Gideon Lewis-Kraus was confused. A few years ago, the American 20-something was living in Berlin, hanging out in art galleries and nameless speak-easies, preoccupied with living a creatively meaningful life, but unsure what that meant or how to make it happen.
So when a friend asked him to come along on a pilgrimage — the ancient Camino de Santiago in Spain — Lewis-Kraus went, hoping to find some answers on the 550-mile journey. "It was a fairly serious religious pilgrimage for 1,000 years, and then in the last 30 years it's become strangely, ahistorically popular with a young, mostly secular crowd," Lewis-Kraus says.
After Spain, Lewis-Kraus went on to complete two other famous pilgrimages: First, he embarked on a 900-mile, circular, solo walk that visits 88 Buddhist temples on the Japanese island of Shikoku. "I was very, very alone," he says. "I met almost nobody. I went weeks without talking to anyone."
And next, he invited his father and brother to join him as he went on a pilgrimage to pay homage to the tomb of a Hasidic mystic in Ukraine.
The result of his three treks is a new memoir called A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful. Lewis-Kraus speaks with NPR's Rachel Martin about his journeys.
On whether secular backpackers walking traditionally religious pilgrimages is "inauthentic":
"One of the questions that I talk about in the book is what does this authenticity even mean? Because there are a lot of people who say: 'This isn't authentic anymore. It used to be this religious thing, and now it's just this kind of backpacker jaunt.' And ultimately these are all distinctions I reject. ... Your feet are coming apart ... You've been walking for eight hours in the rain. Authenticity is the last thing you care about."
On pilgrimage as pretext, and why he used a pilgrimage as a way to work things out with his father:
"As I'd gone on, the book had really become about the idea of pilgrimage as pretext: That it was always a pretext to leave home, it was a pretext to take some time to think about your life, it was a pretext to think about forgiveness ... and I thought, well, if this is about the kind of pretext you need to make to try to change your life, I'm going to use this Jewish pilgrimage as a pretext to have all the conversations with my dad about his life and his sexuality ... my dad came out with I was 19. So I thought, we're going to use this ridiculous Jewish pilgrimage that I basically have no interest in, full of all these Hasids that I definitely don't identify with, to have these conversations with my dad."
On rising to the occasion:
"The whole idea of pilgrimage is that you're hoping that you're going to rise to the occasion in some way. You hope that there is going to be something structural about the idea of making a miserable trip ... all of these minor but real austerities I think primed us to be like, we're in a special place, doing a special thing, we're going to rise to the occasion of having really serious and candid talks that we would not have in a deli on the Upper West side."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Gideon Lewis-Kraus was confused. A few years ago, the American 20-something was living in Berlin, hanging out in art galleries and nameless speakeasies, pre-occupied with living a creatively meaningful life but kind of unsure about what that meant or how to make it happen. So when a friend asked him to join him on a pilgrimage in Spain - he went - hoping to find some answers.
After Spain, Lewis-Kraus went on to complete two other famous pilgrimages - one in Japan and one in the Ukraine. The result of that experience is a new memoir called "A Sense of Direction."
Gideon Lewis-Kraus joins us now from our New York studios. Thanks so much for talking with us.
GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS: Thanks so much for having me, Rachel.
MARTIN: So tell me a little bit about - the first trip you go on is with a friend of yours, Tom, also a writer. And the trip, this is a famous pilgrimage.
MARTIN: This is a religious pilgrimage, right?
LEWIS-KRAUS: Well, this is one of the interesting things. It was a fairly serious religious pilgrimage for 1,000 years and then in the last 30 years, it's become strangely a historically popular with a young mostly secular crowd. So we met almost nobody who was doing it for explicitly religious reasons. These days, what most people do is they start at the French-Spanish border on the French side of the Pyrenees and they walk to Santiago de Compostela. It's about 550 miles; takes most people about a month.
MARTIN: Thousands of people do this particular walk in Spain every year. And you describe in the book this greeting that people...
LEWIS-KRAUS: Buen Camino.
MARTIN: ...that the pilgrims give one another on the trail.
LEWIS-KRAUS: Very, very useful. Because it can mean a whole variety of things - hello. It very frequently means goodbye, as in like, it was nice to meet you. Walk on. You know, you would meet someone and like them and then you would spend a week walking with them and then all of a sudden, Buen Camino. It was simultaneously like have a good spiritually satisfying meaningful journey and also like buzz off. I'm tired of seeing you.
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MARTIN: I noticed though, there's also a lot of judging on the trail.
MARTIN: I mean, you kind of think of the pilgrimage and pilgrims as being these very humble, kind of enlightened souls. But it gets kind of catty. You start judging people...
LEWIS-KRAUS: It does get catty.
MARTIN: ...differentiating people who do the entire trail and those who kind of cut in?
LEWIS-KRAUS: Yeah. Anybody who started even 10 feet after you was inauthentic pilgrim, not doing the whole thing. And it's just a way of differentiating yourself as you go along and dealing with the anxiety you have about doing this absurd thing.
MARTIN: You come out of your experience in Spain and you don't stop there. You decide you want to take another journey, this time in Japan.
LEWIS-KRAUS: Well, so while I was on the Camino in Spain, I met these two Japanese people and two of them got very excited and said we have this is thing, the Shikoku Henro, it's sort of like the Japanese Camino. And I looked it up and it's this circuit of 88 Buddhist temples that ring the smallest of the four Japanese islands. And it's very similar to the Camino. It also was wildly popular during the Middle Ages, because in Japan it as literally the only reason, under the feudal shoguns, the only reason you could leave home was if you were on a religious pilgrimage. It's a little less than 900 miles. It takes most people about six weeks and maybe 10 to 12 foreigners do it a year. So, I met two other foreigners while I was there.
MARTIN: So, this is a fundamental difference from the experience that you just had in Spain. In that experience, there were all these people and pilgrims and it was a communal experience. In Japan, you're alone basically.
LEWIS-KRAUS: I was very, very alone. I met almost nobody. I went weeks without talking to anyone. It's almost all on asphalt, as opposed to the kimono, which is all in these nice paths. And it was raining the whole time. And...
MARTIN: But this is hard. This is kind of what you think of as, like, the pilgrimage. And you're alone and...
LEWIS-KRAUS: Exactly, exactly, exactly.
MARTIN: I mean, in some ways, was that a more authentic experience?
LEWIS-KRAUS: Well, I mean, one of the questions I talk about in the book is what does this authenticity even mean? Because there are a lot of people who say, well, this isn't authentic anymore, it used to be this religious thing and now it's just this kind of backpacker jaunt. And ultimately, these are all distinctions I reject. I say, you know, the fact that your feet are coming apart and the fact that you have been walking for eight hours in the rain, I mean, like, authenticity is the last thing that you care about.
MARTIN: Gideon, you are using these walks to try to do some thinking about the relationship you've had with your dad...
MARTIN: ...which becomes a central theme in the book. And for your final pilgrimage, you set out to go to the Ukraine. It's not so much a long walk as this kind of massive gathering to pay homage to a Jewish mystic. And you invite your brother and your dad to join you on this.
LEWIS-KRAUS: Right. Uh-huh. Well, so, as I had gone on, the book had really become about this idea of pilgrimage as pretext - that it was always a pretext to leave home, it was a pretext to take some time to think about your life, it was a pretext to think about forgiveness and all these things. And then I thought, OK, well, if this is about the kind of pretext you need to make to try to change your life, I'm going to use this Jewish pilgrimage as a pretext to have all of the conversations with my dad about his life and his sexuality.
MARTIN: So, we should say he was...
LEWIS-KRAUS: Oh, he came out. My dad came out when I was 19. So, I thought, like, OK, this is - we're going to use this ridiculous Jewish pilgrimage that I basically have no interest in, full of, like, all these hosseds(ph) that I definitely do not identify with, to have these conversations with my dad.
MARTIN: You guys just couldn't go to a deli on the Upper West Side and call it a day?
LEWIS-KRAUS: Well, no. See, that's the thing about pilgrimage, is that if you go to a deli then it's like another day that you're at a deli. Whereas, if you fly to the Ukraine - the whole idea of pilgrimage is that you're hoping that you're going to rise to the occasion in some way, right? So, you hope that there is going to be something structural about the idea of making a miserable trip. I mean, we had this terrible trip on Aeroflot, we finally got there and then we had to drive through Ukraine in the night. You know, we were fearing about shaken down by cops. So, all of these, you know, minor but real austerities then I think primed us to be like we're in a special place doing a special thing. We're going to rise to the occasion of having really serious and candid talks here that we would not have in a deli on the Upper West Side.
MARTIN: Did it work? Did you get what you wanted?
LEWIS-KRAUS: It did. I mean, it absolutely exceeded all of my expectations, really. It was amazing. But we kind of had to flee in haste from these hosseds 'cause we had just had too much. So, we, like, ran out with our suitcases are our un-kosher meat and got into the rental car and shook off the Ukrainian cops and, like, got onto the highway. And just, like, we're on our way to Odessa and just breathed a sigh of relief. And then we just had this great vacation. And it felt just completely different. It felt like something really new. It felt like a way that the three of us hadn't been together in a really long time.
MARTIN: Author Gideon Lewis-Kraus. His new memoir is called "A Sense of Direction." He spoke with us from our New York studios. Gideon, thanks so much.
LEWIS-KRAUS: Thank you so much, Rachel. This has been great.
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MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.