Brandon Wilson is a author, photographer, travel expert and adventurer. He has walked to the four most important medieval pilgrimage destinations: Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago de Compostela (via both the Camino Francés and the Vía de la Plata) and Trondheim (Nidaros).
I spoke with Brandon last week. He was in the Italian Alps, where he and his wife finished their most recent adventure: a hike along the Via Alpina, which you can read about in Brandon’s latest book, Over the Top and Back Again: Hiking X the Alps.
That wasn’t the walk we talked about, though. Rather, we discussed Brandon’s Lowell Thomas Award-winning book Along the Templar Trail, and the route he walked from France to Jerusalem—much of it with a Frenchman he calls Émile in the book.
The route runs 4,223 kilometers (2620 miles) through eleven countries: France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Cyprus and Israel.
We talked about the practicalities of the trip, Brandon’s experiences, and his mission to talk to people about peace along the way.
You can download the full interview (length: 36:48) on the very intermittent Pilgrim Roads podcast (to which you can now subscribe in iTunes), listen to it on your computer using the player below, and/or read highlights from the conversation below.
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When Brandon Wilson set off to walk to Jerusalem, one of his two main aims was to blaze a trail others could follow.
Lots of people walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain, Brandon tells me, and increasing numbers of pilgrims take the Via Francigena to Rome.
And after walking those routes—two of the three most important in medieval times— “A lot of the pilgrims I’ve talked to, say, okay, now what?” Brandon says.
I guess the ultimate in the Triple Crown is to walk to Jerusalem. A few people have walked it over the years, but I wanted to try to establish something that people could follow as a path.
He wanted to give pilgrims a rough itinerary, with stages and accommodation along a single route from Europe to Jerusalem.
The route Brandon and his friend Émile followed passed through the cities that Godfrey de Bouillon travelled through with 40,000 men during the First Crusade.
And this brings us to the second purpose of Brandon’s trek. He followed a route that had been used to wage war, while blazing a trail to spread a message of peace.
“It was a purposeful irony,” he tells me.
I did this not only as a walk to establish a trail, but as a personal peace journey and peace trek to talk to people along the way about the necessity to consciously make the personal effort to choose peace over war. This area in particular has been plagued for centuries, and has been a battleground for many different powers pulling on either end.
And I was met with an incredible response along the way, as I talked to people, ordinary people, working-class people who had seen the effects of war. And the effects had not only been losing family members as recently as during the war in Kosovo, to people who have had their cultures and their societies so disrupted, and have suffered through such a cycle of poverty because war not only drains human lives, but it drains resources from countries.
And did his journey—his talking about peace with so many people—make a difference?
“I like to think so,” Brandon says.
Émile walked with a large medieval pilgrim’s staff, which he decorated with the flags of the countries they passed through. And so, the two of them, as Brandon described it, created “a little bit of a spectacle, and something different. Something you wouldn’t normally see walking down beside the side of a road, these two fellows with backpacks, looking like garden gnomes otherwise.”
Their appearance created opportunities to meet and talk with people, Brandon said.
We had a lot of people coming up to us, and stopping us, and saying, “What are you doing?” And that would give us a chance to tell our story.
And we found the story of our passing preceded us down the road. We would have people driving past and waving to us, or even to the point of pulling off the side of the road and giving us food.
They ended up talking about peace on TV in Bulgaria and Turkey, where their interviews ran for ten or fifteen minutes and reached millions of people.
It’s hard to say how much of an effect the two peace pilgrims had, Brandon says. But their actions could spread.
Every action that we make in life, no matter how small, sometimes affects other people in other instances. It creates something. It’s like a snowball effect or it’s like a droplet in the water. It’s only a tiny droplet, one tiny action, but then that action causes a ripple that spreads and spreads and spreads.
And a lot of times that was a metaphor I saw with what we were hoping to accomplish here. That we were simply two pilgrims out walking and talking to people, but I was hoping that this message, and this establishment of the route would grow to more.
A Vision of the Templar Trail
Brandon has heard from a few people he and Émile stayed with along the way. They read Along the Templar Trail and were amazed, Brandon says, because “it ties them all together into this fellowship.”
Many along the route knew it was a path taken by the Crusades. In places like Bulgaria and Serbia, the people are very close to their past, which they remember partly through medieval re-enactments.
In the tradition, of course, it was a path of war. But Brandon wants to change all that.
“Why can’t it be a path of peace? Why can’t it be something that everyday ordinary people from countries all through that area get together and walk side by side like they do on the Camino?” he says.
Can you imagine the power of having a hundred thousand people walking a path, sitting down and sharing meals and stories together, learning that our similarities are greater than our differences, and breaking down those cultural barriers, those religious barriers that politicians and rulers have always set up to set us apart from each other?
There’s a huge potential for human power and the power of the consciousness to change that area. And by simply visualizing peace and working together on that common goal. Of putting one foot in front of another, and stepping and sharing the same trials and tribulations every day. What an incredible difference I think it can make in the long term.
It’s a beautiful dream, but is it likely to happen?
“I think it has everything going for it,” Brandon said.
I think that now more than ever before, we see the necessity for peace and co-operation. And not only avoiding wars, but co-operating on ecological issues, co-operating on issues of human rights and dignity and fair wages and things like that….
In different parts of the world—for example, the European Union—peoples who have been fighting each other are now realizing that times have changed, and it’s now time to join together, Brandon says.
So yes, I think [a peace path to Jerusalem] is possible. It’s going to take a lot of work—and probably more structural work than has been put into it so far, but this is a beginning; this is a genesis; this is a seed. If anything, in my own life, it would be great to be able to look back 30 or 40 years from now and say, yeah, this was something that started when two men with backpacks started out from France.
Brandon would like to do more to develop the route, and would welcome anyone else who would like to join him.
The Kindness of Strangers
As they walked, Brandon and Émile met a number of people Brandon refers to as “angels”—people who went out of their way to help the two pilgrims.
One of their first angel experiences came when they were walking along a canal in France in the pouring rain. They were hungry, thirsty and cold, but there were no restaurants where they could stop.
Brandon saw some tables set out in a yard and joked that they should ask if they could buy a cup of coffee.
And [Émile] looked at me like I was a little crazy, and he said, “Okay, sure, all right.” And we walked over, and just as we approached the door, a man stuck his head out.
The two pilgrims asked about coffee, and the man said they were at his house, not a restaurant. But he invited them inside to his cozy kitchen, where his children—home from school for lunch—sat around the table. The man offered them wine, and then homemade lentil soup.
As we sat there, we were amazed by his generosity, that he brought his kids out and they entertained us, as little kids will do. And then his wife came in, and we talked for a while. And then we found that an hour had passed—and we’d had such a delightful time with these people, these total strangers—and we found we had to excuse ourselves.
I remember distinctly them standing at the door, outside in the rain, waving to us as we set off down the road again. And it was such a touching moment.
I had to say to Emile, “Is this typical in France?” Because I couldn’t imagine the same thing happening in America.
And he said, “Oh yes, you’ll find people are like this in the countryside.”
And that was the beginning of it.
Brandon walked for about four and a half months, and met an “angel” nearly every day.
It became almost as if we no sooner imagined it, we no sooner said, boy, I wonder where we’re going to stay tonight, than someone came forward offering us a place to stay. There was this connection, this eerie connection. …
I was amazed time and time again about the bounty of the world, and how we’re so caught up with feeling emptiness in some ways when there is such bounty, and people willing to share it. And it transcended countries, and it transcended religion.
One day Brandon was walking alone in Turkey. He was in the desert, and out of water. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to make it to the next town.
Then he saw a watering trough for cattle near the road, and went down to it.
“I was pretty desperate at that point,” he says, looking back on that day. But the water was green.
Just then I looked up, and there were two men standing there. And I said, “Can you drink this water?”
And they said, “Why, are you thirsty?”
I said yes.
And they said, “Are you hungry?”
I said, “Well, always. I’m a pilgrim. I’m always hungry.”
And they said, “Well, come with us.”
Brandon followed the men, total strangers, to the other side of an olive grove. Their families had set out a picnic there.
And there was more food there than I had seen in months. There was watermelon and bread and things to drink and all types of food. And they motioned to me to sit down and started passing all the food my way.
And we talked for a while, and they said, “What are you doing out here?”
I said, “I’m walking on a peace path to Jerusalem.”
And they said, “Well, what is peace?” Because they didn’t speak very much English—this is all semi-miming.
I said, “No war, no guns.”
And they said, “Bravo, bravo. We believe in peace, too.”
We talked for a while, and there was so much joy and such happiness in sharing this with them. And finally they started packing everything up, back in the van. They said they were going to the beach, which they would reach in another couple of hours. It would take me five or six days.
They left all the food in front of me.
And I said, “What about this?”
And they said, “This is for you. This is our gift for you.”
I was so touched by that. I was like the family dog left alone at the family table. I didn’t know where to begin, and I hated to waste anything.
But there were those sorts of incidences all the time. And it reassured me about the goodness of human nature.
I ask Brandon if we Westerners have lost the ability to accept kindness like that with grace.
“I think we have,” he says.
I think somewhere along the line, not only showing kindness to strangers but accepting kindness have been somewhat foreign to us. We’ve become so closed in, and so guarded and protective of what we have, and we forget the blessedness of giving, which is a basic tenet of all religions and faiths. The kindness of strangers and to share. And, like you said, the ability to accept it graciously, and to pass it forward.
As a pilgrim, Brandon says, you have to look at what’s really necessary.
It’s letting go of preconceptions, it’s putting yourself—throwing yourself, literally—out there in the universe.
I walk without a cell phone. I don’t have a big dog or pepper spray. I don’t carry a gun, and sometimes I have a stick, but that’s for hiking purposes.
But [pilgrimage is] placing your trust in your faith that you’ll be taken care of. And that you’re doing what you should be doing at that particular point. And that letting go, that’s a huge obstacle for people. It’s again something that’s outside of generally our comfort range these days.
So many people went out of their way to help, or encourage, the pilgrims—in part, Brandon suspects, because they wanted to be part of such an epic walk.
I sensed that a lot of people wanted to participate. They wanted to help us and feel a part of this journey. And [they did] so, by giving us food or giving us a place to stay, or just encouragement—we’d have people on the road who would drive by and beep their horns at us. And as long as they weren’t shaking their fist, I took that as a good sign.
Dangers of the Journey
There wasn’t only peace and kindness on Brandon and Émile’s journey. Sitting in a café in Belgrade one day, they found that fighting had broken out between Lebanon and Israel. The two countries were bombing each other.
“This is the last thing we wanted to hear at that point, because on a trip like this, even though you do have a certain amount of faith, you don’t want to do something stupid,” Brandon says.
You have faith, but you don’t want to step in front of a bus. And this was a potential bus. …
The media was seriously talking about this being the beginning of a World War III. There were some serious rumblings. And in talking to people back in the States—my wife in particular—she said, “Maybe you should think about coming back.”
And for me it took a lot of deep soul-searching about what I should do. I couldn’t speak for Émile because it’s a very personal trip and we each have to make our own decisions on something like this. But I thought, let’s give it some time. Let’s give it a couple of weeks or several weeks, and by the time we get to Istanbul, then we can decide what we’re going to do.
By the time they reached Istanbul, the Israel/Lebanon conflict wasn’t as bad, but there were other warning signs: an attempted attack on the American embassy in Damascus, tourists shot in Jordan, and an Ebola-like virus in eastern Turkey.
Émile, who was quite ill by that time, decided to go home. Brandon continued on, but he decided to take a safer route—and another Templar trail—through Turkey and across Cyprus.
Brandon and Émile followed canals in France, and then took the Donauradweg bicycle route from Bavaria, across Germany and Austria and into Slovakia. From Budapest, they were able to follow bike routes through most of Hungary.
In Serbia, the walking changed. The two pilgrims took country roads when they could, passing through fields and woods when they could find a pathway. But sometimes they had to walk along the highway.
“The first part of Turkey was fine, but coming into Istanbul, the city stretches probably two days’ walking in each direction,” Brandon says.
So a lot of times we found ourselves out there competing with a lot of traffic, and a lot of buses, and a lot of heavy trucks. This became dangerous, and we’d always have to be on our toes.
It wasn’t a path in that sense like the Camino de Santiago, where everything’s nicely marked, and you’re away from the traffic, and there’s nice little arrows every fifty yards. We were out there blazing trails, and unfortunately in some instances these days, those trails are pretty busy.
There are other route options, but the two couldn’t meet up with the GR trails (European long-distance walking pathways) where they existed, because the GR routes passed through mountains, and Émile’s health was bad.
One of the pair’s problems was that Émile had been responsible for bringing maps, and these ended up being road maps without detailed walking information, so the pilgrims had to pick up information as they went along. In the future, Brandon hopes pilgrims will be able to connect with GR paths, or at least get onto safer country roads more often.
Most days, Brandon and Émile walked 30 or 35 kilometres, but some days were longer.
“I remember one day in particular, there was a 50k day, which was really really difficult,” Brandon says.
“Especially since it was through Turkey, and again I was in arid conditions walking by myself out in the middle of nowhere with very little food or water. It was near ten o’clock at night by the time I finally arrived, so it was in excess of a twelve-hour hiking day.
Brandon says he averaged US $31 per day on the route.
In France, he and Émile stayed with Émile’s friends. In Germany and Austria, they often stayed in pensions, zimmer freis and bed and breakfasts. From there on, they stayed in hotels, or whatever other accommodations they could find.
But even Germany and Austria weren’t hugely expensive, Brandon says. The pensions had enormous breakfasts, “which would take you take you at least until lunch if not beyond. We’d have meat and cheese and bread and pastries and coffee and juice and milk and muesli. There were virtual feasts every morning, so we would load up on those. It’s still very affordable.”
In Germany and Austria, they also stayed in monasteries and convents whenever they could. Brandon carried a letter from a monsignor at the Vatican and another from a Catholic university, both introducing him and Émile as pilgrims. With the letters in hand, they would ask for refuge from monks and nuns.
Even at pensions and bed and breakfasts, the two sometimes got a pilgrim discount after they explained what they were doing.
Women on the Trail
I ask Brandon if, as far as the route is safe at all, he thinks it would be safe for a woman or women to walk on their own.
“That’s a difficult question to answer,” he says.
Of course, women walk on their own on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, but on a route like this, Brandon says, people aren’t aware yet that “you’re not just some Westerner out there walking. So I would exercise a lot of caution for single women that would be attempting this now. And also in a practical sense, I think it’s a lot more fun to walk it with someone else.”
Ultimately, he adds, “You just have to use your own good judgment.”
And Back to Peace
I ask Brandon if he has anything he’d like to say before we wrap up. He pauses for a moment before replying.
“I think what it comes down to is a lot of times making a personal choice about the type of world we want to live in,” he says.
Someone once asked Mother Theresa, if there was an anti-war rally, would she attend? And she said, “No. Because I’m not anti-anything, I’m pro. I’m pro-peace.” She said, “If you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be the first person in line.”
I think that’s a bit of wisdom, and I think what we need to do is change our way of thinking and make sure it’s always pro. It’s pro-peace, pro-action, pro-relief of many of the ills that affect us today. Because the human mind has an amazing strength. And the strength of putting this many billions of lives and wills together, it’s impossible almost to imagine what’s accomplishable.
And the funny thing is, in a lot of ways … a lot of the lessons learned on the trail are metaphors for a larger lesson in life, and a larger challenge in life. But the beginning of solving any problem is that first step. And just as simple pilgrims start with a first step, we start with a first step in our own lives.
A passage from the end of Brandon’s book, Along the Templar Trail, sums up his conclusions.
We’re all pilgrims, each on their own path, each with their own story to tell. Walking is only a first step, but one we can each take to discover the peace within. And that way eventually war would become unconscionable, darkness will be dispelled with light, one person, one step at a time.
Walking, helps us reconnect with nature and “meditate in our own way, through that discovering a peace within that we can then carry back to our families, to our work, to our communities,” Brandon says.
So again, it’s the droplet in the pond that’s spreading.
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To learn more about Brandon Wilson, his adventures and his books, visit the Pilgrim’s Tales website. You can find Along the Templar Trail on Amazon.com. Also, check out Brandon’s latest book, Over the Top and Back Again: Hiking X the Alps.
The Confraternity of Pilgrims to Jerusalem Facebook page is also a great place to learn more about the pilgrimage.