As long as my mother's parents were alive, we made a yearly pilgrimage to Nova Scotia. Bundled into the back seat of the car with a large pillow to separate us and minimize squabbles, my brother and I spent hours occupying ourselves. My mother watched the landscape pass as my father drove the long, familiar miles across Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick. At some point, he would pull over at a service centre to get a few hours of sleep.
When we got to the New Glasgow area, there was a round of visits. At first, while Momma and Pappa were still on the farm, the first step was to accept the outhouse. Then, it was the crowd at her sister's boarding house. There, I lost badly to Uncle Clarence playing checkers and held my own at crib. There were cousins to get to know all over again.
My mother was one of the younger members of the family, so I always had adult cousins. When those cousins made the pilgrimage to Ontario, the purpose was not so much catching up with Aunt Doris as it was seeking work. A parade of these cousins would come and stay with us. I would be called upon to stay up and play the fourth hand at crib and auction.
These are common journeys in Canada: going away to work, heading down home to visit family.
Another kind of pilgrimage in Canada follows a path on foot to visit the natural monuments of our country. Although there are falls that we can drive right up to, most require a walk away from the parking to the place where water plunges over rock. There are walking paths, like the Bruce-Trail, and ski paths like Kolapore, that take us through the forests and rocks, valleys and hills. There is the path to the look-out at Spirit Rock. We can get off the boat on Flower Pot Island to explore. Across our land, narrow paths invite us to travel on foot to see the beauty of wild spaces.
First Nations communities gather for pow wows and sun dances, events that include dance and music. These are spiritual times, rooted in the religious practice of the community. Drummers and dancers travel from one event to another. People are drawn home to their community pow wow.
Religious pilgrimage is common in other parts of the world. The Camino de Santiago is an old Christian pilgrimage route. Even now, people fly to Spain to walk a path many have walked before, to place their feet where others have travelled, to be housed and fed with strangers along the way.
In Islamic tradition, one of the pillars of their practice is to make the pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime. This takes personal and family planning and a long journey. The pilgrim joins thousands of others in a cultural location both familiar and strange.
In India, people travel to the festivals in well known temples. There are times and places associated with great power, and people will crowd onto buses and trains to join the throngs. There is an incredible energy in the crowd of humanity gathered together.
The journey to these distant places can begin here. Last fall, I visited the Ayyappan temple in Scarborough just as the preparation for a pilgrimage to the home temple in Sabarimala, high in the mountains of Kerala, was beginning. A crowd was there on a Friday morning, with many young men dressed in black, all intent on their prayer practice.
There is something special about walking. I dread the day when age or injury prevents me from putting one foot in front of the other, though perhaps by the time I am old, I will have learned the practice of stillness.
For now, walking where others have walked connects me to the generations of humanity before and those who will come. Visiting wild places opens me to creation, to the world we human's affect but which has its own life to live. Walking in the deep-rooted traditions of others draws me into cultural worlds that are new to me, but connect me to the power, wisdom, and peace that has grown in those communities.
Cathy Hird is a farmer, minister, and writer living near Walters Falls.