By Niki Fritz
Note: To get the full pilgrimage experience, read this article while listening to the Scottish band’s classic “Walking on the Waves.“
When Dustin first started talking about his summer plans last spring, they involved a trip to London to assist in Susan Kelly’s script class and then some vague notion of a “pilgrimage.”
“I wanted to do something completely me. Something completely alone and see what that was like. To rely on myself and no one else. I needed that,” Dustin explained. Originally the plan was to spend 3 weeks in London in class, visit a friend in France and then head to the Camino de Santiago in Spain to get some alone time, spiritual awakening and most likely blistered feet. In the end, Dustin’s pilgrimage didn’t take him anywhere he expected, but it took him everywhere he needed to be.
For three weeks, Dustin was in London helping Susan Kelly with her script writing class and doing it up tourist style. They went to the Globe, the Tower of London, Stonehenge, and all the usual must-see places. The class also hit up some popular film sites such as the Harry Potter Museum and took a James Bond tour. But it was a weekend trip to Edinburgh in Scotland that changed the game for Dustin. He fell in love with the highlands and decided he needed to explore Scotland.
But Dustin’s trip was not a straight shot from London to the mystic beauty of Scotland. The adventurer had a week before he was supposed to meet up with a friend in France so he decided to hop on a plane and head to Ireland without much of a plan. In Dustin’s words he chose Ireland because … well … “Green is my favorite color … so Ireland was ideal for me.” After a brief stay in Dublin, which Dustin said had cool music but was a big city like any other big city, the now vagabond headed to the small fishing town of Doolin. Dustin explored the Cliffs of Moher and biked around Inishmore in the Aran Islands, one of the places that inspired Tolkien. After his brief tour of Ireland, Dustin got himself back to Dublin and then on a plane to Paris.
What was awaiting Dustin in Paris was a dramatic, unexpected time change and – surprisingly – no cell service. Dustin got into Paris around 2 am, when everything was closed and no one spoke English. He couldn’t find the bus to get to his friend’s house and he had no way of calling him. Dustin said it was his “first true moment of ‘oh my god no one can help me.’ I was truly helpless. I felt like an idiot … But it was cool to be kind of helpless and lost. I think because it sobers you.” Eventually a lovely, generous soul let Dustin use his cell phone and Dustin’s friend came and found him. Dustin spent some time exploring Paris, seeing the Eiffel Tower and touring Versailles. (There is an AMAZING video of Dustin and a fellow traveler singing “Stand By Me” in a row boat in Versailles if you are lucky enough to find it on Facebook!) But mostly Dustin was realizing his plan had changed. He didn’t need to walk the Camino de Santiago; Scotland was calling him.
From Paris, Dustin flew straight to Edinburgh and then to Fort Williams to start his pilgrimage. In Fort Williams, Dustin found a little beatnik hostel filled with locals, one of whom gave him direction to climb Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the UK. Unfortunately Dustin didn’t realize the guy had guided him to the professional mountaineer route, the one that would have required a lot more gear than Dustin had. After five hours of climbing, Dustin found his way back to the day hiker route. Six hours later he had finally completed the journey to the top and back. And although he missed the views from the north face side of the mountain, he had made it. He spent the next few days recouping from his six-turned-11 hour hike before he attempted to make another hike.
This time Dustin wanted to hike the West Highland Way, a hiking path from Fort Williams all the way to Glascow. It is usually one of the best marked routes in Scotland but this year they were doing forest construction, meaning they had taken down the route markers and filled the path with confusing and contradictory detour signs. Dustin headed out from Fort Williams in the morning and walked for six hours before he conceded that he was not going to make it over this mountain to the next city on the route. He had to give up and head back. It is a day he calls the “Day of Defeat.”
“It was releasing to fail. I set out to do this and I couldn’t,” Dustin explained. “I’m a perfectionist and I failed. And I was okay. I had to get over my pride.”
Back in Fort Williams after the Day of Defeat, a few new hostel friends invited him to stay longer and enjoy the city, but Dustin knew he had to give it a go again. He hopped a ride with some Australian hikers to a few towns over where he hoped the path would be clearer.
This time Dustin made it to the top of some hellish sounding ascension called “Devil’s Staircase” which overlooked Glen Coe . There Dustin decided he would pitch his tent and sleep on the side of a mountain, which he realized midway through the night was going to be a miserable idea. It was freezing on the mountain. Dustin got up early the next morning, fog and dew enveloping him. He was wet from fog and sweat and shivering from the still cold temperatures. That is when he saw a vision, a random inn in the middle of nowhere. There he got a hot breakfast and decided he was done with his camping attempt. “I knew I was done … I didn’t need to prove it to myself that I had to do it.”
Instead Dustin went on a Mac backpacking tour that took the group around Scotland in a less body-crushing, frostbite-infringing way. During the next week, Dustin got to see Loch Ness, hear local bands and relax and absorb the beauty of Scotland.
“I had a few moments of profound beauty. There were some moments that made you feel so small because they were so beautiful and profound.”
NORTHERN IRELAND TO HOME
After Scotland, Dustin decided to make the jump over to Northern Ireland. But after a few days exploring, Dustin realized he was a little homesick and out of money; his pilgrimage was over. Well almost …
“Even when I was [in Scotland] I realized I went on this pilgrimage but it wasn’t over until I got back. I’m a believer in the there-and-back-again. To have an adventure, it is not so much going on the adventure, it is coming back.”
After Dustin got home to the States, he promptly shaved off the beard he had cultivated over the past month of hiking. But after his face was smooth, he realized his missed the beard, without it he didn’t quite feel like himself anymore. It was possible his pilgrimage had changed him in some permanent ways.
“[A pilgrimage] is you trying to go out and be with yourself or your higher power. It was figuring out if I could do something by myself. I don’t know if I succeeded but I know it was important,” Dustin said. “I think it has made me hungry for life. I’m tired of being content. I want to live.”