When I was a kid, my favorite animals were always the fastest, the cheetah on land, the mako shark in the sea, the peregrine falcon in the air. The falcon in particular always captivated me, the fastest living creature on earth, a perfect evolution of form and function, the epitome of the things I found fascinating as a child. I had a book, I remember, a bird book given to me by my dad, and I recall reading about the peregrine falcon over and over again, hoping to one day see one myself, worried I would never get the chance. It was the age of DDT and Reagan era environmental problems, when the condors almost went extinct, and the bald eagles and peregrine falcons were severely endangered. Young me worried these magnificent birds would disappear from the world before I ever got the chance to witness their majesty. I would scan the cliffs along the roads during southwest road-trips, I would visit them in the zoo, feeling disappointed that they were caged up and not allowed to be free. I yearned for a glimpse of one in the wild, but that day never came.
When I suffered a torn meniscus in 2010, effectively ending my days of athletic pursuits, it did far more than limit my ability to run as fast as I once had. I lost the confidence and air of invincibility I carried with me for so long. I lost a part of myself that was my means of escape, literally and figuratively, from the stresses and drama that moving too fast inevitably brought to my life. I found myself feeling trapped, tied down, held back from being who I wanted to be, and that feeling bled into my relationships and professional career more and more as time went by.
In 2012, my life had taken a turn down a dark road, and I found myself more and more looking for a way to get away from the things that upset me, the love I had lost, the career that was dragging me down, the loss of people I’d held dearest to my heart. I started hiking as a way of clearing my head of the noise, to connect with the world and see the things I’d never allowed myself the time to see in the past.
It was a slow process. The loneliness of camping and hiking alone was hard for me to deal with to start, almost unbearably so, and the pain from my still injured knee kept me from tackling many of the challenges I sought to undertake. My first attempt at backpacking ended miserably, 13 miles into the Olympic Mountains of Washington, when my knee began to hurt so terribly that I barely was able to hobble back to the trailhead where I started, defeated and demoralized. My first trip to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks ended early, when the creeping dread of being alone chased me back to Los Angeles three days before I was supposed to return home. It was a long process, and yet something kept drawing me out into the world, kept pulling at me to wander, to get lost in places I’d always wanted to see but never gave myself the chance to.
I went to Zion National Park in September of 2012 determined to spend an entire week alone in a place I’d only visited once before, with my ex-girlfriend who I still associated so much of the park. It was partly an act of stubbornness, a need to create new associations with a place I was entranced with, free of any correlation to the woman who hurt me so deeply the previous year. It was also an attempt to embrace the loneliness that I feared so much, that I felt pulling at me at every turn, that threatened to consume me, or chase me down a road of terrible decisions just to keep it at bay. I spent two days seeking out trails that we had done together, Emerald Pools and the River Walk, adding on significant portions she would’ve refused to do in order to take ownership of the place, to make it feel like my place, instead of our place.
It was the third day of my trip that I finally allowed myself to put the pain of losing her behind me, as I ascended the East Rim trail up from the base of the main canyon with the target of Cable Mountain looming over me with each step. At almost 17 miles, it was the longest, most strenuous hike I’d ever undertaken, a grueling series of switchbacks leading to a confusing slick rock canyon before finally climbing a long, narrow trail with precipitous drops up to the top of the rim. It took me a long time to climb, my knee burned and I was not in ideal shape for it, but I reached the top and sat out on the edge of a cliff, pulling out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and listening to the silence in the air, when I heard a shrill bird cry echoing off the walls of Echo canyon below. I looked for the source of the call, and saw a dark grey shape rise up from a cliffside nest and ascend on rapid wings. It rose up to a point parallel with me and tucked its wings in for a dive down into the canyon, disappearing from view just as quickly as it had appeared.
It was my first time seeing a wild peregrine falcon.
In that moment, sitting on that cliff, feet dangling hundreds of feet above the canyon floor, watching the animal I’d never thought to see in the wild, I found a sense of peace and tranquility I hadn’t known in a long time. In that moment, not only did I let go of the anger and frustration and pain that had led me to the park in the first place, but I found a sense of calm and purpose. Hiking, in that moment, became more than a physical exercise or a way to get to and photograph pretty things, but became the thing that calmed my nerves, that set my galloping mind to a slow trot, that allowed me to slow down and appreciate the world around me, and my place within it.
It was two and a half years later when I found myself once again stressed and lonely and in a self-destructive head-space three days into what I thought was a failed hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, and I found myself setting up camp on top of a cliff outside of Mt. Laguna California, beneath the promontory of Granite Peak. That morning I came within moments of quitting the trail entirely, feeling dejected and defeated and demoralized. It took me half the day sitting in Mt. Laguna before I talked myself into walking again, half a day doing nothing, watching other hikers push forward with an ease I myself struggled to show even without my pack. I set up camp that night with the words of No Trace in my head, “Keep Taking Steps,” and doubting that I would ever get to a place where those words made sense to me.
As I set up my tent, I heard a familiar bird call, and looked up to see half a dozen falcons in the air. They wheeled and darted past me, from hidden nests beneath the cliff’s edge upon which I had decided to set up my tent. As the sun set across the rocky outcroppings to the west, I once more found myself seated on the edge of a cliff, watching peregrine falcons dart through the air, and once more felt a wave of happiness and fulfillment I hadn’t felt on the trail up until that point.
I don’t believe in signs, or fate, or anything else, but almost two years to the day after that night on Granite Peak, and almost five years removed from my experience on Cable Mountain, I find myself once more thinking about the falcon, and the meaning of the word peregrine.
My younger self always looked at the Peregrine Falcon from the perspective of limited bursts of speed, of brief flashes of brilliance, of existence along the extreme edges of physical possibility. I saw the bird in the book, the bird on the nature documentary, the bird that fighter jets were designed after. I did not see the bird as it is, the bird I saw in those moments, when my feet and my life dangled over cliffs respectively literal and figurative. I did not see the bird as it was named, the traveler, the wanderer, the migratory raptor. I did not see the bird that migrates up to 1500 miles each year, the bird that catches its prey on the wing, so it doesn’t have to stop moving. I saw the falcon, but not the peregrine.
ˈperəɡrən/noun1. a powerful falcon found on most continents, breeding chiefly on mountains and coastal cliffs and much used for falconry.adjective1. foreign; alien; coming from abroad.2. wandering, traveling, or migrating.
I’ve been asked why I’m attempting a pilgrimage through Europe, particularly a religious pilgrimage through Europe, given my atheist leanings and my strong feelings against organized religion. Why, as a non-catholic, am I choosing to hike from the seat of Catholicism to the place marking the grave of a Catholic Saint? Why, as someone who speaks only rudimentary Spanish, am I traveling across six different European countries with little plan and even less external support?
To answer, I inevitably go into detail about my interest in learning about other cultures and embracing difference in a world increasingly opposed to celebrating those differences. In reality, the answer is a lot simpler than that.
Like the falcon, I am a wanderer, a traveler, a migratory creature. There is no reasoning behind my pull to wander almost 1200 miles through Europe, no grand scheme. I go to Rome in one month because I need to go to Rome in one month. When asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, George Mallory responded simply, “Because it’s there.” I don’t know what I’ll find, I just know that I have to go.
Io Sono un Pellegrino.
I am a Pilgrim.