In some ways, Christianity and other faiths created the concept of tourism. They created sacred sites and encouraged their followers to make pilgrimage trips to visit them. This created the need for food, lodging, souvenirs, and various other goods and services that form the backbone of modern tourism.
My wife recently got a small grant to walk part of the Camino de Santiago, a Christian pilgrimage trail in Spain, and interview American pilgrims. I tagged along. We walked from León to Santiago, averaging about 9 miles per day and covered a total of 180 miles. We stayed in albergues, which are cheap bunkhouses for pilgrims that cost about 5-10 euros per night ($6-$12). They supply a mattress, pillow and sometimes a blanket, usually on a bunk bed, with access to bathrooms, showers and sometimes coin-op washers and dryers. You have to bring your own soap, sheets and towels. Earplugs are also advised to block out the sound of others snoring. Some will rent you a private room for 25-30 euros, and some serve a large communal dinner for about 8 euros and a simple breakfast for 2-3 euros.
Each day, we woke up at 6:30 or 7 a.m., left the albergue by 8 a.m. and walked until noon or 1 p.m., often with a stop at a café to put our feet up and have a snack. By 1 p.m., having walked 9 or 10 miles, we’d check into another albergue. My wife would go look for people to interview and I’d spend the afternoon doing one or more drawings. Every day we’d meet and walk with other people. In addition to Spaniards and Americans, we met folks from the U.K., Canada, France, Germany, Belgium, Croatia, Brazil, Mexico, The Czech Republic, Denmark, Korea, Australia, South Africa and Japan. Some were very religious but most were just out to walk through some personal issue or meet people and see the Spanish countryside. The whole thing was kind of a large, moving, international hippie scene.
In order to stay at albergues, you get a “credential”—a kind of passport in which you enter your starting date and collect stamps from each albergue you stay in and from cafés or churches along the way. These credential stamps and the social vibe made the Camino feel like a giant multi-week version of the Stuporbowl—an annual Minneapolis bike race—except the Camino had less drinking, more ancient architecture and better scenery.
Most of the time we were walking along rural roads or separated trails. Occasionally we were in wilderness areas but most of the time we were walking from one village or town to the next. Spain, like much of Europe has far more compact land-use patterns than the United States. There simply isn’t the same amount of suburban sprawl around cities and towns. Not only does this make the cities and towns themselves more walkable, it means that you can easily access the countryside on foot. In most places if you walked for 10 or 15 minutes, you’d leave the town and be back in farmland. Instead of having back yards, some town residents have access to small farm plots on the edge of town. This arrangement makes walking very pleasant. Accommodations are made for crossings of freeways or railway lines, even in rural locations, and there are lots of services (restaurants, bars, albergues) that are geared towards walkers.
I tried to imagine how we’d create something like this in the USA. We have great wilderness trails—like the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails—but these don’t constantly intersect towns or villages so you have to carry a tent, sleeping bag, food and a lot of other stuff. By contrast, Caminos or pilgrimage trails in Europe only require that you carry a sheet, towel, a few toiletries and a change of clothing—as little as 5-10 pounds. (We carried 10-15 pounds). If you tried to create a pilgrimage trail between inhabited areas in the USA, you’d spend much of your time walking through sprawl or vast areas of agricultural mono-crop nothingness. In Spain, if I walked for an hour from the centers of cities like León, Ponferrada or Santiago, I was in countryside and within a few miles of a small town or village. If I walked for an hour from my house in Saint Paul, I wouldn’t even make it to the border of Roseville, where I’d spend the next two or three hours crossing huge mall parking lots, trying to cross freeways and dodging traffic. It would be the same experience on the East Coast and much of the country.
There are just a few places in the USA with compact enough land-use and frequent enough human settlements to make a European-like pilgrimage trail possible. Some folks have created one connecting the Spanish missions on the California coast. It’s called “El Camino Real de California.” Getting through Los Angeles and certain other spots on the trail would be horrible, but the towns of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and others are well-spaced and reasonably compact, largely due to coastal geography rather than good zoning or land-use laws. Other than the California Mission Trail, however, I’m hard pressed to think of anything in the USA that even faintly resembles the Camino de Santiago.
In Minnesota everything is too spread out to create much of a walking trail. But we could create a bicycle pilgrimage using the MRT or some of our other, excellent bike trails. We just have to convince the Catholic Church to canonize Bob Dylan or some other internationally popular figure from Minnesota. Then we build a cathedral or giant temple around their birth or burial place and create a bike pilgrimage trail across the state of Minnesota to reach it. I bet Prince would be up for this.
…But I’m open to other ideas. If you’ve got some, please send them along.
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