You Make the Path by Walking

Posted on May 23, 2013


long-roadLast summer, perhaps in light of the fact that it was two years since Juan and I had taken a very long walk, I found  my reading preferences begin to wander to books on, well, very long walks.

Bill Bryson’s (highly recommended, hilarious) account of hiking the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail made my 500-mile Camino de Santiago seem like just A Walk in the Woods. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild solo backpacking escapade made me long to explore the vast western United States. Then Paulo Coelho provided an enchanting guide into mysticism and personal development through The Pilgrimage. Next up on this list of walking books is A Sense of Direction, by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, in which the author details his experiences of three long pilgrimage routes. Though I have yet to start, this quote from Choire Sichas’s review on Slate got me thinking:

“Pilgrimage … after all, is the act of throwing the vain self on an obstacle. That obstacle is seemingly the mountain ahead, sure, but it’s really the rock in the shoe.”

If you have ever walked (or heck, even driven) a long way, you know this to be true. When you commit yourself to arriving at a set destination, it is often the small incidents along the route that provide challenges. These challenges ultimately add texture to the journey, and build character. Overcoming them, through your devotion to reaching the destination, is what makes a pilgrimage different than, say, travel. It necessarily becomes a spiritual process.

The obstacle is seemingly the mountain ahead — but it’s really the rock in the shoe.

Re-reading that thought, I’m interested not only in the truth it expresses for very long walks, but also in how it applies to relationships. A lifelong partnership is, when you think about it, a kind of pilgrimage of its own. When you enter into it, you make a literal and figurative pact to stay with it to the end, to walk through the obstacles together. This certainly requires a degree of sacrifice, or at least compromise, of the vain self.

What is the “destination” of a marriage? We promise to stick together until death do us part, but this can hardly be considered the end point. What is the purpose, the long-term goal, of a marriage? Is it to reach old age, hand in hand? Is it to have children? Buy a house, make a home? Or is the destination something less tangible, like companionship, the giving and receiving of support? Is it coming to a deep and intimate understanding of another person, and through that process, of oneself? Is it plain old happiness?

I find it interesting that, in a culture so goal-oriented and purpose-driven, we seem to enter into this very important, very long part of our lives without a clear sense of direction.

And I think that’s because we approach relationships with an innate understanding that, as the adage goes, it’s about the journey, not the destination. But maybe it’s about both. Merriam Webster defines a pilgrimage as a noun with two meanings: it is both a journey to a sacred place and, simply, “the course of life on earth.”

In partnership, we go through the course of life together. To arrive where? We’re not sure. But as we deal with those little rocks in our shoes as they come up, and take things one step at a time, we get closer to whatever the destination may be. As Antonio Machado would say, “caminante, no hay camino – se hace el camino al andar.” There is no set path – you make your path by walking. And how we spend our days is how we live our lives.

In your daily, lived relationship, what can you do to make the journey as enjoyable, satisfying, and even sacred as it can be?


(Images:  1. “Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun” by Van Gogh, at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts / 2. “Go Your Own Road” and 3. “Groundbreaking,” by Swedish photographer Erik Johansson)

Posted in: Relationships