On Pilgrimages

In early April of 2007, I arrived in Dublin, Ireland. It was one of the last and longest stops on my three-week solo train trip (notice a trend?) around Europe. The reason I spent four days in Dublin is similar to the reason I spent the whole semester in Edinburgh: these were mythical lands, immortalized in the traditional songs I had listened to for years. While I have minimal Irish or Scottish ancestry, I felt a connection to the land I still can’t quite explain. On my third day in Dublin, I took a bus tour out of the city and north to the Hill of Tara and Newgrange, two of the most famous ancient historical sites in Ireland. I felt something when I was there, as if the ancient kings and druids were walking there amongst the tour, separated from our senses only by this trifling fourth dimension called time. I felt something similar several months earlier, visiting Stirling in Scotland and the site of the Battle of Bannockburn. This was holy ground for celtophiles.

In the past few days, I have visited the childhood homes of both of my parents, expecting, perhaps, a similar feeling. And to an extent the feeling was there. I imagined them running around the yards with their siblings and parents, as they surely did, and was somewhat in awe. But no one was home at either place, nor did I have a camera, so I left both visits feeling a lack of validation. And while these were the formative abodes of the most significant influencers in my life, the echoes of reality I felt in them were quieter and less vibrant than what I felt in the holy Celtic places.

I think the cause of this dullness is from nothing inherent in my relationships to the places, but rather in the experiences I had visiting the places. My mom’s old house outside Pittsburgh is in a neighborhood devoid of any sidewalks, with winding, hilly suburban roads and country clubs and retirement homes, all smelling faintly of chemical fabric softener, with grass too-saturated by chemical fertilizer. My dad’s childhood home sits, imposing, behind a hedge in a neighborhood which is now quite posh, and I felt some amount of the same exclusion I felt in the gated community of Stamford, CT. I walked for dozens of minutes to reach both, alone, heavy pack on my back, with no resolution upon arrival. I returned to the city centers, from which I was scheduled to depart shortly in each instance, with a feeling of empty accomplishment.

When I visited the locations in the British Isles, I was on tours specifically designed to showcase these relics of history. The people around me also possessed varying degrees of excitement; I was not alone in my enthusiasm, buffeted by the forces of mundane suburbia, as I was last week. The social situation reaffirmed for me that these were important places, worth visiting.

So, while I’m very glad I made both pilgrimages last week, they were the casualties of loneliness and inadequate planning. If I had but corresponded with the houses’ current residences earlier. If only I had a traveling companion who could join me in my appreciation and awe. If only I had the opportunity to make the trips on bike or at least without my heavy backpack on my back. Coulda. Shoulda. Woulda.

Whew! Enough whining rumination from me! If you ever have an opportunity to visit a place you feel the need to visit at some point in your life, here is my advice. Make your trip as comfortable as possible. Travel with a like-minded companion. Make a big thing of it, take pictures, do what you can to affirm your feeling. Sometimes it takes a little planning.

So now I’m off on the furthest-afield portions of my trip, to places far from anywhere I’ve ever been before. Exciting, you say? Yes. Exciting for the opportunities to see friends, spend longer than two days in each place, and experience the progressive cultures I have heard so much about in the Pacific Northwest. Glad you’re along for the ride! It would be less fun without you.

2 thoughts on “On Pilgrimages

  1. Interesting reflections on your journeys. So the Pittsburgh location is still sterile, Post WWII suburbia, even though the trees MUST be bigger now. But maybe they have cut them all down to make more grass monocultures?? Growing up in such an environment small town Amherst and rural Deerfield have seemed to me like far more aesthetically pleasing environments.

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