Few weeks go by without some much-publicised, epic journey in the papers, given credence by its organisers as raising awareness or money. By contrast, Ann Sieben, who calls herself the Winter Pilgrim, has been quietly making her way through the world on foot for the past six years on a series of increasingly spectacular pilgrimages.
Why winter? “Snow is easier on the feet than rocks,” she shrugs. “And I'm lazy. I'd rather wear a jacket than carry it.” The downside is the occasional blizzard. And yet as her pilgrimages have lengthened it has been harder to stick to her single, eponymous season. Her last journey traversed half a hemisphere and took her 331 days, from the east coast of Argentina to the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City. She crossed the Andes, the Atacama and the Darien Gap with a merry humility and not a penny in her pocket.
Speaking to this slight fifty-something year old sat at home in her study in Denver, five foot one and short grey hair, it is difficult to comprehend what she has undertaken. When a long distance runner jogged through the Darien last year he did so with several bodyguards jogging alongside him. Ann attached herself to a party comprising of a local guide and six fashion divas from the Dominican Republic and was detained for three weeks upon arrival in Panama for failing to get an exit stamp in the depths of the Colombian jungle.
Such occasional setbacks only serve to reinforce her stoicism and a notion that, in the life that she has chosen, the only certainty is a wild unpredictability. It is an unpredictability which seems to have liberated her. At one point in her blog she quotes an Islamic proverb. 'I cursed at God because I had no shoes and then saw a man who had no feet.'
She had been working as an engineer when she first decided to go walking. “When I started my pilgrim life,” she tells me, “that first pilgrimage six years ago from Canterbury to Rome, it was really for the adventure. I'd been living near Bristol, and in England everybody knows a pilgrim. These days it's just part of the fabric of Europe.”
Without much forethought, that walk became the first in a series of annual pilgrimages. The next winter she went from Aachen, Germany, to Santiago de Compostela, from the tomb of Charlemagne to the tomb of St James. The next, from Kiev to Patras in Greece, following paths walked by St Andrew to his final resting place. Then came North America, walking from her home in Denver to Mexico City and the Basilica de Guadalupe, built upon the site of an apparition of the Virgin Mary and still the most visited Christian shrine in the world.
“History turns me on,” she says, “especially history involving real life people. It's the humble individuals who persevered and left a mark on history that have led me on my walks.” Since setting out from Canterbury she has taken, by her own count, taken more than twenty million steps.
In 2011 she left from Santiago de Compostela and walked to Jerusalem via North Africa in the wake of the Arab Spring. I was following her blog by now, and every post had some new tale of adventure and remarkable kindness that brightened an otherwise rainy winter in London.
She wrote of the citrus and olive groves of Spain, the coastlines and hospitality of Morocco and Tunisia, of the hope of a newly liberated Libya, before she was “invited” to leave “immediately” by the Minister of Internal Affairs and was deported to the Egyptian border. Of a newly liberated Egypt (“wandering around in a strangely lawless post-revolutionary society has its challenges, of course, but I'll find the silver lining in any situation,”) of deserts and monasteries, and of a final month through the Old Testament landscapes of Israel. Of all her journeys it had been the most difficult, the most bureaucratically challenging. “There seems to be an opening in the world of Saints,” she wrote, “for a patron of border crossings.” And then it was back to Denver to have a breather and to plan the next one.
“Over the pilgrimages,” she says, “I went from the spiritual side, the Catholic side, not being very important, to now where the Catholic side is very important. The adventure part, it's there and it's fun, it is adventurous to cross through a river and see a crocodile, but the meaning of the pilgrimages has become Catholic.”
As such, and with the journeys getting longer and the breathers getting shorter, she took the decision upon her return from Mexico this year to be consecrated as a pilgrim. It is perhaps as much of a job as a mendicant can have. When I ask her what the commitment implies, she speaks about three pillars.
“One is that I'm a pilgrim, on pilgrimage, going through the world to a worthy destination, just to talk with people. It's really quite a cross-cultural and ecumenical idea of love thy neighbour as thyself, and everything else will go fine. The second is that I'm helping other pilgrims, regardless of where they're going or by what mode of transportation. And then the third pillar is to talk about the pilgrim life, the pilgrim experience. Because the silent pilgrim does the world no good.”
She has been invited to live at the Sanctuario de Chimayo, New Mexico, the foremost destination for Catholic pilgrims in the States, and from there she plans to create a Pilgrim Centre to assist those who are planning pilgrimages worldwide.
But she is at pains to point out that this is no sort of missionary's journey. When I ask her what her walking brings to others it is hard for her to pinpoint. It is a gut feeling that she has. “The world would arguably be an incrementally better place,” she says, “if all people worked for a while as a waiter, and also as a government worker. And I think if everyone made a humble pilgrimage at least once in their life then things would go smoother, too. Sharing sleeping quarters, hanging undies to dry side-by-side with strangers' undies. It brings us all closer together.”
Part of this search for humility manifests in her not carrying money, which she describes as a parachute. Such a decision rarely fails to spark debate and discomfort in those that hear about it. For her, she came to see money as holding people at a distance, reinforcing social hierarchies and forming barriers to confidence, as well as making her more of a potential target.
“Money makes things awkward and complicated. To go with no money is just a whole different experience, to build trust, the trust when somebody invites you into their home. That trust is the foundation of peace. So that's very important for me. To fall back into the arms of humanity and know that somebody will catch you and no harm will come to you. That's what I do as a pilgrim.”
And from Franciscan nuns to the Peruvian Quechua, from the tropics of South America to the mountains of Eastern Europe, she has received the hospitality that she has sought every night that she has walked. The world may appear increasingly secular yet to be a pilgrim still has global currency, the symbol of the saint that she carries on her pack a request for help that people seem only too eager to fulfil.
“People are good,” she says. “It's universal, simple, fundamental. And there's no better way to demonstrate that people are good as to do a pilgrimage and talk about it.”
We return to discussing the difficulties of expressing to others the reasons for undertaking such long and arduous journeys, in particular in unknown languages, attempting to communicate ideas that are not often in the phrasebooks. She tells me about an encounter she had in Egypt two years before. “A young fella, a monk, had given me an English language travel Bible. I hadn't had a book before then because of the weight, but I was heading off to the desert where I knew I was going to be alone and if you're going to have a book with you might as well have a good book.
"And I started seeing independent passages in the Bible that summed up what I needed to say without overly religious words, but just with words. For example, Jeremiah 6, 16. So now when I'm some place where I can't speak the language, when they say why are you doing this, there's a starting point: Jeremiah 6, 16. And in Jeremiah 6, 16, it says: Stand at the crossroads and look. Ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies, and walk in it. And you will find rest for your souls."
“And it's for this,” she says, “that I walk on ancient paths.”
Published in Third Way
Ann Sieben's blog can be found here