I’m a pilgrim, I’m a stranger.

My wife and I just took our kids on a fairly ambitious road trip: Leaving our home in upstate New York, we traveled along interstate 90 and then 80 across the Midwest and the high plains, through the Great Basin, over the Sierra Nevada and down to the Pacific Ocean at San Francisco. We spent several days in the Bay Area, then climbed the Sierra again and we spent a day and a night in Sequoia National Park. We then crossed the Mojave Desert and went west and north on interstate 15 through Nevada and nearly the whole length of Utah and then spent several days in the Logan area. After that, we traveled east through the Bear River mountains and through Wyoming on two-lane roads that approximate the old pioneer trails, joining back up with interstate 80 in Cheyenne, and making our way back home on interstate 80 and then 90 again.

We stayed in cheap roadside motels, camped under the stars, stayed in beautiful rented homes, and crashed on the floor in a loved-one’s student housing apartment. We saw wonders both natural and man-made. The Bonneville Salt Flats. The Golden Gate Bridge. The Japanese Gardens at Golden Gate Park. The sea. Beaches and tidepools. The Vegas strip at night. Towering giants of trees that were already growing when Jesus hung on the cross.

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Henry Cowell Redwood State Park

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Muir Woods

We saw ruins and remnants of the folk of the past. An abandoned railroad town in the middle of the Nevada desert that we detoured to see on a whim just as the desert sun broke over the hills. The Spanish missions that gave their names to San Francisco and Santa Cruz. The temple and graveyard, marked, gated, manicured, and civilized, at Winter Quarters. The wild, unmarked graveyard that is Martin’s Cove. The pioneer landmarks along the Sweetwater River: Split Rock, Devil’s Gate, and Independence Rock, where we could climb and touch the names of pioneers, Mormon and non-Mormon, who left their names in the stone when they passed.

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Cobre, Nevada (Ghost Town)

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Names on Independence Rock

I was born in Utah of Utah folk, but I’ve spent nearly all my adult life and most of my childhood in the east. I love the eastern landscape. I love the sugar maples and the old-growth hemlocks. I love the glacier-gouged finger lakes and the rounded, glacier-ground Adirondack peaks. I love the changeable weather and the rivers of vapor and cloud that flow endlessly in low, imposing eastern skies. Sometimes, at night, when the hot part of the day is gone, I even like the humidity a little bit.

But as an easterner, it’s easy for me to romanticize the American west, with its desolate landscapes, its mountains and bluffs, and its high western skies that go on and on. Though I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve visited the Great Basin and the Wasatch, it always seems so new. It makes humans seem smaller, and the world larger, like we haven’t grown up to it yet, and it hasn’t been worn down yet, like everything, including the world itself, is younger and wilder and more dangerous. You walk, ride, or drive into these deserts, rimmed by distant mountains under a bright sun in an open sky, and it’s easy to imagine yourself as Adam, the first man, or Eve, the first woman, stepping into this desolate, empty, huge, dangerous world, inspired, awed, terrified, and panickingly alone.

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Bonneville Salt Flats

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Mojave Desert

This is, of course, nonsense: We’re not the first ones here, and those (white) pioneers we think of as “settling” these lands weren’t the first either. I love history, and as a descendant myself of Mormon pioneers who came to these deserts as refugees from bigotry, it’s natural to think of my own ancestors as the “good guys” in their story of escape from persecution and oppression. But to truly appreciate historical truth, I have to appreciate and remember that they are also just as often the “bad guys” in the story of the mistreatment of indigenous Americans in the west (and in the east), and the mistreatment and oppression of black Americans in all the country. We were wronged, but we were also wrong in our turn. “There is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10) And for all that I might think of my family as established in the valleys of northern Utah, our people are only recent immigrants. Only a handful of generations. Our roots here might look big on the surface, but they are shallow.

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Sequoia National Park

I think it’s common to romanticize travel, and I’m not immune to that. I love to travel. And I’ve been making the I-80 drive to Utah since I was a child. I love getting on the open road and watching the forested dells and river valleys give way to endless crop fields, and then to broken bluffs and sagebrush, and finally to the rising buttresses of the Wasatch. And this time I got to add to that familiar journey the thrill of watching the mountains fade away across the alkali deserts and salt flats, then rise again as we crossed the sierra and wound our way down to the coast redwoods and the Pacific Ocean. And I got to add the thrill of crossing the sierra again and going south, seeing the redwood and the sequoia give way to Joshua trees standing with uplifted hands in the blazing desert, and then watching the desert itself give way to red rocks and driving the whole north-south length of the Wasatch.

 

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The Logan Temple

But in addition to regular wanderlust, travel for me always carries with it something of the idea of pilgrimage. Wherever I am I almost always feel compelled to seek out those ruins and traces of the people who were in this place before. I’m drawn especially to religious sites. Places that were dedicated to the worship of the creator. Monuments built with the blood and sweat and faith of people who were motivated not just by the mundane struggle to scratch a living out of the earth, but by a conviction that they were building something dedicated to the eternal, establishing an outpost of God’s kingdom, a beacon that would shine with light and truth in a dark land (not overlooking the fact that that conviction was often fraught with colonialist, bigoted, and racist ideas as well as belief in truths that I hold to). Places where we can connect to the past because we can stand in a place where a thing happened, or see, touch, or smell a relic or a ruin. And even places (like the sacred grove near my home) that are in all likelihood not the place where the thing happened, but that have been consecrated to the memory of the thing and made holy by the faith of many pilgrims.

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Relief art by Avard Fairbanks at the Cemetary Gates at Winter Quarters

But pilgrimage can be dangerous because it can tempt us to build hagiographies in our minds. Time can distort, and make false superhuman heroes out of humans. But on the other side also there is the danger of a cynical, needless iconoclasm that delights in tearing down the heroic and the saintly. It’s not that there are no saints; it’s that every saint is also a sinner, and is no less a saint for it. It’s not that there are no heroes; it’s that every hero has feet of clay, but is no less heroic for it. It’s not that there are none righteous and therefore none chosen; it’s that there are none righteous, but God calls all his people and though few are chosen, he chooses all those who are willing. Because God can make saints out of sinners. What he cannot work with is an unwilling heart.

 

There are many sides to every story, and I feel called to walk the knife-edge between hagiography and cynicism, heeding the warning of each against the other. In that spirit, I experienced places like the Spanish missions and Cove Creek Fort (an outpost established by Brigham Young as a protection against indigenous people perceived as hostile) both as a monument to faith and to the human strength and struggle it can inspire, and as a warning against the arrogance conviction can inspire if we don’t remember that we are no better or holier, or more deserving, than any of God’s other children who are themselves wanderers on this earth like us.

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Pilgrim is a great word. Literally, it came from a Latin word that meant traveler or wanderer, with roots that meant something like a person who goes about in uncultivated lands, beyond the boundaries of home. More specifically, it came in the middle ages to mean someone traveling to a religious site as an act of religious devotion. In the bible, it carries the idea of transience and foreignness. The King James translators chose it to translate the words that Peter and Paul use that mean something like an outsider, a foreigner in hostile territory (1 Peter 2:11; Hebrews 11:13). Those apostles are quoting or referring to a word in the psalms that the translators there rendered as “sojourner”: a transient person without (or a least away from) a permanent home (Psalm 39:11). It’s often paired with “stranger,” also meaning foreigner, or immigrant. William Bradford called the English puritans who immigrated to Plymouth colony “pilgrims” in this sense as people who considered their home on the earth to be impermanent, as their real, permanent home was in heaven, and their mortal life as one of transient wandering in anticipation of that home (William Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation Book 1, Ch. 7, p. 72 (Boston, Wright & Potter, 1898) (1651)). It looks back to Israel’s archetypal 40 years of wandering. And for us, Mormons, it looks back before Israel to the travels of Abraham, who left his home in search of a better one, as well as to the peregrinations of the Jaredites, Lehi, and multiple iterations of Nephites (a story told over and over again in the Book of Mormon), and it looks to the saints gathering to Kirtland, and to Zion, and to Nauvoo, and finally to the west. And in the pop culture recreations of later centuries, gravelly-voiced characters John Wayne played would use it too as a word for those who left their homes to come and build a life under the open desolate skies in the American west.

I like being a pilgrim, even if it’s just for a few days. Whether it’s a multi-day hike with all my earthly possessions that I have access to on my back, or a multi-day drive with all my earthly possessions that I have access to in my car, this kind of peregrination helps me to simplify, to take a step back away from the worldly things that often clutter my thoughts. Traveling, for me, can be a lot like holidays: stepping away from ordinary time and space into sacred time and space, disconnecting from the everyday and connecting with the past and with the durable. It’s a reminder that those everyday urgencies that loom so large are impermanent, that they will pass away, diminish, and fade, and that those non-urgent things that are always so easy to put off and neglect will be the things that persist longest.

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The Milky Way, seen from Sequioa National Park

As I’ve reflected over the things we’ve seen over the past few weeks on the road, I’m struck most of all with a renewed conviction that all of us are travelers, pilgrims, immigrants, and sojourners: We’re here today and gone tomorrow but the earth, with its signs and wonders in the heavens, as well as in the rocks, the deserts, the mountains, and the forests and the seas, will go on being. It’s both our curse and our gift that we’re doomed to die, leave these wonders, and be called home to other places of light, truth, justice and rest beyond our mortal understanding, at least for a while. This world, with all its wonders, is not our home. It is lent to us mortals to use for a while. And with that in mind, we should be a lot more careful with how we use the earth, a lot less grasping and a lot more generous with the piece of this earth that luck and grace and accident of birth have put into our hands.

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Rachel E O says:

    This is beautiful, and resonates powerfully with my personal experiences and life trajectory. Over the course of my adulthood, I have gradually become more fully aware of the complex realities of my pioneer heritage and my place in this land. This phrase from the OP struck me with great force: “Our roots here might look big on the surface, but they are shallow.” Especially this year, I am feeling an increased sense of urgency to hear hard truths about how my privilege as a daughter of Mormon pioneers has been built upon the deprivation of Black and Indigenous peoples, and upon pillage of the land, and then to use that privilege to work for greater justice for those peoples and for the land itself. Thank you for lifting your voice to inspire us all to think more deeply about these matters.

  2. Twice I took my family on similar treks, starting in the West an then circling around. Thanks for the reminder and pictures of favorite places. Especially Sequoia! My family knew the fright place to gather to celebrate my 75th birthday a few years ago. Thanks also for the associated contemplations. I need them.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Loved the reflections on being a pilgrim.

    Since my family moved to northern Illinois from Utah when I was but a small boy, I’ve made the drive west dozens of times in my life. The first time we followed the old Lincoln Highway (U.S. Route 30), which actually happens to be the main street in DeKalb, IL where I grew up. But after that we mostly took I-80. When I was going to the Y I would go with my friends, and they would take turns driving and go straight through (about a 24-hour trip), which was a new experience to me. With my own family we do it in two days, usually stopping in North Platte, NE. In my mind’s eye I can visualize the entire route. My wife is out there now solo; the last few years with the crush of work I just haven’t been able to do it, so I appreciated being able to experience your trip vicariously here.

  4. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    I hope your time in Sequoia wasn’t marred by smog. The air quality in the southern San Joaquin Valley is quite terrible for a whole host of reasons.

    The danger of these vast, seemingly empty landscapes is that they can create the mindset that “anything I do here won’t bother anybody else,” when this is very much not the case. In places where annual inches of precipitation are in the single digits, that trip off the marked trail in your ATV or your 4×4 will be visible for decades, if not centuries.

  5. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Kevin: Chicago to North Platte in a day? Man, that’s ambitious. When I made trips between Los Angeles and Chicago (via Utah–it’s by far the fastest route) regularly, I would just go to Grand Island, or maybe to Kearney if I wanted to push it a bit more.

  6. Kevin, I’m kind of a sucker for historic roads and I’ve dreamed of driving the Old Lincoln Highway (we actually did drive on it for a very short distance outside of Council Bluffs, not counting the parts where it’s now I-80). But I don’t think I could convince my family to do it with me. When I was a kid, we’d usually do it in two days: 1000 miles to Atlantic, Iowa the first day, and 1000 miles to Ogden the next day. I once drove from SF to Rochester with my brother, going straight through with no stops other than for gas. That was an experience.

  7. I’ve only ever driven coast to coast once in my life. It was harrowing as I had a 4 month old in the back seat and my travel mate was in a different car. I would like to do it again but this time be more aware of the Earth than I am of the freeway. And not have an infant on an infant’s timetable. And for God’s sake, not take the I-10 in July!

    Thanks for your poetic travel log.

  8. Kristi Lee Mortensen says:

    Thanks for sharing your perspectives with us…. I am a pilgrim. I am a stranger…. Indeed, your words have already pierced in my mind — we are here temporarily and so — we need to treat it with respect. Just like everyday travelers — we need to clean up our mess. Again, thanks for sharing….

  9. Kristin Brown says:

    It has taken a lifetime for me to accomplish what your family did in a summer vacation. Congratulations! Your children are lucky to have such memories to look back upon for many years. As a mother, I am wondering how many children you had in the car and how old they were. I also assume technology these days helped keep peace in the family. Like many, I enjoyed the virtual trip. It was a gift to see in my mind’s eye our family once again in many of the places you described. I wonder how much beauty will remain or will look familiar to us when the earth is renewed in its paradisiacal state.—Articles of Faith 1:10. I, for one, hope to eventually make this earth my permanent home.

  10. I so loved this. All of it. I especially loved thinking about how the landscapes we know affect our worldview. And then I contemplated the word “worldview” itself. And then I felt it as a kick to my soul to read your ending, that the world is not really our home, and I thought, “What? I have to give this gorgeous place up? With all its wildness and all its human tracks? I cannot bear to lose it.”

  11. Jared – I hail from Rochester, Minnesota (the other Rochester). I loved this post because it reminds me of the many road trips my family took when I was young. My father was a civil engineer at Utah State whose focus was water and dams. We routinely drove thousands of miles each summer and over the years I think we visited every dam in America. I once helped my oldest daughter drive from Washington DC to Los Angeles. The trip took 3 days and included an ice storm in Texas and a car break down and repair. (Not sure that I could do that trip again!)

    Thanks for including the pictures of relief art by Avard Fairbanks. I love his work! His son, Virgil and wife Jill live in our Ward boundaries in Rochester, Minnesota.

  12. I was also raised in Utah and in my case we raised our family in Georgia. After the airlines stranded us in Las Vegas on Christmas eve we started driving “home.”

    We have made the trip twice a year for about 15 years. Our trusty minivan has gone 350,000 miles and is still rumbling on. We have so many relatives we want to visit that we don’t “waste” any time site seeing unless it is with them on side trips. We do the ~2000 mile trip in 2 days, 16 hours driving each, one motel stay’ usually this side of Omaha.

    We focused more on what was going on inside of the minivan and not on the scenery. We read books together and had endless conversations and snacked constantly, no stops for meals. Children learned to stop fussing with each other. We grew so close together as a family. If you want to spend eternity together then 16 hours twice is a good start.

    One evening as the sun set I handed the keys to my then 16 year old daughter at the gas station in Cheyenne Wyoming as the blizzard gathered strength and announced, you are going to really learn how to drive in the snow tonight. I sat in front and talked her through getting us across the state in 10 hours instead of the usual 5. I know she is or rather became a great driver in snow and icy roads. Another time it was my son, ground blizzards with high winds and 50 below F. With 4 good drivers it became relatively easy to drive for 250 miles each in turn and relax in the car for the rest of the long pleasant day.

    My kids came back home to Georgia during college and grad school because they wanted to do the family trip even when it made more sense to fly at different times. Last year my daughter married a great guy whose idea of a long car trip is about 2 hours. He had a busy couple of weeks at work and we made the last family road trip this year. The end of an era and the beginning of another.

    I think it gets in your blood. We relive the pioneer experience at some level. It can be dangerous. A member of our ward lost their daughter to a auto collision driving out to BYU. Another family rolled the minivan driving straight through in western Colorado and the mother has been a paraplegic for over a decade.

  13. Clay Cook says:

    Great piece Jared, about a great trip.