Lori Erickson, an award-winning travel writer, shares intense experiences around the world, and discusses deep, meaningful travel, often of great beauty.
-- We talk of spiritual journeys, not only for religious reasons. Lori's trip to Lourdes showed her how people rely on faith. and she reflects on the beauty of a Maori area in New Zealand. Lea remembers an evening ceremony in a Kauori forest in New Zealand, and climbing a hill of Buddhas in Borabudur in Java.
-- We discuss spiritual experiences at the Dead Sea, sunset at Sedona Arizona, and memories of Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, Walden Pond, Ephesus Turkey, and Crestone Colorado.
-- At Assisi, with its beautiful church paintings and lovely piazza, Lea attended a jazz concert , and explains how to her, music is a form of spirituality. Lea also mentions the Sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi Greece, where the Oracle sat in ancient times.
-- Lori remembers the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and the expressions of public devotion.
-- We end with our most memorable spiritual travels. Lea reads from her travel book, Places I Remember about solar eclipse. Lori talks about Bear Butte, Idaho, where she often returns.
Lori Erickson lives in Iowa City, Iowa, with her husband, and is one of America's top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She's the author of Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper (which won a Silver Indies Award for 2019 Religion Book of the Year from Foreword Reviews) and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God.
Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, National Geographic Traveler, and Better Homes & Gardens. Her latest book is The Soul of the Family Tree: Ancestors, Stories, and the Spirits We Inherit.
Podcast host Lea Lane has traveled to over 100 countries, written many travel books, including Places I Remember, and has contributed to dozens of guidebooks. She's @lealane on Twitter, Travelea on Instagram, and blogs about travel at forbes.com Contact her at placesirememberlealane.com.
Follow Places I Remember with Lea Lane wherever you listen to podcasts. New travel episodes every Tuesday. And please review it on Apple!
*Transcript edited for clarity.
Lea Lane 00:00
This episode we're focusing on the deeper side of travel. The reasons why we travel in addition to it being fun and relaxing. Our guest is Lori Erickson, one of America's top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. Her latest book is Near The Exit: Travels With The Not So Grim Reaper. Welcome, Lori.
Lori Erickson 00:23
Well, thank you for having me. Lea, I'm delighted to be to be here.
Lea Lane 00 :27
Let's start out, how do you define spiritual travel?
Lori Erickson 00:32
I have a very broad definition of it. Traditionally, it's often been referred to as pilgrimage. But I think that pilgrimage tends to limit it a bit much people think that it's in, I think, a religious box and that you have to be very devout to go on a pilgrimage. And instead, I like the broader term of spiritual travels, which encompass many different kinds of trips, it might be a trip to a holy site that many people recognize, or it might be a trip to a place that has spiritual meaning for you alone, perhaps the town that you grew up in and left at the age of five, and you hadn't been back since, or a beautiful, natural place. So in short circuit, and then a long explanation, I would say I define a spiritual journey as one which changes your heart.
Lea Lane 01:20
Oh, that's beautiful. Nature is a big part of it, I'm sure. And what you say is true. You could just be close to home. And here's some birds singing and feel very spiritual. I know that's true for me. Now, you've written books on similar topics. Why did you start writing about this niche? Well, I've
Lori Erickson 01:39
I always had a great interest in spiritual topics. And I've also had a long standing interest in travel. And for a long time, I kept those two passions separate. And then about 15 years ago, I had sort of an aha moment and thought, Oh, this is ridiculous. There's such, there's such correspondence between the two such in so many intersections, because, of course, many of the much of the first travel that humans did was most likely for a spiritual purpose, it would have been one of the reasons why they would have been willing to leave the safety of a small village or community was was to go for some sort of spiritual purpose, whether it was deep into a prehistoric cave in France, or a journey to Jerusalem. So anyway, spiritual journeys have always been part of tourism as we define it. But I think a lot of people have forgotten that about travel. And so I'm, in my work, I try to remind them of that,
Lea Lane 02:39
Can you give us some tips on how travelers could experience travel in a deeper way?
Lori Erickson 02:44
I think part of it is the preparation before you leave. And I should say, I don't think there's anything wrong with regular travel, you know, I love getting out of each with with a mystery novel. But a spiritual journey often begins with some sort of preparation. And that might well include some kind of call that comes to people and that call might be a magazine article that they happen to read in a doctor's office, it might be a book that sort of falls off of the library shelf to them as some kind of prompting that says, Oh, that's a place that I think that I would like to visit. And then during the trip itself, I think a spiritual journey often is harder than a regular trip, I think it it can involve real physical difficulty, you know, I think of the people who walk the Camino in Spain, for example, which is a very difficult journey to take or, or people who take the trek into Machu Picchu in Peru. So it's a it's a journey, where sometimes the difficulty of the journey is an essential part of it. If it was all ease, we wouldn't learn as much from it. And then the third part of a spiritual journey, I think, is the evaluation that goes on after you return. With a regular trip. Hopefully, you come home rested and refreshed, but from a spiritual journey, you might well have questions and insights that might take you years to unpack. So that's what I would say. It's it's much more than the journey itself. It's the before and the after is interesting.
Lea Lane 04:15
You've mentioned pilgrimages. I know you've been to Lourdes because you want to tell us a little bit about that trip.
Lori Erickson 04:22
So in Lourdes, as I'm sure most people know, is one of the most famous healing shrines in the world. It's a Catholic shrine in in France, in southern France, associated with miracles. And I'm not Catholic, but I've always wanted to visit Lourdes because I have a great interest in healing. And when I was there, I found myself thinking of an experience that had happened to me, oh, almost 20 years before when my oldest son nearly died of bacterial meningitis. And so even though that that experience was so far in the past, when I was at Lourdes that came so vividly to life because So many of the people there are obviously dealing with serious illness, they're in wheelchairs, they're wearing chemotherapy, scarves, etc. And so it felt like I was joining in a real communion of people seeking physical and spiritual healing. Even though I wasn't seeking a miracle and a sense, my miracle had already happened. Lourdes is for everyone who's ever been broken, we're in France, is it? Exactly, it's the end the pennies, it's in southwest France.
Lea Lane 05:32
Okay, let's talk about other destinations around the world that are known to help us find a deeper connection to the earth to other people and ourselves. I mentioned, some I visited and, and you visited and we can just go through them. But I think they're all wonderful destinations for any traveler, but also for someone looking for something deeper. I'll start with Varanasi, India, where I visited the Ganges River in India many years ago. And what I looked upon when I saw that was, it was a very polluted River. And along the shores, people were being cremated, and the water was filled with ash and the sky was very murky, and, and I was looking at people bathing in the water. And they were bathing, because they believed that by doing that, they could rid themselves of their sins. And I really was so struck by faith, it was something I had never seen quite like that before. And it stuck with me, like you said, these kinds of trips, you know, remain with you. And that was a vision, I just I still think of when I when I think of people's faith, because they felt it was purifying them. So that was a very interesting trip for me. I know you've been to Cape Riga New Zealand, you want to tell us about why that's considered spiritual?
Lori Erickson 06:52
Well, it's a site that that's wholly for the indigenous people of New Zealand and Maori. And the belief is that this is the place where souls make the transition to the next world. And so it's this wonderful, windswept place that has huge rocks that look like elephants out a few, maybe half a mile out from shore. And it's a place where you just want to be quiet and walk along the beach. And so I think it's a good example of their story is not our story. You know, though those of us who come to New Zealand as visitors, but I think it's possible to enter into the spirit of that holy place, with respect and with an open heart. And I think it's possible to feel some of that that liminal space there that betwixt in between threshold space, that story is really about.
Lea Lane 07:46
I remember as well, the the crashing waves, the the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean, and it's very dramatic and beautiful. I also was lucky to visit a forest nearby with ancient cowrie trees. And I went to an evening ceremony there led by a young man who was singing to the tree, we entered the forest, we took our shoes off, we had to enter barefoot, and there were maybe five or six of us around this magnificent 1000 year old tree. And he was singing to it. And again, it was something I will never forget. And I spoke to him afterwards. I said, Have you traveled the world? He said, Yes. But I came back here, this is this is where I belong. And that was the most beautiful ceremony I can remember. And I still remember it maybe 20 years later, nice to have those in your life. Another one borrow up a door, I hope I'm pronouncing that I always pronounce that wrong. It's an Indonesian, the island of Java. I was there by myself. I traveled alone. For many years, I wrote a book called solo traveler. This was perhaps the most meaningful trip I ever took alone, because it was pouring rain and nobody was there. And I sat and waited. And it was after hours. And man let me in through the gate. And I was all by myself on this huge Hill, this Mandela of 2 million stone blocks with Buddhas all around me, and was in the diagram of a perfect universe. And I remember climbing the steps. And then I was at the top alone with the wind and the setting sun. And it was really so beautiful. I'm not Buddhists, but I felt the strength of the ages there and very meaningful about the Dead Sea in Israel. Well,
Lori Erickson 09:29
I think it's really interesting that it's called the Dead Sea. And in some ways, it is dead, of course, you know, in the fact that it's so full of minerals that it doesn't have the normal aquatic life. But in other ways, it's a place where I felt sort of pulsing with life. You know, I think part of it has to do with the fact that it's below sea level and sort of has something to do with the oxygen and how you get more of it at that level. But I also think, I think the desert landscapes are often sort of Anvil for spiritual reflection, I think of all the religious traditions that were born in the desert of all the holy people who went into the, into the desert, for inspiration and for retreat. And I think you can feel that in the Dead Sea area and also knowing how it's it's so important in the history of Judaism and in the history of Christianity that you can sort of feel the history around you as well.
Lea Lane 10:26
Yes, it's very near Masada, the cliffs where the group of Jews jumped off the cliff rather than succumb to the prisoners of Romans. And so that is very close by and adds to the spiritual feeling, I think, over there. What about Sedona, Arizona, that's closer to our home.
Lori Erickson 10:45
I love Sedona, I love all the crystal shops and the psychic readers. And I love the landscape, the beauty of the Red Rock landscape, but just glows in the sun. And the sun is so bright there too, most of the time. And I have a great affection for sort of the quirkiness of a lot of the New Age stuff. They're the vortexes that are said to be there. And one of my favorite memories of being in Sedona was, we joined a whole group of people who went up, I think, near the airport to watch the sunset. And it clearly is just it's like one of the events in town every night is that locals and visitors go up and you bring your lawn chair, and you just sit up there and you watch the sunset. And it felt like you know, sort of like this mystical union of people from the great diversity and from all over the world, really. And what we were doing was sitting there being in awe of beauty. And it was so simple, and yet so profound at the same time.
Lea Lane 11:48
Yes, I've done that many times in Key West, which is close to where I live. And the same thing happens, people take their chairs and sit on the docks and watch the sun maybe with something in their hand to drink. And it's a very nice thing. When everybody collapses, the sun goes down, you feel communion, Angkor Wat, which is a very far cry from that. But it's also very spiritual is something I remember as well. It's the largest spiritual complex of the world. It's in Cambodia. It was originally a Hindu temple, but it was transformed into a Buddhist temple. And again, I was there by myself, I chose to go there. I remember I wasn't feeling that well. And I didn't realize that many people go there to feel healing, but I just felt the energy there. It's a magnificent, magnificent place and you feel the spirit of the ages. All inspiring is a word I would use for that. You mentioned Machu Picchu, people go there to see the beautiful, advanced engineering of the rocks. I mean, people, I can't believe in the 15th century people could could pull those rocks up all over. But there's more to it. Did you hike there?
Lori Erickson 12:56
I did, I wish I would have hiked into it. And though I'm not sure I would be up to up to it at this point. But if you stay in this village that's down below it, and then you take the bus up, and then I was able to wander on my own. I do think Machu Picchu is one of the world's great spiritual sites, I mean, I would put it in the top 10 of places that I have visited around the world. I think part of it is it's nearly perfect blend of natural and human made beauty and that physical setting that encloses this incredible set of engineered walls and, and ruins there. I also think that it's a thin place. I don't know if you are familiar with that term, it's often used to describe spiritual places within place. I think it comes from the ancient Celts and Ireland, that it's a place where the veil between worlds is thin. And I think it's a really nice metaphor for talking about places like Machu Picchu, where you're there, you're in a standard sort of place. And yet there's this sense of something else there. You know, it might be that goes to the past or of spirits or whatever, but you're sort of walking into worlds when you're in places like Machu Picchu,
Lea Lane 14:08
I would suggest I was there many years ago, it wasn't very crowded. I would suggest if possible to go offseason and to stay over if you can. So it's early in the morning or late at night wait later in the evening when you can see it because the crowds do affect the feeling. I think at any of these sites if you can remember to try to go when most people will not be going it will help. You can't always be alone, but you can certainly try to be you know in a less crowded situation. Now you mentioned a few places I'll just I'll just read them but you can talk about any of you want that you also felt were very spiritual in one way or another one is Assisi, Italy and others Crestone Colorado. Another is Walden Pond, Massachusetts. And emphasis Turkey. Do you want to tell us any thing about any of those?
Lori Erickson 14:57
Yeah, so I'll start with Walden Pond, which is it associated with the 19th century, the philosopher and writer Henry David Thoreau. And for anyone who has ever read Walden and the book to be at Walden Pond, I think is a pilgrimage. And the National Park Service does a beautiful job of talking about the significance of what happened there. I mean, in one sense, it was just a little cabin on the side of a very small pond. A very small lake, I would say. But in another sense, what happened there had reverberations that included Gandhi's work in India and Martin Luther King Jr's work of in the United States, fighting against injustice, and that all in many ways was deeply influenced by what went on in that small cabin. So and especially as a writer that felt like a pilgrimage to me. Turkey has some of the most beautiful Greco Roman ruins in the Mediterranean. It's in ruins. But oh my gosh, the rooms. It's so photogenic, so sunlit and evocative of an entirely different era that it's hard not to be transported when you're at emphasis. Crestone, Colorado is a holy site that not many people have heard of, but I'm sort of unrequested have more people be aware of it. It's a very small town in South Central Colorado, not too far from the great Sand Dunes National Monument. Crestone has more spiritual sites per square inch than I think certainly than anywhere in North America. There are more than 20 different religious groups that have astronomers, monasteries, religious centers of one sort or another there. And the reason is that in the 1970s, there was a wealthy philanthropist couple who made an offer, they bought up a bunch of land and then they made an offer that any spiritual group could have the land for free if they would establish a religious center there. So as a result, Crestone is this wonderful mix of faiths and characters. And the other thing that drew me there was that it has the only open air nondenominational cremation ground in the United States. And so it certainly relates to what you were saying about what you saw on the banks of the Ganges, much smaller, of course, and you have to be from Crestone in order to be cremated there. But it's a beautiful cremation ground, very tastefully done. And it's a powerful experience to be there in a place where people publicly say goodbye to the earthly remains of their friends and neighbors. So I think I think I mentioned all of those.
Lea Lane 17:29
Yeah, I think they're all very interesting especially Walden Pond, Crestone and Assisi, of course.
Lori Erickson 17:36
Yeah. So Assisi, its connection to St. Francis of Assisi, a great patron of animals in the environment. And Assisi is so beautiful. It's a hilltop village, beautifully restored full of churches, the tolling of bells of people coming there from around the world. And beautiful art, many of the churches, especially the Basilica, is full of some of the most beautiful examples of art ever created. So I mean, Assisi is is just like a small little outpost of heaven.
Lea Lane 18:10
It is, and it's not spiritual, but I went to a jazz festival there, which was very, very to me, spiritual in its own way. Music is also a form a form of worship, I think, yeah, absolutely. Another great place that I remember for many years ago was a sanctuary of Apollo in Greece, where the Oracle of Delphi was, and there's a beautiful statue there. It's just a very simple building with this magnificent statue in it. But Delphi dates back to around 1500 BC, and it's very deeply steeped in ancient Greek mythology. It's just something it has a presence that I still remember and find it spiritual. Let's end with the Western Wall in Israel. Tell us about that.
Lori Erickson 18:59
The western wall is the remains of the temple, this second temple built by Solomon, and it's a holy place for Judaism, as well as Christianity. It's a place where you can see faith in action. And I was struck by what you had to say about seeing that in India. And I think that's often very moving, to see people's devotion, public devotion, because oftentimes people's inner lives in their spiritual lives are not visible. But in places like the Western Wall when you can see people prank davening I think that's the term for swaying back and forth in the Jewish tradition. People placing small pieces of paper in the wall that carry prayers. Again, it's a place that steeped in tradition that steeped I think in the prayers and countless people over the centuries, and you can feel that when you're there.
Lea Lane 19:51
I think we've given a very good list. There are so many other places, but that's a start. The name of the podcast is places I remember So let's each share one special memory of travel that we consider spiritual, I'll start, it's a very natural one. It's when I saw on August 21 2017, the total eclipse of the sun, and I took a trip to Nashville with my husband just to see that we only were there for two days. But it was a pilgrimage of sorts. And I'll just read a little from my book places I remember and maybe it'll give a little feeling of it. As the moon began its inexorable alignment in front of the sun, we waited darkened glasses in place cameras and hand heads up at 1158. And for the next three hours, the sun peeked in and out of clouds teasing us terribly as the moon moves steadily in the sun's path. A sudden low sunset wrapped around us 360 degrees, something I had not expected. And starting at 1:27pm, our protective glasses came off with a long awaited much coveted two minutes of totality, as the sun skirted out of the clouds into clear sky, and we stared at our strange looking star, and it was gorgeous. As we saw the Black Death sun eyes wide open, light turned violet insects, homed shadows became exaggerated as if in moonlight only sharper, and the hot, humid, midday air became gently cool. totality is something everybody should plan to experience at least once. And the next one coming up in the states is in 2024, less light is so much more. So that's one of the ways to have a spiritual experience just by looking at nature and feeling it. And that's all around us. As we mentioned earlier, how about you what would be your special memory,
Lori Erickson 21:43
I wanted to talk a little bit about Bear Butte, which is a holy site near the Black Hills in South Dakota. It's a state park, but it also has been a holy site for Plains Indian tribes for millennia, especially Lakota and the Cheyenne part of the mountain is reserved for ceremonial use for Native peoples. But there's also a hiking trail that you can take to the top. And when I say mountain, it's not a very impressive mountain, I mean it, it takes about 45 minutes to get to the top there are much more scenic areas in the in the Black Hills especially. But it is a place of spiritual power. And for me, it is a place that I have returned to again and again, my husband's family lives in the Black Hills. And so I began going there soon after we got together, we would make you know, at least a yearly, a yearly hike up to the top of bear Butte. And so part of what I respond to when I'm there is this sense of the passage of time for me, I remember hiking it when I was pregnant, and I hike it now with gray hair. And the fact that I do it every year every summer means that there is a kind of there's a ritual about it, that I think that's an important thing to mention about spiritual travel as well that sometimes they're places that you will go only once in your life. And sometimes it's a place that you return to again and again. The other thing I would say about Butte, it's very moving is to see all the evidence of devotion around you. And so the trees are full prayer ties, prayer ribbons, little bundles of tobacco, which is a sacred herb for many Indian tribes. Sometimes I've heard the sound of drums when I've been walking. And you know that ceremonies are going on in the ceremonial area down below. And so it all gets threaded together when you're there and your story becomes a small part of that larger story that's been going on there for for many, many years. So bear Butte and again, I like to mention it because it's I think people sometimes don't realize how many holy sites we have in the United States in North America. You don't have to get on an airplane, you don't have to go to Europe or India, you can experience the sacred right in in our own our own country now.
Lea Lane 23:54
Thank you so much, Lori Erickson, you've given us a wonderful guide to to deeper, meaningful travel. Just want to mention that your upcoming book is called the soul of the family tree. And I'm sure like the others. It's it's very wonderful. So all of Lori's books are on my show notes on my podcast show notes. Thanks again. I appreciate it so very much. It was wonderful.
Lori Erickson 24:19
It's wonderful to talk to you. I traveled with you and so enjoyed that and it's great now to do to relate in this way. So thank you.