After a 20+ year career in the U.S. Navy, I retired and immediately started walking the Via Francigena. The Via Francigena is an ancient pilgrimage that travels 1100 miles from Canterbury to Rome.
I LOVED this journey! It took several weeks to nail down precisely why it felt so comfortable and familiar, given that I’ve never been on a pilgrimage before. The answer both stunned and made me laugh: pilgrim life bears a striking resemblance to the life of a Sailor on deployment.
How are these lifestyles similar?
Let’s check it out!
1. There’s a very clear objective outlined from the start: a Pilgrim on the Via Francigena needs to get to Rome, be it on foot, on bicycle, or atop a horse.
2. Sailors and Pilgrims tend to be curious people eager to see the world.
3. This lifestyle is pretty intense. Ergo, everyone on the trail is just a little bit crazy (in the best possible way).
4. Both lifestyles require early morning start times. Most people are awake before dawn, and walking at or before sunrise. There’s no sleeping in.
5. Lights in communal rooms are generally out before 10 p.m.
6. Whether you are on a Navy ship or a Pilgrim near a church, you can frequently tell what time it is based off the bells.
7. You willingly forgo certain luxuries, such as privacy, air-conditioning, TV, and private washing machines.
8. Wi-Fi and toilet paper are not a given. They are a luxury.
9. Pilgrims and Sailors typically travel with very little gear. Whatever they carry in a bag is designed to last indefinitely.
10. Everyone knows each other’s business. Is someone off their normal pace, injured, hiking with someone new, rocking a new haircut, or feeling sick? There’s an excellent chance someone is keeping tabs. The underground Pilgrim/Sailor information network is sublime.
11. The Via Francigena Pilgrim Passport is the military equivalent of an ID card. Good luck trying to get inside an ospetale (church-sponsored lodging) without it.
12. When the authorities stop you for a document inspection, you subtly include your Pilgrim Passport along with your tourist passport, with the hopes it’ll make the process go smoother. (It does!)
13. Experienced Pilgrims and Sailors know to bring their own soap and shower shoes.
14. Because of the physical exertion required for the role, Pilgrims and Sailors tend to either be physically fit, or get fit super fast.
15. Somehow, the fastest Pilgrims and Sailors are often smokers.
16. If you’re seated at a restaurant, don’t be surprised if everyone comes together as if linked by magnets.
17. At some point, your modesty is gone. You’ll change clothes and floss your teeth in front of each other without embarrassment.
18. Pilgrims, like Sailors, have what looks to be ONE set of clothing.
19. Sundays and holidays throw off their schedule completely.
20. That Pilgrim Passport might not get you a 10% discount at Lowe’s or Home Depot the way a military ID does, but it does get you free entrance to certain churches and a discount on regional trains.
21. Show your military ID at the gate, and you’re allowed to board a U.S. flight ahead of economy passengers. Flash your Pilgrim Passport at St. Peter’s Basilica security, and you can bypass the massive line.
22. You look out for your fellow Pilgrims, just as they look out for you. Even if they are occasionally annoying, you genuinely, no-kidding, FOR REAL care about their safety and well-being.
23. Both Sailors and Pilgrims are seen as economic drivers, with tailored marketing directed specifically at them. On the Via Francigena, restaurants, hotels, and bars entice Pilgrims inside with specially-priced Pilgrim menu dinners and the promise of free stamps for their Pilgrim Passport.
24. A lot of trust is given to them. Keys to a centuries-old monastery with priceless frescos? The ability to walk through vineyards bursting with ripe grapes? Easy access to all of their fellow Pilgrims’ belongings, when they know exactly what is inside, in which pocket, and how much? The title of Pilgrim/Sailor comes with the expectation that they act with honor.
25. There’s a definite “rank” structure on pilgrimages. Some Pilgrims festoon their backpacks with patches the same way a Naval aviator would jazz up a flight jacket.
26. Collecting Pilgrim stamps for your Pilgrim Passport is the military equivalent of getting signatures for your PQS/JQR.
27. If you see a fellow pilgrim on the trail or out in town, it is mandatory to give some form of greeting or acknowledgement. It’s the equivalent of a salute…And if it’s given, it must be returned.
28. “Buon Camino” (Have a good walk!) = “Fair winds and following seas.”
29. Sailors and Pilgrims both know how to make and strip their own beds in under 2 minutes.
30. When we have the blessing of a washing machine, we might be comfortable putting our clothes in the wash together. But NOBODY touches the underwear except the owner!
31. Your hygiene is being carefully assessed, remembered, and spoken about. Nothing will cause people to trash talk someone as much as showering without shower shoes.
32. The overwhelming majority of locals treat what you are doing with deep respect, even if they don’t want to do it themself.
33. Pilgrims and Sailors elicit a level of hospitality and tenderness several notches above what most strangers get. Locals are keen to take care of you. Farmers leave out treats for you. People come out of their house to offer lemonade and a home-cooked meal. Support from the home team means the world.
34. While on the Via Francigena pilgrimage, you feel part of something much larger than yourself. You’re part of a noble legacy that goes back centuries. You’re part of something special.
35. There’s nothing like spending time surrounded by the elements to make you humbly realize just how small you are.
36. Sailors and Pilgrims have a different concept of time. They know precisely what time it is, while simultaneously being unable to distinguish the day of the week or month.
37. What town are they in right now? What was the name of the city they stayed at the day before? Odds are that your Pilgrim or Sailor will give you a blank look. They honestly can’t remember. The point is, they can reliably and capably get to the next destination…wherever that is.
38. While on pilgrimage/deployment, Sailors and Pilgrims grow close to people they would never ordinarily interact with, regardless of language, background, religion, age, or country of origin. There’s an easy, unforced intimacy generated based solely off the fact they recognize what the other person is going through.
39. Pilgrims and Sailors view anyone who joins the last three days of a trip with deep suspicion.
40. Reaching the objective is bittersweet. You’ve achieved the goal, but there’s genuine sadness when you have to bear-hug your friends goodbye.
Reflecting on the Via Francigena
This journey was so special to me. I’m so thankful I was able to share it with my parents and youngest brother, and for the INCREDIBLE people we got to meet along the way. Perhaps that’s the biggest similarity of all: it’s the people you encounter who make the experience meaningful.
A Sailor/Pilgrim way of life is definitely not for everyone. But those who have done it once will find it life-changing.