One of the charms of Peter Reason’s In Search of Grace“ is his human honesty at the gap between the lofty ambition of pilgrimage and actual experience. At the very outset of his voyage, he writes of “the repetitive anxiousness that so often comes in the small hours … I lost all sense of why I was on this journey; all sense of pilgrimage disappeared.” He expands on this theme:
It is not uncommon for travellers to feel resistant at the point of setting out. For years the French writer and traveller Sylvian Tesson had wanted to spend the winter in a small cabin in Siberia. In Consolations of the Forest he writes about the challenge of rousing himself from bed on the morning he is to set out and wonders if he will undermine his own desire. In The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen describes the calamitous weather and uncertainty about porters at the beginning of a trip in the Himalayas. The forthcoming journey is losing all sense of reality and he asks “where did I imagine I was going, where and why?”
I suspect that in order to gather the energy for a significant journey we have to idealise it in our minds beforehand. There has to be a grand purpose to make it all worthwhile. So I have described my voyage as a pilgrimage (rather than a sailing cruise) I had thought of it as a “deep ecology homage” But once I set off, these worthy ambitions ran up against the unrelenting and sometimes frightening reality of the wild world. The high-minded purposes become meaningless and difficult to hold on to. The pilgrimage is not all plain sailing, not all peak experience. We can only engage with the world on its own terms, terms that include inclement weather, the contingency of plans, and the unreliability of equipment. And they meet with my fragility as a human being; my mistakes, my indulgences in emotions, my fear, the gap between my high expectations and the reality.
There is something of the ridiculous in this. I boldly wrote that on pilgrimage we leave the comforts and habits of home in order to meet the more-than-human world more directly. But I was discombobulated when I had to live through what this actually means in practice. The grand purposes with which the pilgrim sets out will only survive and deepen as they are tested against experience.