My Pilgrimage

Reader Stories

Submitted by Emily McCarley

I visited Ireland for the first time in June of 2005. Two weeks into my Irish holiday, I found myself near Westport, County Mayo, climbing a little mountain I had never heard of. This mountain was called The Croagh Patrick and would later become a great inspiration to me.

St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, made a pilgrimage to the top of the Croagh Patrick in 441 A.D., according to legend. Here he fasted for forty days and banished all the snakes from Ireland. During this time, he built a small chapel at the top of the mountain for pilgrims to find solace and seek shelter. Each year over 25,000 pilgrims make this same climb to the top of the Croagh Patrick on the last Sunday in July, called Reek Sunday.

Croagh Patrick

Croagh Patrick

The Croagh Patrick (CP) fell into my life unexpectedly whilst I was on a day trip to Clare Island. On the bus I met a guy from Poland, around my age. He was on his way to climb the CP and invited me to change my plans and join him. I accepted his invitation.

At the time I was living in Boulder, CO, which rests in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Living roughly a mile above sea level and frequently hiking the Table Mesa and Chautauqua trails, I thought this little mountain starting at sea level and rising a modest 2,500 feet would be a cake walk. I was quickly put in my place.

The climb is broken into three sections. The first is rocky and long with a gradual incline. The second is flat, but unprotected with extremely high winds in the range of 50-60 mph. The final ascent is a steep, vertical climb through loosely strewn rocks and sandy gravel that traverses back and forth endlessly. By the time we got to the third section, I was soaking wet from constant misting, hungry and exhausted. I was not convinced that the top actually existed, but people kept descending with smiles on their faces and statements like, nearly there now, it’s just ahead of you. These people were young children and elderly men and women with no rain gear. They kept me going. I kept thinking that if they can do it, so can I and found myself repeating their mantras in my own mind: nearly there now, it’s just ahead.

I was just about to give up completely when I saw it — the church St. Patrick was said to have built on the top of the mountain. This sanctuary was simple, white, and incredibly inviting. I felt a surge of adrenaline rush through my body as I began running up the last part of the mountain. I did it. I reached the top!

Once at the top, I noticed an elderly man walking on the sharp rocks barefoot. Intrigued, I approached him and inquired about his lack of footwear. He informed me that he was completing his spiritual pilgrimage. He explained that many people hike the CP barefoot in honor of St. Patrick. On the way up, there are three stations where pilgrims perform prescribed rituals of prayer and recitation. Upon reaching the top, they walk around the church 15 times, saying the Hail Mary. My initial reaction was that I could never do this hike barefoot and as these beliefs were not mine why would I?

The CP was the most significant part of my Irish holiday in 2005. I felt a special connection to the mountain and vowed to return one day. Whenever I had another mountain I was climbing, literally or figuratively, I recalled how difficult it was to complete the CP, which would push me through. I always kept the thought of that man’s pilgrimage in the back of my mind, wondering could I do that?

Four years later, my husband and I had the opportunity to move to Dublin, Ireland to live and work for one year. I was excited at the chance to return to my mountain. But before I returned I decided I needed to change my perspective. I could no longer limit my experiences with my own skepticism. I decided the next time I hiked the CP it would be barefoot.

How does one train for a barefoot hike? I started by training my feet. I began walking barefoot around the stone path in our back garden. When that became tolerable, I graduated to walking barefoot on the asphalt trails in the park. I let the calluses build up, and before long the steps which first caused so much discomfort became barely noticeable. My training quickly morphed into walking meditation. My spiritual pilgrimage was not about belonging to any religion or keeping in line with the traditional prescription. I researched prayers and mantras that coincided with my beliefs and made the pilgrimage my own.

I set out on my pilgrimage on June 18, 2009. I was as prepared as I was ever going to be. I started early, knowing the weather typically worsens as the day progresses. After purchasing a walking stick in the parking lot, I hiked up to the first station — the statue of St. Patrick at the base of the mountain–and recited my first prayer while walking 7 times around the station. I then started my ascent. The rocks were sharp, the wind was gusting and the weather was cold, but my feet were ready my mind set. I walked slowly; mindful of each step. I had to be present the entire way, as my feet depended on it. My walking stick became my trusty, supportive companion, as the wind threatened to blow me over on numerous occasions. The first part of the climb was tricky, but peaceful. I only met three other people, each of whom quickly wished me luck and continued on their way.

At the Summit

At the Summit

Soon I was making progress on the second section of the climb the flat, unprotected and windy section where the second station was located. I came upon a bathroom shelter and have never been so thankful for such a place: despite the dirty floor, wet toilet paper on the ground and lack of a toilet seat. The cement floor was smooth under my feet and the walls provided shelter from the wind and rain. After a short rest, I returned to my pilgrimage. It was during this section that people started catching up with and passing me. I found myself starting to walk faster than was right for me. Here I was, barefoot, making this pilgrimage for my own purposes that had nothing to do with anyone else, and I found myself trying to race strangers wearing shoes up the mountain. Once I noticed this, I asked myself what was driving this behavior. Why did I instinctively feel the need to go faster when it wasn’t right for me? This wasn’t a competition! Then it hit me. I have been living my life like it was a competition. I always had to be right or the funniest or the best but why? Everything I did, I did in the spirit of competing with someone or something. But life isn’t a competition. I’m living my life for me. I am doing this pilgrimage for me. From that moment on, I paid close attention to my instinctive reactions when other people would approach and inevitably pass me. I paid attention to the prayers I chose to recite at each station and the reasons I chose them. I truly did the hike for me. I found myself feeling lighter, no longer being weighed down by trying to be best, but free to simply have fun and enjoy being in the present.

Cold Feet

Cold Feet

The third and final section was the steepest, but became the easiest due to its well-worn path. I took many rests and had multiple conversations with passersby who were intrigued by my decision to hike barefoot. My feet were going numb with cold by the time I reached the top and completed my third station. I knew the right thing for me at that moment was not to try to continue barefoot, so I made the decision to put my shoes on. I then completed the walk around the chapel reciting the Hale Mary 15 times with the full support and comfort of my hiking shoes.

It took me 4 hours to ascend the CP barefoot, and 1 hour to descend with shoes on. 5 hours of accomplishment and self realization. I left with a profound desire to live my everyday life in the present. Though I believe feelings of competition are natural, especially when racing or participating in sports, I no longer look at my daily life as a competition. As my husband wisely reminds me from time to time, What’s good for you is good for me; because we aren’t competing with each other we are on the same team!

Last modified: July 24, 2010

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