A Sense of Direction:
Pilgrimage For the Restless and the Hopeful
by Gideon Lewis-Kraus
Memoir — Travel
Riverhead Books, May 2012
“Of course you’re having a crisis. Look, everybody is having a crisis all of the time. You either feel like you’re too tied up and thus prevented from doing what you want to do, or you feel like you’re not tied up enough and have no idea what you want to do. The only thing that allows us any relief is what we tend to call purpose, or what I think about in terms of direction.”
Gideon Lewis-Kraus moved to San Francisco right out of college, for the sake of a relationship that eventually failed. When he started to feel like he was missing out on something exciting that could give him a creative push in his writing, he moved to Berlin. After some time in Berlin, Gideon began to feel like he had too much freedom, and longed to find a place where he would be forced to take things more seriously and find a sense of purpose in life. Relationship difficulties with his father made Gideon anxious about getting older: he didn’t want to get to middle age feeling like he had made mistakes by not fulfilling certain selfish desires, but he also didn’t want to put himself in a position at middle age to wish that he’d taken his earlier years more seriously. Regret at middle age–for any reason–was something that Gideon was terrified of.
During a night of heavy drinking, when Gideon’s friend Tom suggested they go on a pilgrimage in Spain called the Camino de Santiago, Gideon immediately agreed and jotted the date down in his travel notebook. Even after sobering up and doing some research into the pilgrimage, Gideon decided that the 900-kilometer walk–from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French border, to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain–sounded like a good idea. It would give him a sense of purpose and give him time to do some serious thinking about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
The pilgrimage turned out to be a great experience for Gideon–so great, in fact, that he decided to go on two other pilgrimages (one in Japan, one in Ukraine) and write a book about his experiences. A Sense of Direction is Gideon’s call to others who feel like they’re floating on the sea of life with no real direction: go on a pilgrimage…or two…or three. Or, if you already have a sense of purpose in life, a pilgrimage is a great thing to go on just for the experience; it can give you a break from the daily grind. The only responsibility involved is following arrows and continuing to walk.
“There are a lot of reasons, and that’s part of what this book is about, figuring out what it means to want to make a pilgrimage, and then what it feels like to be on it, and what it does and doesn’t do to your life afterward, but it all has something to do with leaving your home, leaving comfort and responsibility behind, and putting yourself and your usual desires aside to concentrate on doing this difficult, painful trip that a lot of other people have done for a long time, and to be in the company of other sufferers who are doing it now. While you’re on it, everything feels so simple, even if you’re in pain, and you make these instant friendships based on a shared sense of need and vulnerability, and it’s a sense of need and vulnerability that are beyond explaining–there’s no real need to be able to say why you hurt or why you’re doing it, you just sort of trust that everyone is doing it for some reason or another and that’s enough.”
I have to admit, reading about Gideon’s pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela made me wish I was the kind of person who’s tough enough to go on a pilgrimage. However, I would probably want to quit after the first day or two, so I enjoyed going on Gideon’s pilgrimages from the comfort of my couch. I’ve said it here before, and I’ll say it again: I love nature, but from a distance. So I really enjoyed reading about Gideon’s experiences during all three of his pilgrimages, and although he got on my nerves a few times by being whiny and selfish, I liked a lot of the insight his travels produced. And let’s be honest, who wouldn’t get a little whiny and selfish while spending a month walking almost 600 miles across Spain or almost 800 miles around an island in Japan?
I like the way Gideon writes, and A Sense of Direction has a very personal feel to it–not only because it’s a memoir, but because he made me feel like he was telling me about his adventures. I felt like I was there…except that I showered every day, I wasn’t in direct sunlight for days on end, and my feet never blistered. There were times when I thought that Gideon was using the pilgrimages as an escape tactic–as a purposeful excuse for not doing other things with his life–but I can’t argue that his experiences and the people he met weren’t worth every day he spent walking. If you’re interested in what going on a pilgrimage is like, or why people still go on them today, I recommend reading A Sense of Direction.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus has written for Harper’s, The Believer, The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, n+1, McSweeney’s, The Nation, Bookforum, Slate and other publications.
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(I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)