Rising at 2 in the morning to scramble up Mt. Sinai seemed suitably biblical at the time. The idea was to reach the summit as dawn broke.
The three-hour hike in the moonlight and ringing silence, except for the crunch of gravel underfoot, only added to our sense of the mystical.
As we neared the summit, breathless but ready to be awed, the local Bedouins were ready, too. A weather-beaten old man emerged from the gloom to hawk bottled Coke and some weary-looking candy bars, which looked like they had done a few pilgrimages of their own.
This wasn't quite the revelation we had in mind.
But Bedouin concession stand or not, climbing to a physical high point is often driven by a desire to find a mental high point.
The early medieval pilgrimages were cathartic experiences. Physical hardship and endurance helped bring mental focus and purification. And just like the old adage about life being a journey, the pilgrims' final destination was often secondary to the plodding steps along the way.
Putting one foot in front of the other and walking away from the fast pace of high-tech living, if only for a few hours, is drawing new converts.
Diana Digges (story at right) takes to one of the most well-known paths of pilgrimage since the Middle Ages - Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. She talks to modern-day pilgrims and asks why they leave complex lives to walk 500 miles to an old cathedral on the tip of a continent.
Solitude and reorientation is the common reply.
A mountaintop experience - with or without the mountain - or warm bottled Coke.
* Susan Llewelyn Leach is the assistant Ideas editor. Comments? Please e-mail us at: Ideas@csps.com
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