I quickly concluded that destiny had brought money and opportunity together at a most auspicious time. Already the roster of participants for the trek included friends with whom I'd explored the spiritual byways of personal growth.
In the weeks before departure, we prepared for the journey with the high-minded diligence of pilgrims. We underlined Buddhist insights in Peter Matthiessen's 1979 classic guide to spiritual travel, "The Snow Leopard." We studied customs and memorized words of courtesy in the language of our porters. We lingered over speculations about what these trails along the top of the world held in store for us.
As is often the case with sacred sites, this destination began to transform us even before we left home. It magnified the sense of importance we ascribed to the journey. We imagined the tug of cosmic energies drawing together for this adventure--not as tourists but as something loftier, as spiritual seekers.
In the enchanted state of expectancy that permeated these preparations, a few of us decided to seek the insights of a psychic, lest we miss a profound step in the journey.
In the unpretentious family room of a private home, we met a gentle woman of soft body and warm heart who spoke as channel for "Daniel," a guide from the other side.
"What higher purpose draws us to this journey?" we asked. We wanted confirmation of the sense of destiny that we imagined. We wanted assurance that we would not miss the lessons waiting for us on the trails of a pilgrimage.
Have no fear, the psychic assured us. All would become clear. We would not miss the message or the path. Should we encounter obstacles or fears, we need not worry. A spirit guide would accompany us. We needed only to be aware and receptive to messages from a guide who would appear in diverse forms, we were told.
Days later, as we set out from the Nepalese village of Jiri to begin a three-week trek to Namche Bazaar and on toward Everest Base Camp, we were vigilant. In the faces of children who begged for candy, in the laughing eyes of aged nuns, in the silent support of porters who carried our gear, we caught brilliant flashes of spirit. We reported our sightings to one another. Do you think that child with the frayed stocking cap might have been our guide? What about the bird that bounced from branch to branch just ahead of us as we descended the hill?
Day after day, we looked for signs of spirit, all the while grappling with the very ordinary challenges of a demanding trek. What purpose, we wondered, could possibly be revealed in mud slides, leeches, and rain-soaked tents? But what of that woman with the basket of twigs? Did you see how gracefully she balanced a clumsy load?
By the time we returned to our homes, we had begun to marvel at the power of the psychic's prophesy. The sense of expectancy had changed our view of everything: We looked for spirit, and we saw it everywhere. The banal words of the psychic's generic prediction had produced profound results after all.
Sometimes I laugh at myself now, shake my head in a self-conscious apology for the innocence that empowered the words of a seer of such authority. I shrug in embarrassment at the gullibility that carried me around the globe to seek the guidance of birds and brooks as well as the wisdom of sacred mountains and monasteries.
Nonetheless, 15 years later, the psychic's words still travel with me. They have outlived their vague expectancy, to take shape in the form of tiny agate pebbles I carry in a pocket when I roam.
Certain sites around the globe carry a special distinction as sacred sites. These destinations inspire travelers, by their history or mystery, to step beyond the familiar confines of daily patterns to enter a world of expectation, eyes open to new information, new interpretations, and new horizons.
But the attitude of pilgrimage can be carried on every trip, even an afternoon hike in a nearby woods. One need only set forth with awareness that the sacred emerges where we seek it. "Teachings are everywhere--all around us, if only we open the mind's eye to see. Awareness of life is what makes life special," writes Gyomay Kubose, author of "The Center Within." "Unless we are aware, we do not learn anything. We have no inspiration and no teachings."
Tiny agate pebbles, smoothed by the tumbling surf of Oregon and gathered on weekend strolls along the beach, symbolize my intent to travel with the mind of a pilgrim. They affirm my desire to make every trip a journey to the sacred. Scaling the ridge of a mountain trail, or settling down to rest on the bench of a tranquil park, my hand brushes against the nuggets in my pocket, and I remember to give thanks. I drop a pebble as a gift of gratitude. A silent prayer of appreciation for awareness of the spirit that fills all things.
It is a practice inspired by that pivotal journey into the Himalayas. In a land-locked nation of towering mountains and geographic isolation, treasures from the sea evoke awe. Shells that go unnoticed on the beaches of my home state come to rest on altars in Nepal, attesting to the existence of a world that can't be seen.
The ritual of giving also calls attention to connection with the sacred. Some cultures make offerings of cornmeal, salt, flowers, or incense to acknowledge the omnipresent power of nature. My pebbles take very little space, they won't leak, spill or wilt, and don't visibly affect the place I pick them from, or where I leave them later.
The gifts are simply symbols that hold the intention of the giver. It could be rosemary, for remembrance. Cedar twigs for purification. Grains of sand. Dried rose petals. Fragments of shell. The token is insignificant. The value lies not in what is given but in the intention and in making a ritual of awareness.
These tiny offerings provide a physical link between the roots of home and the parts of me that love to roam; a spiritual link between the divinity in me and the sacred in everything.
It's not where you go, but what you see that makes life a pilgrimage.