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going, getting, returning

So, Your Humble Blogger was having this little conversation about pilgrimage, and we got to wondering about modern versions. In particular, I’m looking for things that we (mainstreamish Americans) do that involves (a) traveling to a particular place, (2) getting something whilst there (particularly of the tangible remnant variety, not just the commemorative spoon), and (iii) feeling afterward that the visit changed the visitor, with the souvenir of the visit the visible mark of the internal change.

In fact, I was just wondering about the importance of actually visiting anywhere. I get all misty-eyed at Fenway Park, at least until I remember how uncomfortable the seats are. I think, in a sense, some baseball fans make a pilgrimage to Fenway, but I don’t think they come away with any sense other than having done it. Similarly, for baseball fans, the National Baseball Hall of Fame is moving, but not that big a deal. A fan who has not visited the Hall of Fame doesn’t feel inferior, as a fan, to one who has.

The closest thing I could think of is the Vietnam Memorial, where people went and took rubbings, bringing home the paper impression of the names. Do people still do that? Or was it really just the close relatives of the dead, making it a collection of personal pilgrimages rather than an American pilgrimage? And is it just about closure, rather than about personal transformation?

I’ll expand the question, because I think it’s interesting: Where in the US is it important to actually visit in person? By important, I don’t mean important in the sense that everybody should do it, I mean that there is some important difference in physical presence, some reason to travel there. Other than the obvious, I mean, if you don’t actually go to Disneyland, you can’t ride the rides, and that Sidewalks of New York feeling is not easily represented at a distance. Those are, in a sense, technical problems; if you could, then there would be no reason to go. For a pilgrim, there’s something that happens at the pilgrimage site that couldn’t happen anywhere else, and which produces a change in state that couldn’t happen by reading about the site, or seeing it on TV.

Thank you,


For me, the Grand Canyon was transformative in a way that I never expected and can barely explain.

Do you think that the physical souvenir is critical in some way? I think that's one of the aspects of modern life that is changing significantly from previous generations. We now have easy accessibility of reminders remotely at a later date (on-line photos, books, direct ordering from a gift shop, etc.), but more importantly our relationship to physical possessions is changing dramatically in this age of overabundant consumerism. The touchstone concept may be fading.

People still pick up shells at a beach, which is the only example I routinely see of acquiring tangible remnants that are not manufactured. Seeing the ocean is comforting to me, but it is not transformative because I grew up a couple of blocks from the water. I considered picking up some small stones from the Grand Canyon, but could not bring myself to disturb the majesty of the place in even that small way.

I definitely make pilgrimages to Zabar's -- the anticipation was meaningful, the trip was planned and significant, being there was transformative, and I would keep my Zabar's bags for months as tangible reminders of my visit. But Zabar's isn't a place that I'd recommend as an essential pilgrimage for everyone.

I bet the annual pilgrimage (or more infrequent) to Alumni Weekend is important for many Swatties. I used to buy a sweatshirt every year, until I found that I had too many sweatshirts; now I seem to have started buying two packs of bridge-sized playing cards, which I carry around in my belt pack and play bridge with at lunch until they wear out the following year.

Will the judges allow "driving across the country"? I haven't actually done it myself in one trip, and it's definitely a journey-more-than-destination sort of thing, but i think my attitude towards the country changes, favourably, every time i spend some hours and highway miles looking at different terrain, some sort of "This country is big and diverse, and yet i have seen it" sort of thing.

washington, DC (specifically the memorials)
"ground zero"
devil's tower :)
civil war battlefields, the alamo, etc
statue of liberty, mt. rushmore, etc
las vegas
niagara falls
top of a regional skyscraper
"the ocean" or "the mountains" or whatever's different

On a different level, I have been so moved by visits to homes and graves of my ancestors.

There was a time when a visit to Fenway did something for me, but that time is long past.

The Johnson Space Center was pretty moving.

on the one hand we haven't had any protestant saints or anything here to generate that kind of devotional power. there are a couple of significant catholic sites in california, i believe.

on the other hand if NYC sold pieces of the twin towers, many people would build shrines in their homes.

on somebody else's hand, this country has a heavy anti-superstition cross to bear.

just to be clear - because i think i've written too much in a direction that is NOT the only direction i think, but could be taken that way:

"this country has heavy anti-superstition cross to bear" was meant to describe the torn spiritual situation in the country. the country exists in part because of a new rational individualism that was spreading wildly through europe, but it was also built in the northeast by european religious pilgrims and in the southwest by european missionary marauders, in the many years before life, liberty, property, the pursuit of happiness, or deism came to the forefront.

i haven't meant anything to be against religion, or for that matter science and technology. even positing that consciousness is a figment of evolutionary imagination is meant as no slight against faith or to declare the non-existence of divine force... to me these things are extraordinarily humbling... without which we are i think in poor condition to submit to anything.

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