If a short walk helps you clear your head what happens when you take a very long one? At Backpacker, Elisabeth Kwak-Heffe ran 170 miles on the Sacred Door Trail to find out.
Officially opened in 2012, the Montana trail is an “interfaith pilgrimage trail in southwestern Montana that celebrates and is dedicated to spiritual unity and the interdependent relationship between self, Earth, and Community.”
Kwak-Heffernan looks at what defines pilgrimage, and what happens to the ideas you carry with you when you undertake one.
The Sacred Door Trail, like many pilgrimage sites, is intended as a place for spiritual reflection. It’s for “grieving, healing, and honoring life’s major transitions,” Weston told me over lunch a month ago. Inspired by a hike on Spain’s Camino de Santiago, in 2009 Weston started piecing together existing trails (including part of the CDT) into a loop route with the help of a coalition of local faith-based and indigenous groups. The trail officially “opened” in 2012 with a multi-faith ceremony, as well as a guidebook and website. But unlike many of the most famous pilgrimage sites—such as the Camino or the Hajj to Mecca—this trail is explicitly nondenominational. And it gets its sacredness not from the grave of an apostle or footprints of a prophet, but basically because Weston declared it so.
Spiritually, it’s a bit squishy. But so am I. I mostly grew up nonreligious, and these days, I suppose I’m an agnostic, and a shallow one at that. It was hard not to roll my eyes as Weston went on about “the evolving universal life force that connects all things” or how the trail “deepens our connections to our original church, Mother Earth.”
“What makes this a pilgrimage and not just a hike?” I asked. “Wouldn’t being in the mountains for three weeks anywhere make you feel better?”
Below is the first chapter fromFlâneuse, Lauren Elkin’s incisive hybrid book of memoir, cultural criticism, and social history about the female urban walker, the contemplative, observant, and untold counterpart to the masculine flâneur. Our thanks to Elkin and FSG for sharing it with the Longreads community.
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Where did I first come across that word, flâneur, so singular, so elegant and French with its arched â and its curling eur? I know it was when I was studying in Paris at university, back in the 1990s, but I don’t think I found it in a book. I didn’t do much required reading, that year. I can’t say for sure, which is to say I became a flâneur before I knew what one was, wandering the streets around my school, located as American universities in Paris must be, on the Left Bank.
From the French verb flâner, the flâneur, or ‘one who wanders aimlessly,’ was born in the first half of the nineteenth century, in the glass-and-steel covered passages of Paris. When Haussmann started slicing his bright boulevards through the dark uneven crusts of houses like knives through a city of cindered chèvre, the flâneur wandered those too, taking in the urban spectacle. A figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention, the flâneur understands the city as few of its inhabitants do, for he has memorised it with his feet. Every corner, alleyway and stairway, has the ability to plunge him into rêverie. What happened here? Who passed by here? What does this place mean? The flâneur, attuned to the chords that vibrate throughout his city, knows without knowing.
In my ignorance, I think I thought I invented flânerie. Coming from suburban America, where people drive from one place to another, walking for no particular reason was a bit of an eccentric thing to do. I could walk for hours in Paris and never ‘get’ anywhere, looking at the way the city was put together, glimpsing its unofficial history here and there, a bullet in the façade of an hôtelparticulier, leftover stencilling way up on the side of a building for a flour company or a newspaper that no longer existed, which some inspired graffiti artist had used as an invitation to add his own work, a row of cobblestones revealed by roadworks, several layers below the crust of the current city, slowly rising ever upward. I was on the lookout for residue, for texture, for accidents and encounters and unexpected openings. My most meaningful experience with the city was not through its literature, its food, or its museums; not even through the soul-scarring affair I carried on in a garret near the Bourse; but through all that walking. Somewhere in the 6th arrondissement I realised I wanted to live in a city for the rest of my life, and specifically, in the city of Paris. It had something to do with the utter, total freedom unleashed from the act of putting one foot in front of the other.
I wore a groove into the Boulevard Montparnasse as I came and went between my flat on the Avenue de Saxe and school on the rue de Chevreuse. I learned non-textbook French from the names of the restaurants in between: Les Zazous (named for a kind of jazzy 1940s hepcat in a plaid blazer and a quiff), Restaurant Sud-Ouest & Cie, which taught me the French equivalent of ‘& co,’ and from a bakery called Pomme de pain I learned the word for ‘pinecone,’ pomme de pin, though I never learned why that was a pun worth making. I bought orange juice on the way to class every day at a pretzel shop called Duchesse Anne and wondered who she was and what was her relationship to pretzels. I pondered the distorted French conception of American geography that resulted in a TexMex restaurant called Indiana Café. I walked past all the great cafés lining the boulevard, La Rotonde, Le Sélect, Le Dôme, and La Coupole, watering holes to generations of American writers in Paris, whose ghosts hunched under café awnings, unimpressed with the way the twentieth century had turned out. I crossed over the rue Vavin, with its eponymous café, where all the cool lycéens went when they got out of school, assertive cigarette smokers with sleeves too long for their arms, shod in Converse sneakers, boys with dark curls and girls with no make-up. Read more…
How did pedestrians become an endangered species in the United States—and why is the word “pedestrian” wrong anyway? First in a four-part series:
A few years ago, at a highway safety conference in Savannah, Ga., I drifted into a conference room where a sign told me a ‘Pedestrian Safety’ panel was being held.
The speaker was Michael Ronkin, a French-born, Swiss-raised, Oregon-based transportation planner whose firm, as his website notes, ‘specializes in creating walkable and bikeable streets.’ Ronkin began with a simple observation that has stayed with me since. Taking stock of the event—one of the few focused on walking, which gets scant attention at traffic safety conferences—he wondered about that inescapable word: pedestrian. If we were to find ourselves out hiking on a forest trail and spied someone approaching at a distance, he wanted to know, would we think to ourselves, ‘Here comes a pedestrian’?