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."