I have been thinking about the idea of a Quest over the past few days. I think it's probably because Chris Guillebeau's new book, The Happiness of Pursuit, which I plan to read, is about to come out.
There are many kinds of quests to take. I won't pretend to enumerate them all. However, the idea of a pilgrimage is one I like, perhaps for its romance or because I was once obsessed with the history and lore of the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain. While we don't think in terms of pilgrimages anymore, they were once common. The original meaning of the word simply meant "to travel to foreign lands". You can see this reflected in the name of the Peregrine Falcon. To go on a pilgrimage in Spanish is Peregrinar. Peregrine falcons are renown for inhabiting nearly every corner of the globe, not so much for pious journeys to holy lands.
In this respect, we make pilgrimages more often than we think. I read this many years ago, too long ago to know who to attribute it to, but it has stuck with me. It was in a book about the Camino de Santiago. The author wrote,
Consider that the pilgrimage is a practice that even the least religious of us practice when we render homage to the memory of a person... The modern pilgrim seeks the birthplace of Shakespeare, the tomb of Napoleon, or the Parthenon... perhaps considering that the glory of the past will illuminate their own life?
When we travel to learn from the works and lives of some of history's most exalted (or our own personal heroes, not necessarily but perhaps different), we are engaging in a form of hero worship similar to that of a Christian before the Pope, the Dome on the Rock, or the tomb of St. James the Greater.
The book went on to describe how travel was once seen. Note- these notes are two years old, and translated from Spanish by yours truly, so I claim responsibility for any errors in the following!
...To travel the world when there weren't paths, when any type of voyage was more or less unknown and dangerous... pilgrims usually made their will before they left... Travel was what gave skill and experience, and vice versa, only by putting oneself on the move or putting hands to work could one find experience. Empiricism or experience is effectively a "wander and see" method, a type of thinking with the feet.
[latin root "per", meaning to go through or travel
peligro (from latin periculum) or danger
perito or expert
experto or expert
experiencia or experience
peregrinar or to make a pilgrimage, though originally meant travel in a foreign land]
Furthermore, common words we use today in English have root in old travel metaphors. Take a look at my notes from the book on the words "obvious", and "trivial":
[obvio- latin root ob viam, aludes to that which one finds on the path
trivial- trivio, where three routes intersect (and therefore an important road)- less value because its a known path (in terms of what one discovers there)]
To travel the paths that everyone travels gives existence to obviousness and trivialities, to abandon the well worn paths and explore paths lesser known to most is usually considered to give valuable knowledge and experience... It was a means of acquiring experience, knowledge, and prestige, and while it was dangerous it was also an adventure, and a daring challenge for the audacious.
While modern travel is somewhat less dangerous- we don't typically make our wills before leaving home nowadays- those who travel still gain a unique prestige. And depending on the trip, travel can still be the source of insights, inspirations, and growth opportunities beyond that which is available to us in our normal circumstances at home.
This brings us back to the idea of a Quest. What is a Quest?
A Spring Break trip to Cabos probably isn't one. I don't mean to knock pleasure trips, or pretend like they're not important or fun. Everyone needs recreation. Recreation is to re-create oneself. As the saying goes, it's not the weight-lifting that makes you stronger. It's the rest in-between the weight lifting.
At the risk of being contradicted by someone with a dictionary, I'll make my own definition. Quite simply, I think it is a trip with a specific, personally meaningful goal. To reach a certain place, to experience a particular event, to learn a specific skill or language, or to recover a unique artifact. It just has to be a concrete, specific, attainable goal tied to some physical travel.
Ultimately, the more our goal means to us on a deep, personal, maybe even spiritual level- the more we are personally invested in the trip- the more it comes to resemble what we might have once called a Pilgrimage. Personally, I think Quest sounds better. The word Pilgrimage has probably been ruined for Americans because of its connotations with the Puritan Pilgrims who settled in New England before this great country was born. Plus, I'm a sucker for stories of Knight Errantry. At any rate, I will consider Quest/Pilgrimage somewhat interchangeable, perhaps using Pilgrimage to denote something more intensely spiritual or meaningful than a Quest.
So anyway, the more a Quest means to us on a deep, personal level, the more it becomes a journey of self-discovery. After all, the particular travel wouldn't mean so much if it didn't represent some deeper question, issue, or struggle or search going on within us. The changing landscape as we fly, drive, walk, or ride towards our destination becomes a metaphor for our internal turmoil as we struggle with the big questions life is asking us at that moment.
I think this is one of the reasons that many people put off taking the trip of their dreams. Because it signifies so much to them, it also entails an equally meaningful look at personal questions and issues they've been putting off facing. Perhaps a woman dreams of traveling to and living in Paris for a season, enchanted by the romance and mystery and allure of the city. She never takes the trip. Why not? Airline tickets can be had at reasonable prices. A plane fare and a passport, in the end, are the only real impediments to modern day travel.
Perhaps she's afraid to face the question such a trip would require her to face: What is missing in my life now that I don't feel the romance, the mystery, the joy of life that I think I would find elsewhere?
Many of us are afraid of beginning such a deep journey into the hidden longings, fears, and insufficiencies of our being. I know I am.
Of course, to start a Quest means to overcome these fears! Ah, courageous traveler, valiant flaneur, the first step is always the hardest.
Let me give a personal example. When I was 19, during the summer before I began my Junior year (which I was to spend in Spain) I became fascinated by the idea of going on a bicycle tour. It seemed to me a superb way to travel. I would get to exercise myself physically, travel cheaply and at my own pace, and I would camp and sleep wherever I could find a bare patch of ground. I loved how challenging it would be.
It also scared the bejeebus out of me, more so than I'd like to admit. I had never done anything remotely similar before. I had hardly ever been camping, and the few times I had been I had gone with experienced friends. Now I was proposing to go on my own, without even a tent, and with inadequate gear. I was taking my race bike, which while light, couldn't hold any luggage. So I was limited to what I could carry in a small backpack. The ambiguity of the whole thing was intimidating, as well. I was used to knowing where I would sleep each night, what I would eat, how I would get there, etc.
When the appointed day came, I tarried and delayed leaving. I packed and repacked my few possessions I was taking at least three times. I paced back and forth, mustering the courage. Finally, I said Fuck It, said goodbye to my sister, mounted my bicycle, and took my first few pedals. I was heading north on Highway 9 from Prague, Oklahoma, to Stroud, Oklahoma, and a very strong headwind pushed me at breakneck speeds away from home, from comfort, from familiarity.
It felt fantastic, as though the winds of destiny itself were pushing me out the door.
It turned out to be a wonderful trip! It instilled in me a sense of adventure and initiative that I still draw upon today. From our perspective of a journey of self-discovery, I had to confront the issues I had been struggling with for some time: my lack of self-reliance and independence, my fear of the unknown and my paralysis before big decisions. And I have so many fond memories from that trip, from meeting a friend in Tulsa, to sleeping in a rural school playground, to meeting a pastor that invited me to stay the night with him so I wouldn't have to sleep outside that night.
Ah, you say, but then isn't any difficult or challenging task one of self-discovery?
Perhaps. But what makes an actual travel unique is the displacement from our physical comfort zone. By isolating ourselves from our familiar surroundings, we must turn inward and examine ourselves. Faced with unfamiliar customs, a foreign language, and new people, we must view the mundane and normal in a new way. We can take little for granted, just as I couldn't take the kindness of strangers for granted after being invited into the pastor's home.
On a true voyage of self-discovery, the excursion from our physical comfort zone matches and amplifies the frequency of our personal, internal struggles. They become archetypal, tapping into the vast societal subconscious of similar journeys. Huckleberry Finn down the Mississippi. Don Quijote across La Mancha. Jesus into the wilderness. Rich stories of travelers braving dangerous, unknown roads to reap the rewards of experience, wisdom, and more. Exemplars that provide our own travels with a sense of narrative, of meaning, of poetry, all things too often missing from quotidian life.
I think back on the bike tour I described above, and on a few other true Pilgrimages I have been on in my life, and they stand out as some of the most formative and memorable experiences of my life. I wish the same richness for you!
Dillon Dakota Carroll
PS: Here's a picture of me after I finished my first week long bike tour across Oklahoma and Arkansas- a bonus for finishing a long article!
PPS: A second bonus photo from my second (and last) big bicycle tour down the eastern coast of Florida.
...sees much and knows much