‘Grateful Every Step of the Way’ Over 1,200 miles of biking and hiking trails led Ralston Hartness ’18 from Spain to Ireland, discovering the meaning of pilgrimage along the way.
“I am deeply grateful to this place for enabling an experience that was not only academically meaningful but personally, relationally, and spiritually profound.”
Hometown: Chattanooga, TN
This summer I was given the opportunity to make a pilgrimage around Europe — from the Camino de Santiago Primitivo in Northern Spain to Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, Ireland, and many places in between. Throughout my time at W&L, I have been fascinated by pilgrimage: What makes it so meaningful, what they expect out of it, why these places matter? As an avid backpacker, and someone who had never been to Europe, I wanted to experience many of the pilgrimage journeys I had studied.
Thanks to W&L, and the generosity of the Johnson Scholarship program, I was able to make this dream a reality, and I was incredibly grateful every step of the way. After months of planning routes, checking airfares, aligning bus timetables, and ordering maps, Luke Farley ’18 and I stood in front of the Cathedral in Oviedo, Asturias, Spain ready to embark on our journey to Santiago de Compostela. It was a surreal moment of beginning, and one that I will never forget.
Those two weeks were full of surreal moments as we stumbled upon incredibly hospitable pilgrim refugios, indulged ourselves with satisfying pilgrim menus, walked along Roman bridges and walls, witnessed the sun rising over fog-steeped valleys, descended through a passage onto the main plaza of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, and crested a ridge to see the Atlantic Ocean shimmering out over the coastline of Finisterre. After spending a couple of days exploring and reflecting in Santiago de Compostela, we packed our bags and made for London, where we enjoyed incredible food and numerous British cultural landmarks.
London was also the starting point for what would be two weeks of solo journeying, as I began to make my way to Canterbury and around the coast of Southern Wales to St. David’s, a place with a rich pilgrimage history. Even though Wales lived up to its reputation of being rugged, isolated and wet, it had such a warmth and I loved every moment of it — the holy wells and Welsh names, the fragrant breads and lingering conversations. I was inundated by incredible tales of saints, pilgrims, and yearning masses who walked the same paths on which I found myself. Wales stretched and tested my endurance and patience, yet I was overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia and sadness as I departed on a ferry across the Irish Sea. I had dreamed of Ireland for quite some time, but now I was there and awaiting the arrival of my brother, Graham, who would join me on my pilgrimage around the island.
Our first major destination was the Tochar Phadraig, which is a pilgrimage road in County Mayo tracing sites associated with Saint Patrick and culminating in an ascent of Croagh Patrick. That was just the beginning of our Irish experience — we went on to climb Carrauntoohil, bike the Ring of Kerry, walk the Wicklow Way, and reflect in countless cathedrals and oratories along the way. When I asked my brother what was the biggest lesson he learned through our time together he said, “I was often afraid of what was ahead, but when I look back, I am so glad I did it anyway.”
There was a beautiful, holy trepidation throughout the summer that led me, Luke and my brother into a posture of surrender, reflection and excitement. Whether it was as hospitaleros told us there were no beds in their hostel, when fog surrounded us as we biked out of the Black Valley, or as our flight back to Chattanooga was canceled at the end of our trip, the summer was full of this adventurous and holy fear so emblematic of the pilgrim experience. I am deeply grateful to this place for enabling an experience that was not only academically meaningful but personally, relationally and spiritually profound.