One of the first things I learned about Melissa Coles was that she studied taekwondo and knows how to escape everything from headlocks to alligator attacks. One of the second was that she sends scores of letters to friends and family back in her hometown of Loganville, Georgia.
With chin-length hair and wire frame glasses that slip down the bridge of her nose, Melissa can talk to anyone, anywhere. An enthusiastic hiker and adventurer, Melissa’s true passion is pilgrimage. From Mecca to Bodh Gaya, this ancient tradition of journeying to a sacred place transcends religious boundaries.
Pilgrimage, explained Melissa, includes two central elements: the place itself and the community of pilgrims past, present, and future. “Everything that happens in a place affects it, good and bad. Places are not inert. At Croagh Patrick [the site of Melissa’s first pilgrimage], the fact that millions of people had climbed there and prayed there soaked into the place and made holy things more likely to happen.”
Pilgrimage wakes us up to a power that is already there. “Too often I think people don’t take into account the power of places. We walk around like we are the only ones affecting anything,” she said.
Melissa’s first experience with pilgrimage came during a semester abroad in Ireland. Jutting dramatically over the green landscape, Croagh Patrick is said to be the mountain St. Patrick climbed barefoot. At its peak, he fasted for forty days, withstanding temptation and finally banishing all snakes from Ireland. Now, pilgrims from around the world make the same journey up the mountain.
Although the practice has become rare, Melissa decided to climb Croagh Patrick “in her feet” because, she thought, “I might as well do it all out.” Near a sign warning pilgrims against climbing barefoot, Melissa sat down and took off her boots. “It felt very anticlimactic,” she said. She secured them in her pack and started up the rocky path.
When she got to the top, she remembers thinking, “My feet don’t hurt, I feel good. I can do this!” She walked around the church and chapel at the mountain’s summit, reciting familiar prayers as she completed the second station of the pilgrimage.
She started her descent, but a mist had rolled in, obscuring everything but the path in front of her. Scared she would fall, she climbed down the steep slope just below the summit, sliding with the loose rocks.
“I felt like the soles of my feet had dozens of tiny stones embedded in them, and every step I was viscerally aware of my feet,” she said.
She pushed herself on and reached a shimmering view of the bay and the islands beyond. When she looked back at the path she still had to walk, she sank to the ground. “I just sat down on the ground and looked up to the heavens and I said out loud, ‘God, I am struggling. I don’t know if I can continue on. If this is something you want me to do, please send me a sign.’” Recalling the moment, Melissa laughed. “I felt ridiculous, because who does that? It was like a movie.”
And like a movie, an older man walked out of the fog. He asked Melissa how she was doing and why she was climbing barefoot. “He told me this was a really good thing and quoted scripture and said, ‘You have to give yourself up to the experience,’” Melissa said.
“Okay, I guess that was my sign!” she thought. She stood up and continued down the mountain. “My feet didn’t hurt any less, but I felt at peace.”
Every time the pain became too intense, a fellow pilgrim intervened. A woman gave her a walking stick, a mother and daughter gave her some of their food. The encouragement kept her going.
“I got to a mystical place. I was aware of my feet but they didn’t bother me. I was aware of everything very sharply. I was just praying continuously for myself and my family. I felt, at the same time, extremely small and like I was expanding. I felt very individual and very connected in time and space. I felt aware of God’s expansiveness. I felt extreme peace. I reached the end of the mountain and I thought, ‘What? I could keep walking for miles.’ There were no words.”
The effects of that first pilgrimage up Croagh Patrick have been lasting. “That mountain definitely changed me. It was a moment where you feel your perspective shift and turn a tiny bit—the mountain did that to me,” she said.
Since Croagh Patrick, Melissa has made a number of pilgrimages, studied the practice academically, and led a monthly interfaith group that shared stories of pilgrimages in traditions from Buddhism to Mormonism. In the spring, she will return to direct experience, hiking the Appalachian Trail.
“So what is the difference between pilgrimage and hiking?” I asked.
“Going forth with the pilgrim mindset, you are intentionally setting aside your everyday life and you are committing yourself to it fully,” Melissa said.
She described a hike to Rainbow Bridge National Monument. “It could easily have been a pilgrimage if I had been more open to what was happening, to the canyon, to what I was experiencing,” she said. But she was too worried about missing the infrequent boat back to the marina where she had left her car, about not losing the trail, about flash floods. On a pilgrimage, “you may be worrying, but you’re trying to be there fully. Everything is just open and raw, so pilgrimage is often transformative.”
Melissa left Loganville ten years ago. In that time, she has lived in Indiana, Dublin, Boston, and St. Michaels, Arizona in the Navajo Nation where she worked as school librarian. Over the next six months, the Appalachian Trail will take her from Maine back to Georgia.
“I see the A.T. as a huge breath in my life, where I can reflect upon everything that’s happened and who I am now,” Melissa explained. “It’s a place for me to set myself up for whatever God has in store for me next.”
“I know that the questions I’m going to take with me to the A.T.—I’m going to get different answers in a different way on a different time frame than if I took the same questions to Croagh Patrick,” she said.
“What advice do you have for someone who wants to go on pilgrimage?” I asked.
“A lot of times you get more out of a pilgrimage if you think about the questions you want to contemplate before you start. Ritual is often very important. It can be really powerful to craft a ritual beforehand—rituals are wonderful for transformation. Then you have to leave yourself open to the unexpected. The answer may not be what you want,” she said.
“Do you have to be religious?” I probed.
“No,” she said. “You just have to know that there is some actor transforming you, whether it is the place, or a community, or God. You have to believe that inner change is possible.”
Pilgrimage has left its mark on Melissa. “Pilgrimage has transformed my personal spirituality and my awareness of people and places around me. It has connected me in deeply rooted ways to particular places. It is inspiring, it is challenging, and it is powerful. It has changed my understanding of God in this world. It provided me with healing when I needed it. It pushed me in areas I never would have thought I needed to be pushed, and ultimately it has helped me tap into a human experience which crosses boundaries.”
Liz Aeschlimann is a writer and graduate of Harvard Divinity School.