I’m not exactly sure when our collective obsession with counting steps began, but standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona is a thing of the past. I think I remember reading somewhere that a daily goal of 10,000 steps is almost accidental because the Japanese inventor who figured out how to count steps with a smartphone or a watch through the character for 10,000 in Japanese resembled a man walking. So now 10,000 steps a day has wormed its way into our consciousness, and if we fail to meet that goal, guilt can set in like a brooding, rainy day with clouds racing across the Tuscan landscape.
Be that as it may, there is some good walking to do around the globe. Last month, a friend of mine set out to walk a portion of the Camino de Santiago, a network of pilgrim pathways winding through France, Spain, and Portugal that eventually lead to the shrine of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwest Spain. While I’m not sure how many steps my friend took along his route or even how many cumulative miles he walked, I’m as much in awe of the devotional aspect of his journey as I am of the physical one. I’m guessing some divine impulse propelled him on his way and whatever that something is, I’m sure his humble plodding provided a feast for thought.
On our recent trip to Italy, specifically in Tuscany, my wife and I (literally) crossed paths with another great European pilgrimage route: the Via Francigena. This ancient road begins in the cathedral city of Canterbury in England, and then, after crossing the English Channel by boat, pilgrims could walk through France, Switzerland, and Italy, across the Alps, and eventually arrive in Rome. And if Rome were not their ultimate destination, these holy walkers could continue their journey to ports in Puglia where they could board a ship bound for the Holy Land. The journey from Canterbury to Rome is more than eleven hundred miles; at an average pace of about twelve miles a day, a weary pilgrim might arrive in Rome after about eighty days of walking. The onward journey to the Holy Land by ship might take another month or two.
In the Middle Ages, the Via Francigena was the only major route to Rome from the north. Pilgrims walked it to visit the Holy See and to worship at the tombs of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. During the Crusades, pilgrims used it to make their way to Jerusalem without having to risk the pirate-infested waters of the Western Mediterranean or traverse any Saracen lands.
The Via Francigena was never a single paved road. It was, rather, a network of pathways that shifted over the centuries depending on local politics, trade routes, or even pilgrim whimsy. Today, pilgrims can make their journey on foot, on horseback, or on a bicycle. What was once a spiritual pathway, the VF now encompasses a broader mission for environmentalists, artists and architects, history and culture buffs, even foodies and wine-enthusiasts. In 2011, a couple even ran the length of the Via Francigena in fifty-eight days in support of WaterAid, an international organization focusing of clean drinking water, hygiene, and sanitation. Whew!
The photo that accompanies this Musing is of Monteriggioni, a Tuscan hilltop town that marks the limit of the 66th stage along the route of the Via Francigena. If life is a journey, then aren’t we all pilgrims of one sort or another? Whatever road you choose, if you walk it faithfully and humbly, you won’t even need to count your steps.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.net.