Up@dawn 2.0

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Personal Pilgrimages

Personal Pilgrimages.

Don Enss

            When I read in a Philosophy of Walking about the various reason why people go on pilgrimages: walking to augment devotion, to perform penance, to honor tradition, I reflected on my own walking at places that have special significance to me and to no one else. Do you have those?

Many years ago, I travelled to Antietam and as the day drew to a close, I was alone and able to walk across Burnside’s bridge. I went back and forth across it and counted my steps – seventy-five. All day the Union forces had tried to cross that bridge under a withering fire from Confederate soldiers embedded in the rocks above the bridge. Wave after wave of Union soldiers tried and were repulsed, the water of Antietam Creek ran red with the blood of the wounded, dying and dead soldiers and I wonder what it must have been like for them. As I left the bridge for the last time that day, I chanced to see a ground hog up the hill and I wondered if his ancestors had been there on that day as silent witnesses to what man is capable of.

I am an Abraham Lincoln fan and I have been to his birthplace several times and been blessed to be able to walk around when no one else is there and to imagine what it must have been like for him to live there as a young boy. The tree that was there close to the well when he was a young boy had been cut down the last time I visited. I also visited where he lived in New Salem, Illinois.  I wanted to be somewhere where I knew for certain that he had been. When we read about historical figures, many times we are told that there is a high probability that they were there, but not with complete certainty. In reading about Lincoln, I knew of his love for Ann Rutledge and I knew from records and interviews with the neighbors that when she died he was extremely distraught and would go to the grave and lay down on the ground and grieve. I knew if there was ever a place that I could be close to Lincoln it was there.

I spent several hours trying to find it, I stopped and spoke to several people and finally found someone who could tell me where it was located and that I would have to walk across a field to get to the cemetery.  That was a very special walk, the grass had been flatten alongside a little ditch and I could see a farmer ploughing in the distance. As I enter the cemetery and finally located Ann’s grave, I found a marker that indicated that they had disinterred Ann’s remains to move them into the town so it would be easier for the tourists to visit, I shook my head in disbelief. As I knelt down, I tried to imagine the incredible grief that Lincoln must have felt at losing her and how that affected him for the rest of his life. As I left, I walked over to where the farmer was plowing, he stopped his tractor, and I thanked him for letting me walk across his field.  He said that as long as he owned the property it would be okay. As I drove away, I carried with me a memory that will always be very special.

Have you had special walks that you can share?


  1. Very nice, Don. You make me want to hit the road for Springfield IL.

    My own special pilgrimage was in 2010, on the occasion of the centenary of William James's death. Along with a gaggle of fellow James enthusiasts, I walked in WJ's footsteps in Cambridge MA and Chocorua NH... it was special to stand in the very room where he breathed his last, and to hike up Mt. Chocorua where he breathed some of his best.

    This was to have been the very week of my Study Abroad course, which would have included a special pilgrimage to Darwin's Down House in Kent and Henry James's Lamb House in Sussex. So, NEXT year; you're all invited. Anticipation makes sacred ground even moreso!

  2. I walk or run at the battlefield here in town and think about the same things. When I run and see a cannon I envision the battle the took place. When I was child I went to a reenactment of the cannons firing and have been inside the building to see the 5 minute presentation and seen the musuem. When I run on the slaughter pen loop trail, I imagine the soldiers feet without shoes probably cut with rocks, or bitten by bugs or mosquitoes, yet they continued to persevere. Sometimes I imagine the fear that soldiers must have felt and the bravery and courage that they displayed during that time and this gives me the motivation to keep running. Sometimes when I look out into the field I imagine what it must have been like for the soldiers to not know who or what was lying in the field, and while I look and see nothing but peaceful grass lying, swaying in the wind, I imagine that someone didn't have such a peaceful or calm sight as I. The gravestones make the imagery much more real.

  3. I had a personal pilgrimage experience when I returned to California for a tour.

    My wife and I lived in Santa Monica for over a year, and it was an amazing experience. We were both working steadily in LA but couldn't make enough money to sustain the cost. We moved back to Tennessee.

    Several years later on a tour, we were in Santa Monica for a video shoot at the pier. I walked up through the Promenade and to our apartment that was at 2nd and Washington. Surreal moment--standing there in the same spot as ten years prior.