Do you realize you are a woman and cannot go just anywhere?
--Abba Arsenius to a female pilgrim, fifth century
The market is suddenly recognizing the power of the adventuress. The chicks
are the future of the industry.
Zoe’s brown eyes sparkled when I bumped into her at the grocery store. “I’ve been invited on a trip to Turkey,” she told me. “My boss has offered the time off. But how can I leave my work this time of year?”
“There’s never a good time,” I told my twenty-one-year-old friend. “Just go—before you’ve twice as many reasons to stay.”
Although for me, career, family, and age have made traveling inconvenient and impractical, I’m still taking my own advice. I wonder about where I will go next and think back to my first real journey. I was about Zoe’s age—touring Europe with my sister in 1970. I’ll admit now what I knew intuitively then: everyone travels alone. No matter who accompanies you, any trip is an interior one. It will affect you as it does no other. The thing that makes a journey distinctly individual is what you bring to it from within yourself.
By putting yourself in a place you’ve never been before, you reveal yourself to yourself, says Thalia Zepatos, who writes about the hows, whys, and wherefores of journey. That’s what travel industry gurus claim motivates female travelers. As opposed to men, who venture out in search of “external observation,” women on the go are seeking personal epiphanies. A woman traveling alone is no longer any kind of novelty, claims Evelyn Hamon, creator of journeywoman.com. Research shows we make 70 percent of all travel decisions and are a hardy bunch. Seventy-five percent of those who take nature, adventure, or cultural trips are women; the average adventure traveler is a forty-seven-year-old female who wears a size twelve dress. These women spent fifty-five billion dollars on outdoor equipment in 2003.1
Websites geared to women who travel proliferate on the Internet. They document the trend with names that range from the holy, such as sacredjourneys.com, to the whimsical, like bootsnall.com. These sites spawn yet more popular travel-for-women newsletters that reach thousands of subscribers each month. In other travel news since 2000, Delta launched its own hip airline, Song, to lure female travelers. This is appropriate, for solo pilot Amelia Earhart shocked society in the 1920s by suggesting air travel would become as commonplace as trips by train. A daredevil, she set a standard maintained today by women astronauts.
Who could know how far we’d go?
The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up.
Since prehistoric eras when women wandered as nomads, moving in tribes, our place in the world has been shaped by the gumption of spirited women who have dared to act of their own volition. A servant named Hagar was one of the earliest female travelers whose story and name are documented.
When Hagar conceived a baby by her mistresses’s husband, she fled harsh treatment by hitting the trail. Far from community, she intended to forage for herself and by herself. In one of history’s most poignant records, an otherworldly being found her weary and despondent. Comforted by this presence, Hagar addressed the divine as “the-God-Who-Sees.”2 Since that time, women who dare to act on behalf of their own souls have experienced grace in the world and have seen its hidden beauty through the eyes of the-God-Who-Sees.
Later in Hebrew history, Abigail, a woman of pure moxie, showed again a female’s ability to pick up and go when it makes sense. When her community was threatened, Abigail “made haste” to load donkeys with two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five sheaths of roasted grain, a hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs. Then she set off on her own donkey—to meet the pursuing warriors, not to flee from them. Her courage to ride out into enemy territory won her admiration, and in time, she basically won the lottery of the day: she became the wife of Israel’s good king David.3
Little is known about female disciples who traveled like the apostles during the first century. According to a story told in a second-century manuscript, however, the daughter of a leading citizen of Iconium, Turkey, declared herself a Christian and was condemned to burn at the stake. Disguising herself as a man, Thecla ran to another city after a rain shower put out the fire. When captured again, she escaped the wild beast show at the local amphitheater and ran off to who knows where. As she moved from town to town, Thecla became a miracle healer and shared her faith with many. Her dauntlessness as a woman on the move is our legacy.4
Above all else, you must make the decision to overcome inertia. Every reason not to travel was written on the wind.
As Christianity became established in the fourth century, Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, traveled widely in the Holy Land, mingling with ordinary folks. Her desire to worship at the places touched by Jesus preserved the sites before the onslaught of crusaders could wipe them out. Helena’s visits to Bethlehem, Mount Sinai, Golgotha, and the Mount of Olives resulted in churches being built there. These structures protected the sacred ground for generations of pilgrims. Though wealth bought her the privilege of travel, Helena distributed clothing and money to the poor and dressed as they did. Her sightseeing became our mutual heritage.5
But in the Middle Ages, at the height of pilgrimage, St. Benedict denounced—for monks and women—this wandering about to holy sites. “Inappropriate mobility” was thought to lead to immorality and to degenerate into mere tourism. In the eighth century, St. Boniface advised the archbishop of Canterbury to prevent matrons and “veiled women” (nuns) from making frequent pilgrimage. Not long after, legislation was passed forbidding it. The law framed the prohibition as a declaration setting women “free from the necessities of travel.”6 Who did they think they were kidding? Women continued to be the most devout and eager to embark on this form of spiritual adventure. Today, medieval English theater is famed for its concern with redemption and the paradigm of walking as a redemptive activity.
Even today, fear for the vulnerability of our bodies has limited women’s access to the world. It continues to be a factor in how far we venture and whether we travel at all. Yet it has never stopped women’s desire to participate with the-God-Who-Sees in the twin ideas of spiritual growth and adventure.
My pilgrim road has not been smooth, and I don’t expect yours to be: I see this as a major benefit.
Ever heard of rough and tough women Vikings? In the tenth century, Gudridur sailed across frigid northern seas into the new world Leif Eriksson had discovered. There she gave birth to a son, the first European born on the American continent. There she became a widow when natives killed her husband. As a devotee of Jesus Christ, she later returned home and walked across the continent of Europe in order to offer a first person account of her voyage and experience. She’s considered the most traveled woman of the Middle Ages.
Five hundred years later, eighteen women crossed the stormy Atlantic on a damp wooden ship. Two gave birth during the cold sixty-five-day journey from Holland to Plymouth. Only six of the women survived to the following spring, but their gumption generated a new world based on new ideas. Generations later, Americans laud their sacrificial journey with thanksgiving.
Since that time, America’s women adventurers have shown the same kind of grit and moxie. These included Native Americans like Sacagawea, who gave birth while traversing the difficult passages of the Pacific Northwest in 1804. She guided a party of European male explorers, one her husband, and was praised as the inspiration and genius of their trek.
Not even half a century later, women from various ethnic backgrounds were propelled on a new kind of pilgrimage. Crossing two thousand miles of the most treacherous territory on the continent, they trudged by foot along the Oregon Trail, passing close to footprints left by Sacagawea. That the pioneers found it difficult beyond their wildest imaginings has been documented by scraps of journals and stories handed from mother to daughter. Many of the women who made this trek were not asked whether they wanted to go at all. Yet their tenacity under the worst of conditions has left an indelible mark on the history of women adventurers.
Don’t think the Victorian era that followed was less audacious. Its prim domestic stereotype doesn’t hold. Many young women were not content with society’s expectations to marry well and raise families. The women’s missionary movement characterized eagerness to embrace adventure. Predominantly single, two women for every man left America and England for the teeming cities of China, India, and Africa. Amy Carmichael, who rescued girls from temple prostitution, found the work difficult not least because of the loneliness inherent in it. “Lord, how can I go on to the end?” she prayed. Yet fifty years of ministry in India speaks for itself.7
Female adventurers of the modern era are numerous, and their stories fascinate (see sidebar on page 22). Their lives were often “more terrible than triumphant,” say the editors of a fabulous book about them. The editors add that by traveling “fearlessly into the blank spaces on the map” these women “made comprehensible a part of the world that we didn’t know, understand or appreciate.”8 Such women discoverers also made apparent the limitless capabilities of the human spirit.
All places are alike to me because everywhere I expect to find God, who is the only object of all my desires.
St. Therese Couderc
After I graduated from college in the early 1970s, plans to travel with friends fell through when they changed their minds about going overseas. I didn’t. I set out to seek my fortune alone, eventually finding myself in the Middle East. Living in Israel during the tense period between the Munich Olympic massacre (August 1972) and the Yom Kippur War (October 1973) was not exactly my idea of fun. The kind of trip I had in mind did not include what happened: being pelted with stones at a Palestinian camp in Gaza, hitchhiking through the Negev while fighter jets buzzed overhead, and inadvertently swimming with sharks in the Red Sea. I got more adventure than I bargained for. But that journey led beyond a Holy Land pilgrimage. It led me to a holy place within myself.
Since that time my path has not been clear-cut like the paved yellow brick road. During one particularly dark period in my life, I despaired. I could not identify the rocky place as a holy destination on my life map. Desperate for another epiphany twenty-five years after my first pilgrimage, I once again flung a backpack over my shoulder. This time I set out with my twenty-one-year-old daughter. We shared trains packed with gypsies and picnicked with alpine goats. We visited landmarks that had been special to me decades before. Yet spectacular cathedrals, beautiful works of art, and hoards of young travelers in Birkenstocks left me thinking, Been there. Done that.
While my daughter was making her own discoveries, not appropriating mine, I found myself wondering, What will this trip reveal to me about myself ? We were in Paris the day of Princess Diana’s sudden death when something struck me like a slow-motion crash in a dark tunnel. For years I had identified with Princess Di, who was picking up the pieces after a divorce and moving on. I had watched with the world as she began her purpose all over again, reaching out to others and defining a brand-new mission. Just as her life was an inspiration to me, her death became an epiphany. It helped me rediscover, as a pilgrim, the holiest destination of all: not one of us knows how long we’re going to live, but we do know how we ought to live—and we must dare to live that way, loving even at the risk of losing.
“Only you can tell your story,” writes Whitney Otto in How to Make an American Quilt.9 At times it takes a grand or reckless adventure to discover that. To make a journey is to multiply encounters with your own possibilities. Whether you are 21, 41, or 101 years old, let your pilgrimage begin. We’ve been given the legacy of female visionaries. These women challenged their own and their culture’s limitations. In the face of formidable woes, they expanded the world.
So go with much money or barely any. Go in blue jeans or skirts. Go near or far, fast or slow, alone, with a friend, or with a group. Just go. Step out of those revolving doors, off the beaten track, and onto the road less traveled. Find some wonderful corner of the world and immerse yourself in it. Find out what you have to say to yourself.
My friend Zoe is doing this, so I will share with her my photographs of Turkey. I’ll tell her how Istanbul’s Blue Mosque looks in the pouring rain and describe the ruins of Ephesus awash in light on a summer night. I’ll wonder what Zoe’s personal epiphany will be. I’ll encourage her to observe and reflect. I’ll tell her, “Don’t be surprised if when you get back you feel both less and more at home.
“Everything will be just as it was before,” I’ll add. “But you won’t be.”
Unpacking Western Africa
A Pilgrim’s Profile: Christine Gilman
How I learned that courage is given me to discover my life purpose and enable me to give myself to it
No-one seeks God whom God is not calling. Pilgrims are people who have been evoked by someone or something to seek out the divine.
Jennifer Westwood, Sacred Journeys
One year after Christine Gilman traveled to Liberia to document the need for adoptive families, she returned to adopt a daughter of her own. Ama, four years old, weighed just twenty-nine pounds when she joined a family that included Christine’s husband, Tim, and three older children. “It seems to me, we are either backing away from the thing we’re meant to do or we’re going toward it,” she says now of the decision to get personally involved with the needs of others.
Meanwhile, civil war raged in Liberia. Christine, an artist and homemaker in Salem, Oregon, watched TV reports of seven Liberian women carrying Bibles down the streets of Monrovia. Dressed in white and wearing African headdresses, they stopped to speak to the world: “Kill us or not, we are going to stand and pray in public. We are tired of war and of seeing our sons killed. We are going to pray night and day until we have peace.” This made a huge impression on Christine, who was safely back at home. She says, “War in Africa is not just about dying. It is about having your limbs and noses and private parts cut off and being left to bleed as an example to others.”
About that time, rebel troops invaded Hoover Children’s Village near Monrovia, where Ama had lived, terrorizing the 510 children (ages two to seventeen). In their wake, Liberia’s military army arrived with AK-47s to search for the rebels, dismantling the compound. They stole what the rebels had left behind and threatened to kill the children before sending them into the jungle in the pouring rain.
Traumatized, the children trekked ten hours through swamps and marshes to the country’s capital. In a bombed-out building, they lived for weeks on one tablespoon of rice per day. When the military moved on, the children marched back to their orphanage, finding nothing but walls of brick.
The miracle? Of the 510 children, not one was lost.
Within weeks, African Christian Fellowship International sent an email to supporters, asking for female volunteers from America to come to Liberia to comfort the children and help them start again. Orphanage founder, Ed Kofi, told potential volunteers, “We need you to be here right now more than we need food or money for rebuilding.”
Christine had no doubts about responding. Admitting that kind of challenge fit what she calls her “spiritual shape,” she says, “My daughter was once one of those children. How could I not go? Nothing was more important at that time than to give those kids a hug and a little bit of hope.”
Christine bought her own ticket and within days met up with other volunteers in London. Then they flew to Accra, capital of Ghana and entry point to Liberia. “Accra was in no better shape than Liberia,” she says. “With military coups there, the tension was overwhelming. At the airport, soldiers pointed their guns in our direction as we disembarked.”
But with a sense of clarity, Christine encourages others to do the difficult thing when it is called for: “Don’t be afraid to throw your hat in the ring. Our life is meant to expand as an expression of goodness. Every time we choose fear, we are backing ourselves into a dark corner. We are losing an opportunity. People think, Oh, I’ll just sit here and wait until I have the courage to go. No. Courage requires you to stand up off your chair and walk toward it. If you’re not doing the thing that requires courage, then you are siding with the darkness by the fact that you are not doing anything.”
Christine lived out this viewpoint in planning how to pack for the trip also. She explains that before she left for Liberia, she knew she had to fill her bag with what the kids needed. She also knew that each visitor was only allowed to take in forty pounds, including carry-on. “That’s the way they get money from you,” she says, adding that she ignored the limits and packed two bags weighing eighty pounds each, and two thirty-five-pound carry-ons. They were filled with underwear, toys, medicine, hygiene products, and wooden toys. She also stuffed quite a few People magazines and twenty CDs into the pockets of her carry-on.
Standing in line in Ghana, Christine quickly calculated that her luggage was going to cost five hundred dollars in overweight fees. She says, “At the baggage counter, my heart was pounding. But I told myself, ‘This is what the children need. I’m going to do what I have to do to take this in because I am standing with God.’”
“The baggage clerk had her little bifocals on, typing away. She didn’t look at me,” says Christine. “I began, ‘Hello, I have some magazines your family would like—all about movie stars.’ The clerk didn’t look up but put forth her empty hand. I put in three or four magazines, then asked, ‘Do you have a CD player?’ She nodded yes, but still did not look at me even once. I added, ‘I bet you have children; would you like Christian CDs?’ She put out her hand again, typing away with the other one. Then she looked up at me, gave me a little smile, and said, ‘You may go.’ She loaded my bags and never punched in the weight!”
At the Children’s Village, Christine met Mary, one of the orphanage supervisors, who told her about the day the rebels came. One of them had beaten Mary with his rifle until her blood flowed. Then he stripped her, looking for money in her body parts. All this, Christine reminds us, happened in front of the kids. Mary told Christine she had looked at the soldier and said, “Go ahead and kill me. I know who I am. I know who carries me. I know where I’m going. Don’t just be a coward and beat me. Go ahead and kill me straight out. Go! Do it!”
“It’s an amazing thing to meet women like Mary,” says Christine. “The experience gives me courage every day.”
“I will continue to take risks,” Christine says. “I’m not going to be stupid about it, because I want to continue to live and to do good. But it seems that our work is to discover our life and to give ourselves to it with all our heart. We can’t be in denial, because things are going to go wrong, things will be against us. We just have to face them and say, ‘I’m going forward whether anyone else is with me or not. I’m going forward in the name of all that is good and all that is holy.’ ”