Making the Spiritual Path by Walking It

Notes from the Pacific Northwest Trail

Pilgrimage, walkabout, spiritual journey … whatever the name, extended periods of mobility play a large role in many spiritual traditions. They are forms of engaged spirituality in which the boundaries between the active and contemplative life of the soul blur, each nurturing the other.

With modern technology and the unprecedented access to information it provides, it’s easier than ever to learn about spirituality. Any curiosity can be easily sated in less than an hour of online searching.

What does such-and-such group believe? How do the various schools of yoga differ in emphasis and practice? What are some parallels between Christian and Buddhist meditation?

These, and other questions like them, are easily answerable with internet access. But to assume such answers are satisfactory is to assume that the desire to travel the world could be satisfied with mere examination of a globe. In the cultivation of the spirit, superficial answers just won’t do. And this is where my story begins.

It wasn’t until college that I began to develop an interest in religion and spirituality. My first introductions were to Buddhism and Christianity. From there, my interests broadened, and over the course of my undergraduate career I spent time studying Islam, Hinduism, and Daoism as well.

Though I was able to immerse myself in the intellectual aspect of spirituality, I found it rather difficult to find the time or space to spend time exploring the practical, experiential aspect of spirituality. Learning about meditation is very different than learning from meditating. And that left me feeling like there was something missing. Something that wasn’t on the pages of books, online, or even in the formal sacred spaces I had visited.

Not belonging to any particular tradition, I’ve had to define “spirituality” on my own terms. I’ve always felt most aligned with my highest self, the earth, and those around me when I am immersed in nature. Whether deep in the woods, or high atop a mountain, it’s times like these that all of the stresses and difficulties of day-to-day life fade away. My thoughts and actions flow effortlessly into one another, my breath deepens, and my awareness broadens. So after graduating from university, I hit the road to spend more time in such environments to see if I might find there what had been missing.

And as the world around me dances and weaves, I dance and weave along with it. The steady step, step, step, step rhythm of my feet along the ground harmonizes with the working of my lungs to bring about a sense of peace, well-being, and balance.

Forty-five days ago, I took my first steps along the 1,217-mile Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT). Today, I sit in the town of Concrete, Washington, 800 miles down the trail. Everything I need is in the backpack beside me. A tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, clothes, food, and a few other necessities. Each night sees me sleeping in a new place, each day walking through new scenery.

Immersed in nature, it’s hard not to feel more connected to the world around me. Everything lives and breathes, moving to the rhythm of the earth. The motion, both my own and that of the world around, is organic, a far cry from the hustle-and-bustle of our busy cities. The leaves blowing in the wind, the water flowing over rocks, and clouds drifting through the sky suggest a more natural and fluid way of life, one in which each thing blends into and complements the other. And as the world around me dances and weaves, I dance and weave along with it. The steady step, step, step, step rhythm of my feet along the ground harmonizes with the working of my lungs to bring about a sense of peace, well-being, and balance.

Much of my time on the trail is spent refining my sense of body awareness and honing my concentration. The way I see it, these two factors serve as the foundation for an authentic spiritual connection.

Body awareness is important. How are we to know when our intuition guides us in this way or that? By feeling. And feeling is not something done with the head. When the heart guides this way or that, it is known by, and through, the body, not primarily the intellect. Yet our modern world often demands that we reject the body’s innate wisdom in favor of the mind’s command. Walking has served as an incredible way to return myself more fully to this wisdom, and to bring the mind back into harmony with a more natural way of being.

Without a rigid schedule, I have been able to let my own natural energy levels serve as a guide for activity. I walk when energized, rest when tired. I drink when thirsty, eat when hungry. It is really that simple, and it returns me to a natural state of equilibrium and harmony. And it is in this state that I feel more attentive to the quiet stirrings of my soul.

Concentration, too, is major part of any sort of spiritual work. Be it prayer, meditation, or visualization (as in the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, for example), the ability to focus both physically and mentally for an extended period of time is instrumental in attending to the movements of the spirit.

The thing is, our distraction-laden world doesn’t offer many opportunities to cultivate a capacity for spiritual concentration. Out here, it’s different. Spending most of my time walking, sleeping, or eating, there is ample opportunity to practice turning my full attention to the task at hand and the landscape in which it unfolds. In so doing, I have come to find that joy and peace can be realized at any moment; that there is an inherent pleasure in pouring my full being into whatever I happen to be doing. And these are the moments in which the aforementioned intellectual and practical aspects come together to bring about the fully spiritual.

There are other lessons to learn on the trail as well. The extended periods of solitude serve as a reminder of the value of communion with kindred spirits. I began the trip with two friends, but by day fifteen of the hike, we had each gone our separate ways. One left for law school, the other hiked on ahead at a faster pace. The journey calls us each where it will.

I put myself at the mercy of the road and whoever happens along it. More often than not, a fellow traveler comes along and offers a ride before too long. It’s a good reminder that many people are good at heart, and willing to help out those in need.

But although my time on the trail is often spent alone, by no means do I feel lonely. In many of my resupply stops along the way, I have met people who are incredibly friendly and welcoming. I have had the good fortune of spending an evening playing board games with a family who shared my love of nature, another playing cards with trail workers, and yet another sharing dinner and enlightening conversation with a group of friends who saw that I was a hiker, and on a whim invited me to join them.

In one case, I came across a church along the trail that offers hikers a place of rest and sanctuary from the elements. When I arrived at the Havillah Church, nobody was around. But a sign outside welcomes hikers inside to use their kitchen and restrooms, and even to sleep inside. The door is left unlocked, and the room feels warm and welcoming. There is true sanctuary here.

In many cases on the trail, I must turn to the hospitality of complete strangers. When hitching a ride into town, I put myself at the mercy of the road and whoever happens along it. More often than not, a fellow traveler comes along and offers a ride before too long. It’s a good reminder that many people are good at heart, and willing to help out those in need. And, having been helped by complete strangers time and again has inspired me to “pay it forward.” I volunteered to help a couple host a painting class, cleaned the kitchen of one of my hosts, and have helped countless other hikers with directions or advice about trails. Though I may not be able to offer the same hospitality I’ve been shown, we all have something to share. And by showing kindness and compassion to each other, without expectation for repayment, we can heal much of what ails the world today.

I have about three weeks until I arrive at my destination on the coast, and already I can confidently say that this journey has given me much of what I needed for wherever life off the trail calls me. It has strengthened my body, cleared my mind, and lifted my spirit. Though the road ahead may wind and twist, I walk now with a full heart, ready to live and serve compassionately on this beautiful planet we are blessed to call home.

Concrete, Connor Holttum, Havillah Church, meditation, Pacific Northwest Trail, pay it forward, PNT, Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, Spirituality, Washington

Connor Holttum

Connor Holttum is a recent graduate of Santa Clara University in Philosophy, with a minor in Religious Studies. From 2017 to 2019, he was a Living Religion Collaborative student fellow, during which time he developed the prototype of the LRC’s geomapping platform, Encounter, which maps engagement with local religious and spiritual sites. He currently lives in Washington.


Photos: Connor Holttum (2018). Used by permission.