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Pilgrim's journey of self-discovery

July 13, 2003|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

HereThe Singular Pilgrim

Travels on Sacred Ground

Rosemary Mahoney

Houghton Mifflin: 406 pp., $25

If you ever fall in among religious travelers, keep an eye out for a lone skeptical woman, fortyish, whose stride is well practiced and whose gaze seems to miss nothing. That would likely be Rosemary Mahoney, whose travels for this book took her to half a dozen spiritual territories in Europe and Asia.

In Walsingham, England, she investigated the site of a shrine to the Virgin Mary, where every year Catholics and Protestants stage pilgrimages on consecutive days. In France, she soaked at Lourdes. In northern Spain, she walked 500 miles on the road to Santiago de Compostela. Other visits took her to Israel, Varanasi in India and an island in County Donegal, Ireland.

"I told myself it was merely my job, an intellectual pursuit, that I was writing about the religious aspirations of real pilgrims, which had little to do with me," Mahoney writes in her introduction. "But I am approximately as strange, conventional, fearful, susceptible, and pathetic as the next person.... I set out to discover one thing and discovered something else."

Mahoney, author of books on Ireland and China, made her "Pilgrim" travels in 1999 and 2000. She operates in the tradition of Paul Theroux: well briefed, wise, usually unafraid, rarely diplomatic, frequently lyrical. The great twin pleasures here for readers are her sharp vision and prose that matches it. She sketches her fellow pilgrims and herself unsparingly, finds grace in unadvertised quarters, finds humor remarkably often.

"Each morning, because of my blisters, I started out limping like an old woman," she writes of her 23-day hike to Santiago de Compostela. "After an hour the blisters grew moist and flexible, the pain dissipated, and I was able to increase my speed. I would find a cafe in which to have coffee and bread, and then, five or six hours later, I would find a place for lunch, usually a bar, where I'd bleat an approximation of a Spanish greeting at the bartender, have two or three bottles of water, a can of Coke, two glasses of orange juice, three chorizo sandwiches, a weird array of Spanish garnishes (for example, two gherkins, two green olives, a sardine, a hunk of tuna fish, and a piece of pickled onion, all stabbed through with toothpicks), some nuts, and some chocolate."

Much later, ruminating on an island of penitents in Ireland, she notes that "it was a psychic sauna filled with the steam from your own person. It was you, the soul, the vaporous essence of consciousness and conscience that seemed to occupy, roughly, the space between thorax and cranium. The physical body went about in circles, with frozen feet and stinging eyes, kneeling, moving constantly, like a wind-up toy, while within it the soul percolated, inviting God in, inventing him."


Famous and infamous places

James Dean Died Here

The Locations of America's

Pop Culture Landmarks

Chris Epting

Santa Monica Press: 312 pp., $16.95 paper

This book bulges with facts, but road-trippers take note: It seems intended more for a casual reader (a few pages at a time) than for someone formulating an itinerary. The sites, more than 600 of them, are organized thematically instead of geographically. So in the opening chapter, "Americana: The Weird and Wonderful," we leap from the garage in Los Altos, Calif., where the Apple computer was born, to Area 51 in Nevada to the Arizona Meteor Crater, 20 miles west of Winslow. (An index is organized by state. Not surprisingly, California and New York dominate.)

Many of the locations are private homes that presumably do not welcome visitors. (In his introduction, the author covers this with a blanket caution, requesting that readers "respect the sanctity and/or privacy of the locations listed in this book.")

Anyway, there's plenty of pop culture here and, it must be said, plenty of untimely death: the Canyon Country home where Del Shannon ("Runaway") committed suicide at age 55 in 1990; the Days Inn in Corpus Christi, Texas, where singer Selena was fatally shot at 23; the Nazarene church on East Sierra Madre Boulevard in Pasadena where former NBA great Pete Mara- vich died at age 40 of heart failure during a pickup basketball game. (As for James Dean, his fatal 1955 crash happened about 25 miles east of Paso Robles.)

To cheer up, linger a minute in the Minneapolis shopping district where Mary Tyler Moore flung her hat into the air (7th Street and Nicollet Mall, where a statue now stands); or at Mork and Mindy's house (on Pine Street in Boulder, Colo.); or at the Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, where, in 1975, much of the album "Frampton Comes Alive" was recorded.


A wish book for spoiling yourself


Exceptional Destinations

Around the World

Eloise Napier

Abbeville Press: 160 pp., $29.95

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