by Elyn Aviva
My husband, Gary, and I decided to call our June walk on the Cornish Saints Way a “pilgrimage of gratitude,” in homage to the pilgrimage of gratitude we made 14 years before. This time, however, we weren’t going to walk hundreds of miles across France on the Way of Saint James. Instead, we were going to walk 30-some miles across Cornwall on the Saints Way, a recently resurrected compilation of Bronze Age trade routes, medieval drover’s trails used to move livestock, trackways followed by saints, pilgrims, and merchants, and country lanes. On its way from Padstow on the northern Cornish coast to Fowey on the southern, the Saints Way passes by megalithic sites, old churches, and interesting geological features.
You may be wondering why we decided to make the initial pilgrimage of gratitude 14 years before. It was in thanksgiving for my successful surgery for uterine cancer. As soon as my doctor gave permission, we began walking the 500-mile-long Chemin de St Jacques—the Way of Saint James—the French Camino de Santiago—from Le Puy en Velay in southern France to the Pyrenees. (See my travel narrative, Walking Through Cancer – A Pilgrimage of Gratitude, for details.) We walked in three stages over three years.
When we were only about 50 miles from the Pyrenees, however, we realized we couldn’t complete the journey. I had the flu and excruciating blisters. I was hugely disappointed, but then I had an epiphany: I realized you can never finish a pilgrimage of gratitude. It isn’t a task to perform, a specific number of miles to travel with a “finish line” at the end—it’s a state of mind. I vowed to continue to experience my life as a pilgrimage of gratitude—gratitude for all that I have and don’t have, gratitude for all that happens and doesn’t.
The years passed, and although I reminded myself to feel gratitude, the sharp clarity of that awareness gradually dulled. I recited a daily prayer of gratitude, but it was often by rote. I began to long to go on pilgrimage again, an experience that always filled me with gratitude—for every step walked without pain, for water to quench my thirst, for shade to break the heat, gratitude for the opportunity to listen to the rustling grass and fluid birdsong, to smell and feel the fragrant breeze.
Gary listened patiently to my plaintive “I want to make a pilgrimage again!” litany. Sweet man, he agreed to do whatever I decided. So I started looking for a suitable pilgrimage trail: historic, well marked, but not too strenuous since we were now older (69 and 79 years old respectively) and less energetic.
The 30-mile-long Cornish Saints Way sounded like just what I wanted: relatively short, relatively flat, relatively historic, and relatively interesting. I contacted Encounter Walking to make all the arrangements. Although most walkers do the journey in two or three days, we decided to take four, envisioning our pilgrimage of gratitude as a leisurely, mindful stroll rather than a forced march. All we had to do was show up with our daypacks, read the Ordinance Survey map provided, and follow the Saints Way signposts. Oh—and walk! Our suitcases would be transported from hotel to hotel, and a taxi would pick us up as needed. Reading over Encounter Walking’s personalized itinerary, complete with suggestions about where to find food and snacks each day, we smiled at each other in eager anticipation. I could feel my soul expanding at the prospect.
In mid-June we flew from our home in Girona, Catalonia, to Bristol, England, and took a train to Bodmin Parkway. Our taxi was waiting, as arranged, to take us to Padstow. So far so good, except for the missing wheel on my Samsonite luggage, torn off by Ryanair, for which I was not grateful. But the taxi driver was friendly and the B&B was charming, even if Gary had to duck his head to avoid the rafters that hung dangerously low over the bed.
We visited St Petroc’s Church, and I was delighted to see a stack of blank pilgrims’ passports, with spaces to be stamped at churches along the way.
“Just like the Camino de Santiago credential!” I exclaimed.
One of the church volunteers overheard. She told us she would be walking the Spanish Camino, starting near La Coruña, the next day. What synchronicity. What connection. Gratitude, gratitude.
Later that evening, during a dinner splurge at “Paul Ainsworth at Number 6” Michelin-starred restaurant, we recited a list of things we were grateful for—including that we had health, mobility, and money enough to embark on this journey. Well satisfied in so many ways, we strolled, hand in hand, back to our B&B and went to sleep.
The next day we began to walk our pilgrimage of gratitude. It was pouring when we got out of the taxi and stepped into a muddy quagmire. But we had Gore-Tex walking shoes, umbrellas, and rain ponchos. Gratitude for the rain that nourished the land, gratitude that we were well prepared.
We squished 50 feet down a footpath to Men Gurta Longstone, the heaviest and largest standing stone in Cornwall, and admired its feldspar-embedded grandeur. Also known as the Stone of Waiting, it had been placed there 4000 years ago. I circled it in the rain, wondering what it was waiting for, and asked for blessings on our journey. Raindrops dripped off my poncho and plopped into puddles on the ground.
We returned to the sodden farm road and continued enthusiastically on our way. The rain lessened, and soon we encountered a man walking with two black dogs and one black cat, who told us that the Saints Way diverged at the curve in the road ahead. Gratitude for unexpected help. Without his advice, we would have missed the route.
We followed the trail, but it soon morphed into a barely visible trace of bent-over grasses in a field, and then disappeared entirely. We examined our Ordinance Survey map at length but couldn’t decode the symbols and the scale eluded us. We headed down and around the hills, wondering when we would see the next Saints Way marker. We didn’t. We wandered for an hour, cut off from the road we needed to reach by a deep valley and an electric fence.
Weary and frustrated, we decided to return to the last place where we were sure we had been on the Saints Way. Gary, responding to a “call of nature,” spotted a Saints Way marker covered with vines and hidden behind a gate. “That way!” he pointed triumphantly, and we headed down another farm trail through the valley and across the road to another country lane.
Feeling confident again, we strode briskly along, grateful the rain had stopped. Two young women with daypacks were walking towards us, and they pointed vaguely in the direction we were going and warned of hard-to-find markers and confusing turnstiles. They were young and cheerful, their spirits not yet dampened by confusion.
We tried to follow their directions but were soon lost. My enthusiasm was waning quickly, as was my ability to walk. For some reason, my right hip had started hurting, and by the time we had completed six and one-half miles, every step was painful. Fortunately, we were near a road, so we called our taxi driver and he came to fetch us, stopping at several churches along the way so we could get the pilgrim’s stamp on our Saints Way passports. Gratitude for help when needed, gratitude for visiting the churches by taxi.
The next day it poured. I decided not to walk since my hip still hurt a great deal. Gary decided he didn’t want to walk in the rain. So we had the taxi driver transport us along with our suitcases to our next accommodation, a renovated abbey with delusions of past grandeur and a frantic host. Gratitude for a ride when needed, gratitude that my hip only hurt when I walked.
The third day it rained again, but Gary decided to walk the six-mile segment without me. Gratitude for his sense of adventure, his willingness to take a risk. He got lost several times. And drenched. And part of the route followed a narrow country lane with tall hedges and frequent car traffic, so he had to flatten himself against the stone-lined greenery to keep from being hit. Gratitude for his finding his way and his safe arrival.
The fourth day it rained again, so we went with the taxi and our suitcases to Fowey, the end point of our pilgrimage. Gratitude for conveyance, for a pleasant place to stay.
I explained to Vivienne, our hostess, that I hadn’t been able to walk after the first day because my hip was hurting.
She replied, “I’m going in for hip replacement surgery next Wednesday. I’ve got bone on bone, and the pain is excruciating.”
What was I complaining about! Gratitude for all that I have—and don’t have.
And yet, even though I tried to be grateful, I had to admit I was disappointed. I wasn’t grateful that my longed-for pilgrimage of gratitude hadn’t happened.
Suddenly I realized this was a repeat of many years ago: we hadn’t completed that pilgrimage of gratitude either. In fact, I’d realized that it was impossible to ever do so. This was a lesson I had learned and then forgotten. Gratitude, gratitude for the opportunity to learn it once again.
Elyn Aviva is a transformational traveler, writer, and fiber artist who lives in Girona, Spain. She is co-author with her husband, Gary White, of “Powerful Places Guidebooks.” To learn about Elyn’s fiber art, go to www.fiberalchemy.com. Gary’s blog about their expat life is www.fandangolife.com.