From one of the nation’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual places comes a book ideal for gift-giving this holiday season. Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God by Lori Erickson (Fortress Press, $24.99) weaves a personal narrative about the author’s own spiritual quests with accounts of her pilgrimages to Germany, Israel and other places around the globe.
At times irreverent, she reflects on her own Lutheran upbringing in a small Iowa town with Norwegian roots, her struggles with fellow church members as an Episcopal deacon later in life, and religious practices in general. She’s also been a Wiccan, a Unitarian Universalist and a Buddhist. Equally as fascinating as revelations about Erickson’s own religious and family life are insights into her career as a travel writer and all the opportunities it affords.
In the book’s prologue, titled “A Farmer’s Daughter on the Bank of the Nile,” she states, “My passion for pilgrimage stems from a fascination with religion in all its weird and wonderful permutations.”
Erickson explains that her book is not about one long pilgrimage but a dozen shorter ones, saying “I think my experiences mirror those of many travelers today, people who don’t have time for an extended journey or retreat, but who still feel a yearning for something more than the ordinary routines of work and family and the pleasures of a week at Disneyland….A warning: once you set out on trips to holy places, if you’re paying attention at all, your life will change.”
The first chapter, “Among the Lutherans,” describes the author’s visits to Martin Luther sites in Germany, a trip that “confirmed for me why I am no longer a Lutheran.” She goes on to say, “For me it [Lutheranism] was too tied to ethnic identity, too steeped in a small town ethos, and too intertwined with memories of growing up.”
In Iceland, Erickson talks to locals about their beliefs in elves and Old Norse gods and goddesses. Other chapters describe encounters with a Trappist monk at Thomas Merton’s Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky and a retreat director at South Dakota’s Bear Butte, a peak that’s both a state park and a holy site for many Plains Indian tribes who believe in the forces of nature and spiritual connections to animals.
In Peru, the author describes her explorations of Machu Picchu, a sacred center for the Inca Empire. The site, an important pilgrimage destination in the past, just as it is today, “was the hub of a spiritual web, connected to other holy sites in the region and to celestial bodies in the sky, surrounded by deities who lived in the surrounding mountains and the sacred river far below.”
Curiosity about miracles of healing drew the travel writer to the Catholic shrine at Lourdes, France, which attracts the sick from around the world. Erickson discusses her son’s life-threatening illness as a baby and families who pray for divine intervention when life seems to be slipping away.
A trip to Concord, Massachusetts, takes the author to Walden Pond, “sacred ground” in a woodsy setting where Henry David Thoreau got away from it all to do his writing. Thoreau’s time spent in Concord and the countryside, Erickson says, “is a reminder that not every pilgrimage involves packing a suitcase. Many seekers have experienced profound connections to the divine right where they live, and plenty who go on trips to the world’s great holy sites end up complaining about the weather, the crowds, and the food. Pilgrimages are made by intention and grace, not by distances. Thoreau was a pilgrim each day of his life in Concord.”
Lori Erickson is just a good writer period, and her engaging travel tales will entertain and enlighten readers, and inspire them to make their own pilgrimages near and far.
By Randy Mink