“Nice just to walk and breathe and not worry about every goddamn thing. Nice, too, to know that when I return life will quickly become very different than it has been.”
I wrote those words a decade ago, jotted them down in a marble-covered Mead composition book I’d brought with me to record my observations as I hiked a portion of Europe’s most popular pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Reading the words now puts me back in Spanish hill towns and surprises me with nostalgia for a time in my life apparently so full of worry and so in need of change that walking through a country where I didn’t understand anyone speaking the native language seemed not only a good idea, but necessary.
Much less necessary, of course, is publishing my deep thoughts about the experience. Why should anyone care whether or not I had a “nice” time trudging toward the city of Santiago in the summer of 2001? Pilgrimage is an individual endeavor, undertaken for personal reasons perhaps best left unspoken. Accounts of spiritual odysseys and their outcomes are often much like those of other people’s dreams: interesting in theory, but a bore to endure.
Yet pilgrimage narratives are almost as old and universal as pilgrimage itself. Ambulatory religious odysseys exist in every culture on earth; from Mecca to Lourdes to the Ganges to Taos, New Mexico, the globe is pockmarked with sacred places that believers are forever approaching, slouching toward eternal reward while leaving the burdens of their everyday lives behind. And because the point of a pilgrimage is never merely getting there but returning to tell the tale, pilgrimage literature exists in every culture as well. True, the genre has a limited range of plots, which tend to lean on tidy morals and similar casts of oddball characters. But slight variations within the template can make or break the tale; as Chaucer taught us in high school, all that separates one pilgrim’s progress from another’s is the unique spin emerging from a story that is derivative by design.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus is a unique pilgrim, to say the least. He is certainly not the first nonreligious person to make a religious journey—the Camino is as popular with godless gap-year backpackers as with faithful Catholics these days—but he is likely the first son of two rabbis to describe a number of very different religious pilgrimages in the same book. A Sense of Direction follows Lewis-Kraus as he completes not just Spain’s Camino, but a circuit of eighty-eight Buddhist temples on the Japanese island of Shikoku, and a trek to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s tomb in Uman, Ukraine, that thousands of Hasidic Jews make every Rosh Hashanah. With pit stops in Berlin, Shanghai, and San Francisco, Lewis-Kraus provides an idiosyncratic map of seeker tourism in the early twenty-first century, as navigated by a talented young writer who makes these pilgrimages not for the usual spiritual boons, but to come to terms with family drama and the inevitability of growing up.
Lewis-Kraus’s title and subtitle both suggest that this will be a vague how-to guide to enlightenment, but A Sense of Direction instead begins with a specific crisis that is no less compelling for its status as a first-world problem. In the opening pages, Lewis-Kraus, a journalist who has published much-discussed articles in Harper’s and elsewhere, doesn’t know what to do with himself, or where to do it. After crashing for a year with family in San Francisco (doing laundry for his more successful younger brother to earn his keep), he decamps to Berlin because it felt “like the center of something surprising and important.” Even though he recounts spending his California days reading at one café in the morning and another in the afternoon (switching at midday “in order to maintain my self-respect, and in order not to alarm those baristas”), he moves to Berlin because it seems to promise freedom.
Not long after Lewis-Kraus arrives, however, he is dismayed to find that Berlin might in fact be “over.” The alleged new address of a reincarnated Lost Generation begins to seem a little less bohemian, and its freedom becomes less a function of nothing-left-to-lose than no-real-reason-to-do-it. Lewis-Kraus is astute enough to recognize that the real problem is not Berliners or other expats, but himself. “What the word ‘over’ really means,” he writes, “is that your expectations of a place, your fantasies of who you might have become there, have been confounded by the persistence of you.”
Since freedom fails to change his life, he elects to become the opposite of free: a pilgrim, one with a set destination and a daily path written literally in stone—in the form of yellow-arrow route markers he will soon discover. His motive for leaving Berlin to hike nine hundred kilometers across northern Spain may not be religious, but it is definitely existential: “I thought it might be a redemptive exercise in pointless direction, and I hoped in the end it might give me a better sense for where I stood.”
Lewis-Kraus’s pilgrimage works a very gradual change on his character, but it visits an instant—and welcome—change on A Sense of Direction. After devoting some fifty pages to bars, art galleries, and late-twentysomething ennui, Lewis-Kraus finally leaves “the manic Berlin of cigarettes and openings” and gets to his true subject—and at that point, the narrative takes on a refreshing immediacy. In Spain, he meets up with a friend he identifies as Tom—the writer Tom Bissell, who happens to be working on a religious travelogue of his own—and the repartee between the two transforms the book from the bleak Wim Wenders film it had threatened to become into something starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.
At one juncture, for example, the pair of seekers face a long day of walking ahead, to reach Pamplona. Lewis-Kraus admits that, though they will slog through oppressive heat for hours to reach their destination, if they hitched a ride it would likely take just fifteen minutes. Tom responds to this news with a spit take.
“Yeah, something like that. Twenty at the most.”
“You know what I’d do if you weren’t around?” Tom asks.
“I’d take the bus.”
Lewis-Kraus thanks Bissell first on the acknowledgments page for A Sense of Direction, and it’s not hard to see why. Bissell gets many of the book’s funniest lines, even though most of them are complaints. More than once the author describes himself carrying Tom’s backpack or changing the bandages on Tom’s blistered feet. The portrait of their friendship is the most endearing element of A Sense of Direction, but Lewis-Kraus undeniably stacks the deck in creating the impression that he was principally putting up with Bissell, rather than the other way around.
To his credit, Lewis-Kraus also documents to great comic effect his own persnicketiness, as when he meets others on the pilgrimage trail who report that they haven’t hiked as far as he has. In reply, he belittles their experience and insinuates they haven’t hiked the Camino at all. In turn, Bissell replies to Lewis-Kraus, “That’s just fucking rude.” Elsewhere, Bissell supplies a fuller diagnosis of his companion’s shortcomings: “For a guy who’s mostly a giant, arrogant dick who thinks he knows what’s always best for everybody else, you can act like a real child sometimes.”
The two of them together—“a heretic and a Jew, both as idle as we are vain”—must have made quite a pair. As one pilgrim who walks briefly with them puts it: “You two have made me feel worse about everything: about myself, about others, about the world.”
That is probably what anyone keeping company with the observant should expect. Such fellow travelers would likely be put ill at ease by a couple of hyper-self-aware pilgrims who constantly stop to write new observations in their identical little black notebooks. (“Please don’t write that down,” one says to the other when he has uttered something he might regret.)
Recounted in what often feels like real time, Gideon and Tom’s excellent adventure can at times come across as an endless march—miles are walked and blisters are lanced; feeling are hurt and hugs are shared—but then it reaches its conclusion too soon. A whole book could have, and perhaps should have, been written about these two friends and the demons they face down together and apart. Along the way, Lewis-Kraus struggles at length with various personal issues—among them, his professional uncertainty and his father’s late-blooming homosexuality. And amid such inner trials, Lewis-Kraus makes several drive-by efforts at pilgrimage theory. Indeed, he and Tom serve as illustrations of one such notion: liminality, the anthropologist Victor Turner’s idea that threshold moments—moments of becoming— represent the most significant part of human existence.
Instead of settling for that shorter, tighter book about his adventures with Bissell, however, the author extends his exploration of pilgrimage beyond the Camino. Lewis-Kraus goes first to Japan, where he walks among scores of temples, mainly in a state of misery as he moons over a woman he met in Shanghai. From there it’s on to Uman, where his pilgrimage becomes a family affair, allowing the long-simmering obsession with his father to find resolution. He shows these corners of the globe in detail not frequently seen, yet without Bissell serving as his constant foil and goad, Lewis-Kraus generally seems ready to hang up his pilgrim’s staff for good.
A Sense of Direction is a painfully particular and deeply personal book about a subject that typically gets treated with the airbrushed gloss of a travel brochure. Finding a sense of direction in the waning days of one’s overextended youth can be serious business, and Lewis-Kraus never becomes mawkish or frivolous as he treks onward. Given the ostensibly religious subject, it would be a shame if this lively and funny book about friendship and family ends up shelved in the spirituality or self-help section of many bookstores. It should instead be sold as Eat, Pray, Love for the Saturn-returns set. It’s a guidebook for those seeing the world to change themselves—something I could have used ten years back when making my own pilgrim’s scribblings.
Peter Manseau is the author of books including Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead (Henry Holt, 2009). He teaches religion and history at Washington College.