Going on pilgrimage seems like an Old-World act of piety. Unlike the United States, Europe has many holy places to visit. Here in the West, with its wide-open spaces, every pilgrimage is a road trip. We also have a shortage of saints and places where saints have done miracles and appeared to people. Of course, we have those people called “snow-birds” who head south to Arizona every winter. The sun may be the attraction, but most of these gray heads don’t bow to it.
Nonetheless, here in Southern Oregon I have discovered myself going on little pilgrimages each year. The objects of my pilgrimage have not been cathedrals, holy relics, or the sites of miracles. Each year I trek to where wildflowers bloom or trees grow. This last week I went to a beach front in Bandon where cream-cups and baby blue-eyes bloom. In March I will make one of my many treks up to Euphoria Ridge to see the magenta beauty of grass-widows in bloom. In May I will be back to see the fawn lilies bloom.
Up the coast a ways, near Cape Perpetua, is a giant Sitka Spruce that I have been visiting since I was four or five. The last time I was there I watched some of my grandchildren crawl around its enormous roots and then wade in the creek nearby. Up past Powers is a trail to Big Tree where several of the biggest white cedars in the world grow. The trail starts at Elk Creek Falls and is uphill all the way through old growth forest and sword ferns, but I still make this pilgrimage once a year. Every few years I make the hike to Mount Bolivar, the highest point in Coos County, and to the to the top of Iron Mountain. At the top of Iron Mountain grow Brewers Spruce, a graceful tree with weeping bows that move gracefully in the wind. These spruces grow only on the mountain tops of the Siskiyou peaks, so every pilgrimage is an ascension.
Lest you think these pilgrimages are merely a response to Oregon’s abundant natural beauty, I should add that I also did this when living in Kansas City. I visited places along the Little Blue River where I knew jack-in-the-pulpits grew. In the spring I fellowshipped with bluebells at the head of the Longview Lake trail. When there where still railroad tracks between Red Bridge Road and Grandview, I walked to Dominion Christian School and greeted the prairie larkspur and evening primrose. In March I visited blood-root that bloomed bright white in forest along Blue Lake.
I cannot testify of pilgrimages ending in miracles or revelation. Nor do I have any impressive ritual to perform at each site. However, I am often on my knees or even prostrate before these wildflowers as I take a picture. Although my only worship is close attention to the design and beauty of God’s creation, these pilgrimages are a means of grace to me. Attention is love and the fruit of every pilgrimage is thanksgiving and a deeper love of my Creator.
In Europe those who had visited the sacred places in the Holy Land were called palmers because they carried back palm branches as evidence of their pilgrimage. I sometimes carry back a cone, seed head, or rock—not to prove anything but to remember the peace and grace of a holy place.