More on Pilgrimage–but with ties to tourism and the source of the Mississippi

3 Jun

Art Remillard has contributed a chapter to a new book on religion and the Mississippi River. His focus is on Lake Itasca, the headwaters of the Mississippi.

In his reflections about his project, he notes the close connection of tourism  and pilgrimage to a place such as Lake Itasca:

In Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner identify the traces of religious activity in secular travel, writing “a tourist is half a pilgrim, if a pilgrim is half a tourist.” Commenting on the American bicentennial, the authors discuss how millions of people had traveled to national parks and forests, both for recreation and “to renew love of land and country.”

While Itasca’s traveler-pilgrims weren’t talking much about national identity, they did use religious language to translate their accomplishments and transformations. One bicyclist, for example, finished at Itasca and remarked, “On the outside I may have looked the same. . . but my muscles and soul had changed me into a pilgrim.” Punctuating this sentiment, she “baptized” her bike in the headwaters, “for a spiritual amen.” When Eddie Harris began his canoe trip downriver from Itasca, he wrote, “It’s not a Gothic cathedral, but a lovely little chapel whose absolute artistry you do not expect, and you’re awestricken.” As he formed a bond with this environment, he also began relating to its history. Specifically, he recalled Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the explorer credited with locating the source in 1832 and providing its name (derived from the Latin words veritas and caput, for “true head”).
Not surprisingly, connections between tourism and pilgrimage are sustained by the emotional responses of tourist-pilgrims to places such as Lake Itasca. Remillard notes:
As I quickly learned, the story of the headwaters is one of discovery, discrediting, and re-discovery. On February 1, 1806, army lieutenant Zebulon Pike trudged through the snow to Leech Lake, and proclaimed that it was the river’s source. “I will not attempt to describe my feelings on the accomplishment of my voyage,” he wrote in his journal, “for this is the main source of the Mississippi.” Then, in 1828, Italian adventurer Giacomo Beltrami published A Pilgrimage in Europe and America, wherein he claimed to have “found” the source at Lake Julia. Beltrami said that the “sublime” site of the lake filled him with “an almost heavenly ecstasy.” Finally, Schoolcraft made the enduring claim that Itasca was the source. “What had been long sought,” he exclaimed, “at last appeared suddenly . . . the cheering sight of a transparent body of water burst upon our view.”
As I studied the details of their expeditions, I noticed that each explorer relied on emotion to validate his claim. In other words, they used an expression of wonder to legitimate their discovery, rather than citing any empirical evidence. From this position of feeling, they confidently inscribed new meaning on to the landscape, replacing an old map with a new one.
For the entire reflection by Remillard, see here.

One Response to “More on Pilgrimage–but with ties to tourism and the source of the Mississippi”

  1. Douglas Firth Anderson June 3, 2013 at 11:00 am #

    Reblogged this on Northwest Iowa Center for Regional Studies.

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