A Peripatetic Pilgrimage: When Travel Feels Like a Worldly Religious Experience

Editor’s note – David G. Allan is Editor-in-Chief of CNN Travel, Style, Science and Wellness. This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Projectto which you can Subscribe here.

(CNN) — Some have a specific place to pray. I have a specific place to think. You can of course pray or think anywhere, but some places are inherently or inherently suited to go deeper.

My secular cathedral is San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, on the western edge of the city, behind Golden Gate Park, overlooking sea and sky and accessible as the terminus of the undulating N Judah line of the MUNI light rail.

It’s where I’ve returned regularly to sort myself out, practice some philosophy, and dig a little deeper into the meaning of life. Walking through this vast, three-and-a-half-mile natural landscape is my best time to think.

Just as churches, synagogues, and mosques are built to encourage worship, reflection, and communion with the community and one’s God, there are natural places that similarly focus the mind and inspire an experience of awe. There is something almost mystical about such places, as they embrace the light, change your point of reference, or surround you with a heightened sense of beauty.

What started as a New Year’s resolution to watch the sunset once a month when I lived in San Francisco, then became a ritual and now that I no longer live there, a pilgrimage.

My personal tradition begins at the Java Beach Coffee Shop, just across the Great Highway from the water. I enjoy a coffee and pastry while writing in my journal until you can watch the sun set beneath the dunes and I cross the road and find a pole in the sand.

Watching the sun merge into the Pacific Ocean is, as famous psychologist Abraham Maslow would have put it, a guaranteed peak experience.

Such perfect moments dissolve the thin line between the self and the experienced until there is only the experience itself. For a brief moment I don’t see the sunset, only the sunset. And as soon as I break out of the reverie, I start my mindwalk.

A walking meditation

Thinking and walking as a conscious couple has roots stretching back to ancient Greece and the Sophists who wandered and lectured in the burgeoning marketplace of ideas. Aristotle’s school of peripatetic philosophers was named after the colonnade or aisle (peripatos) that was a major feature of his university, and it is believed that Aristotle himself taught on the move.

A view from Sutro Heights of the sunset on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach

Pedro Freithas/iStockphoto/Getty Images

The names of thinkers who walked to get their minds “moving” read like the canon known to every philosophy major I once was.

Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein went to think. Thomas Hobbes’ walking stick contained an inkwell for impromptu notes. Søren Kierkegaard wrote about the Copenhagen Philosophenweg, Georg Hegel crossed the Heidelberg Philosophenweg and Immanuel Kant walked past Koenigsberg every day Philosopher’s Dam.

In Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking—a book I read while taking a series of walks through Central Park years after beginning my Ocean Beach tradition—the author inserts a chapter on Jean-Jacques Rousseau titled “The Think Three Miles an Hour.” Rousseau explained the connection between philosophizing and walking, highlighting pedestrian traffic as something deeper than mere transportation, but rather a conscious cultural act.

“Never have I thought so much … as in the journeys I have taken alone and on foot,” he wrote in his autobiographical “Confessions”. “There’s something about walking that stimulates and enlivens my mind… My body needs to be moving to get my mind moving.” One of Rousseau’s last works was entitled “Reveries of a Lone Wanderer”.

For my Ocean Beach Walks, which I continue each time I visit my old home, I decide on a theme in advance. Sometimes it’s a question like “Can people make themselves happy by choosing to be happy?” or “Is religion more than ethics plus ritual?”

But most often, I’ve wrestled with questions about how to live my life. The most life changing decision I made on that beach was whether I should ask my then girlfriend to follow her to Bangkok where she was traveling on a scholarship. I decided I had to and I did it. She said yes and we’ve been married for 19 years now. On my last visit I sorted out a solution related to our teenage daughter.

The Latin sentence is solved by walking, “many things are solved by walking”, puts it well in a nutshell. For example, there is an Eskimo custom where you get rid of your anger by continuing until the emotion stops. Then mark the spot before going back as a physical representation of the magnitude of the feeling. I recognize the power of such walking therapy.

Ocean Beach in San Francisco is rarely crowded.

Ocean Beach in San Francisco is rarely crowded.

JasonDoiy/E+/Getty Images

This must be the place

But for me it’s not just about running. It’s the place. Time-honored Ocean Beach, which runs from the Cliff House at the north end to the San Francisco Zoo near the other, is ideal for this mundane religious endeavor.

It’s a dreamy expanse at dusk, with an inverted sky reflected in the water. Add in the eternal waves, the snarling breeze, and the transience of my footprints, and it’s like stepping through a zen beat poem. Sometimes I lose my thoughts in the gray sea or in huge clouds, but I stay and go until I come to a conclusion or solution.

Since the weather in San Francisco is consistently fall or colder, Ocean Beach is never crowded. Aside from surfers in 7mm wetsuits, few step below their ankles into the freezing water. In between are people walking their dogs and the occasional runner where no one can hear you talking to yourself except for the sandpipers who are too busy dodging the surf to notice.

There are occasional enclaves of sunset watchers, couples huddled under Indian blankets, and neo-hippies organizing a bonfire. High dunes separate the beach from an advertising-free beach promenade and the highway traffic.

In recent years, the dunes have slowly overcome the road, closing a large section to cars. And at the edge of Golden Gate Park, there’s a wild tangle of Monterey cypress and other canopy, framed by two ruined windmills. You don’t feel like you’re in a city at all.

Perhaps the nascent and pseudo-scientific psychogeography provides an explanation for the fact that this place would affect me in a way that other places don’t. Where continent meets sea is the end of the world and the beginning of a new adventure, the proverbial edge before the leap, a literal line in the sand.

Under the open sky and invigorating weather, everything seems possible and conceivable in this and other places. It reminds us to be humble and grateful when travel discovers places that speak to us so strongly that simply walking changes us for the better.

Above: Sunset at Ocean Beach, San Francisco (Jonathan Clark/Moment Open/Getty Images)

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