Vance and Erik Vance