How to Become a Curious Pilgrim in Nature

February 28, 2019

Walking attentively in a natural landscape appears to be trending now as a form of pilgrimage, folded into the inquiry called spiritual ecology. I’ve become quite curious about the particulars of this practice, so I’ve set out to learn about pilgrim-walking in my preferred way – experientially. I’m told that this kind of journey – on foot, through a mostly natural landscape – is more than mere exercise or recreation. Instead, a certain kind of day hike can both deepen nature connection and nurture people’s shared commitments to healing our environment.

Clearly the notion of pilgrimage is coming back around with a new and contemporary invitation for pagans like me. The word pagan originally referred to a person dwelling outside the marked perimeter of a (Roman) city. Many of us today are ideological pagans, and our walking devotions are distinct from those carried out by religious devotees.

All this leaves me with the question: what separates a “sacred-land pilgrimage” from my regular way of walking in nature? To date I have gone to the living world to observe and learn, to have embodied fun, and to lose myself, when possible, in nature connection. (See “How We Walk,” below.)

I’ve taken my curiosity about pilgrim-ing to the bookshelf, of course, and the writers who have been my teachers over time. The lessons are lovely and convincing, as words can be. Pathways into insight beckon to me in the work of Ellen Meloy, Craig Childs, Alison Hawthorne Deming, and others who write of wisdom gained through footfalls on the earth.

Many of us people-who-read might agree that Robert Macfarlane is a master of this genre. His fine prose maps landscapes, language and time. And Macfarlane’s voice is authentic: He’s been there, done that; witness the ardor of his journeys in The Old Ways. Near the start of that volume, he muses, “For some time now it has seemed to me that the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? And then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?”

I will keep delving into the prose and verse of people who write about peregrination (a word that shares its root with pilgrim). Given a chance, I’ll also debrief people I meet, those who call their long and purposeful walking journeys pilgrimage.

One such real-time human advisor is Kate Bunney, who founded and leads a collaboration called Walking Water. To get a sense of what her group’s name means, consider the journey on foot that Kate and about 30 others recently took. They traveled the entire length of the Owens River, from the Mono Basin to the edge of the Pacific, in Los Angeles, in parts of three calendar years, 2015 to 2017. The pilgrims walked the river’s whole course, including where it flows inside a pipe and crosses part of the Mojave Desert. They stopped en route to hear from citizens of the troubled Owens watershed, notably indigenous people.

So Kate should know in her bones, starting with her metatarsals, what makes an outdoor walkabout a pilgrimage. I ask. She answers, “A pilgrim walk is not at all like an ordinary hike, even a long one. The foremost reason for this is that we set an intention at the outset and then explore it in relationship to one another and the route we walk.” In Kate Bunney’s world, an element of pilgrimage is sitting together in council – presumably on the ground and in a circle – sometimes with people of very diverse opinion and experience.

Another is bearing witness as a rite for healing political and cultural injustices. At the end of Walking Water’s recent journey, the pilgrims poured bottles of water they had carried from the Owens River’s source into the sea.

For my present inquiry, the useful piece of Kate Bunney’s mosaic is intention: That’s what’s available to a solo walker.

So on a silvery day in late January, with no wind and a high thin veil of cloud cover, I launch a walk in Point Reyes National Seashore, a seven-mile loop.


Thank you visionaries, activists, electorate, federal government, conservation movement of the 20th century, National Park Service, and land stewards of the past – for the wholesome condition today of this resilient, minimally disturbed landscape. Thank you denizens of the more-than-human world for persisting and thriving here, and for tolerating my brief passage through your home.

I let the silence at the trailhead flood my nervous system, and in lieu of a fully formed intention I tuck a little prayer into my heart. Soon a new advisor pops up in my council of wise beings: the trail itself. I find myself asking the place, “What would you have me notice or come to know today?”

My way ahead will be up and down over low sloping headlands bisected by sweet little stream valleys, most of the latter fitted with beguiling foot bridges. However, the first water crossing, at the very start of the route, is just a meter-wide dip in a former ranch road. In days gone by, this tiny section of the creek flowed through a culvert topped by gravel and traversed by carts and trucks. In recent time, the living trickle has been liberated from the culvert, and far downstream an earthen dam breached, to help restore the watershed’s integrity. Whether anadromous fish will one day return to these willow- and alder-lined reaches, the trickle today is winter-swollen and not so tiny. This means that the first step in my pilgrimage is indeed baptismal: I wade barefoot through some very cold water.

I wonder if this trail is already responding to my supplication, suggestively. Perhaps there’s a cleanse on some level that initiates a pilgrim and sets her on a path of insight.

Path. Consider the meanings for that word. How does it arrive in our language? Unlike most of the modern English words I track into my outdated dinosaur dictionary, the one with etymology in its appendix, path does not have extensive threads connecting it with past origins. It does share a root with tread or walk, and with find. Perfect!

I dry off my cold feet and reboot my pilgrim’s progression. In the course of my day afield – looping counterclockwise (appropriately, perhaps) through a shimmering landscape nearly devoid of other human travelers – I do receive a simple answer to my simple question. Repeatedly I slow down, notice my breath and my gait, and ask the path, “What do I need to know? What mysteries are here that I should notice?” And the path or its denizens – especially the mosses, lichens, fungi and ferns – replies: “There are no secrets. Just put one foot in front of the other.” 

It seems this trail, ribboning through the acres of soft chaparral like a human vein, holds the same wisdom that Thich Nhat Hahn brings into words in his little book How To Walk. The good monk may have pared down the notion of pilgrimage to its ultimate simplicity. He guides a walker into full attention to (1) her footfalls and (2) simple acts of devotion. “While practicing walking we should be aware that we are walking on a living being that is supporting not just us but all of life. A lot of harm has been done to the Earth, so now it time to kiss the ground with our feet, with our love.”

I believe that Thich Nhat Hahn has seen deep into the essence of things, in part from having sat very still, indoors, for very long spells of time, letting thinking subside. A mystic may not need to walkabout in order to know … everything. Yet the good Vietnamese elder long ago heard a call from our injured world, and he answered by walking through and beyond the temple grounds, to teach. Evidently, time on a cushion and a life of activism are not mutually exclusive: call it engaged spirituality  and perhaps a source of spiritual ecology.

Today with a trail as my elder, I continue to walk, resting often to let my mind go blank and lose myself within the landscape like an accidental element in someone else’s creative masterpiece. Shimmering sky, sculpted landforms, mirroresque bays, intricate stream-valley vegetation, thousands of tiny dewdrops on a single hirsute thistle, wrentits at every turn. And me here, merely alive, walking and pausing, placing my feet for miles on end, one after the other, on the ground, on the path.

The day’s investigation is at once entirely satisfying and a prompt for me to learn more about ways that my contemporaries do pilgrimage. This might be in nature or also, say, within a circuit of temples or toward a holy place. Perhaps you, reader, have your favorite geography for undertaking this quest. Maybe you’ve actually taken a pilgrim’s walk – on El Camino de Santiago in Spain, Kumano Kodo in Japan, or even Mount Kailash! Or close to home, within a stone labyrinth someone laid out in your nearby public park or along a path in your garden, softening your thoughts.

Perhaps, like me, you still are on a quest for context, companionship. In which case you might like to journey into the website for Black Mountain Circle, a non-profit group for nature and culture, based in Point Reyes Station. Black Mountain Circle now is hosting, for the ninth time since 2008, a Geography of Hope gathering. Instead of the customary three-day conference, this will be a full year of linked events exploring “the sacred in the land.” Pilgrimage will be a primary through-line. In mid-March some powerful activist pilgrims will join in a day-long conversation, and through the four seasons Kate Bunney will guide pilgrims into the same landscape where I recently received instruction from a path.

The walk goes on.

trail in Point Reyes
(Photo by Claire Peaslee)

Like you, perhaps, I’ve done a lot of walking on a particular sampling of trails in my backyard open space. Where I live (with daily mumbles of gratitude and, even after decades, doses of awe), the backyard open space is Point Reyes National Seashore. This means that my favored routes beckon other people by the score—locals from nearby and visitors from afar. How marvelous, the love people have for this place!

It also means I’ve had the chance to eavesdrop on all kinds of conversation that people carry on while walking.

To cite a few examples. There are prevalent power walkers, often in pairs, usually decked in active wear (what’s that made of, again?). Huffing along in matching strides, arms pumping, their high-energy pace seems to amplify  their voices – laughing, exclaiming. These friends are clearly enjoying a visit while oxygenating their muscles. They walk loud.

There are families with children, sometimes balancing small fry on trainer bikes, or propelling their babes in cushy jogger-strollers; some herding bawky subadults. They walk protective, distracted.

There are backpackers in tight-knit ensembles from a few in number up to scout-troup-sized, collectively transferring city-and-social excitement into their trail journeys. They walk social, stimulated.

Young and not-young couples incline their heads together as they go, seeking to resolve old issues or probing the merits and foibles of new relationships. They walk oblivious.

Socializing while out on a trail may come naturally to human beings; it may be in our genetic code. I myself once belonged to a walking/talking sextet that persisted for nearly two years (until scheduling for a half-dozen free-range adults got too challenging). Our club originated serendipitously, on a walk we happened to take together for New Years Day, in 2011. We grew giggly on that outing about the date symmetry, repeatedly confronting perfect strangers to wish them “Happy 1-1-1-1!” 

We so enjoyed our communion outdoors that day that we kept choosing to meet – to walk and talk – on numerically interesting days like November 12, 2013 (eleven-twelve-thirteen). We took on the dual challenge of (a) finding trails where five or six adults could walk abreast and (b) consciously attuning to one another so that one conversation could embrace all of us, moment to moment. (Have you ever noticed how hard it is for more than two or three people to commit to a single interchange for more than about a minute?)

But ultimately our quiver of very full lives undid the nascent talking-walker tradition. No regrets: In its place came a practice shared with one of those friends: leaning into walking and mostly silence, for wonder. This experience has become the more appealing for the sparseness of our verbal exchange. We walk worship.

The seeds of this devotion were surely sprouting back in the glory days of the walky-talky group. As much as I loved our deep dialogue then, outdoors on foot, I often felt that much of value was ignored as we went. Our attention was necessarily on internal inquiry and verbal interplay. Yet what about that wren in the shaded forest, shouting its long song? How about this bracken fern unfurling its sporish elegance? The sensuous licks of cool breeze, the music of stream flow, the fecund scent of decay, the luminosity in alder foliage? 

All this and infinitely more was happening as we strode, and I felt a dual focus taking hold. My thinking mind was a player in our shared word game… and my senses turned everywhere else.

If you’d approached from the other direction (power-walking, family-herding, back-pack goofing off, or otherwise), you might have noticed my hands waving about for no apparent reason. You’d have seen a woman (me) listening deeply to her friends while seemingly also conducting a hidden orchestra or shooing unseen butterflies off the margins of the path.

Without deciding to do this, I found I could caress the more-than-human world while also attending to my friends and to language. This is possibly the most successful multi-tasking I’ve ever achieved (which says a lot about my fitness for actual demanding work scenarios).

Chances are, the other five were engaged in subtle dances of their own with the more-than-human world. Yet it’s a long way from that style of inhabiting a path to the step-by-step attention Thich Nhat Hahn counsels, or the intentional walking that Kate Bunney leads – the sort that can turn a day hike into a pilgrimage.

About the Author

Claire Peaslee is a writer, naturalist, and improviser who lives in Point Reyes Station.