Near the northern tip of the 32,000 acres that make up Minnesota’s Itasca State Park lies the spot most everyone1 considers the headwaters of Mníšošethąka—the river also known as the Mississippi. My beloved spouse and I have recently returned from our pilgrimage there.
This trip didn’t start as a pilgrimage. After Lior finished their Masters degree in May of 2021, I said, “I’ve done a pretty good job of supporting you and keeping the household running while you were in grad school. We should do something to celebrate me.”
It took a while, because life kept giving us lemons (and I kept doing a pretty good job of supporting Lior and keeping the household running, if I do say so myself), but eventually we started planning a journey to the Mississippi headwaters, which neither of us had taken before.
Some small, quiet part of me called it a pilgrimage from the beginning. But only in the last month or so of planning did that part step forward so I could start calling it a pilgrimage for real,2 rather than “a trip” or “I guess it’s sort of like a pilgrimage, maybe?”
I grew up with the understanding that the concept of pilgrimage was reserved for members of well-established religions making well-established journeys. Muslims performing the hajj, Jews traveling to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festivals, Catholics walking the Camino de Santiago.
In reality, a pilgrimage is any journey to a sacred site undertaken for religious reasons, and people of all religions can make them. I’m working to deepen my spiritual relationship with the Mississippi River, so the headwaters felt like a perfect pilgrimage destination. Once I felt comfortable saying “This will be a pilgrimage,” the journey shifted into something deeper for me, even when it was still in the planning stages.
One traditional aspect of pilgrimage that I really dig is the idea that you make it not just for yourself but for/with/on behalf of all your coreligionists who aren’t there with you. That concept helped me feel connected both to the non-human nature that surrounded me at every step of the journey and to wonderful, messy, human communities of Pagans. The week before we left, I posted in select corners of social media that Lior and I were making this pilgrimage, and that anyone who had a message for the headwaters could share it with me and I’d pass it along when we arrived.3 Ultimately, no one took me up on the offer, but just knowing that I’d put the word out, and that other people knew what I was doing, helped me feel the love and support of my fellow-Pagans as I stood on that shore.
CARRYING IT OUT
I really wanted to make sure the entire trip feel incorporated into the pilgrimage, not just our actual time at the headwaters. We cast a circle right before we got in the car to leave our house and set up our travel altar and gathered a few spoonfuls of soil at every stop.4 Those few simple acts of intention added a spiritual depth that was exactly what this journey needed, even if in most other ways, it felt like every other road trip we’ve been on together—gas station snack foods of questionable nutrition, pictures of clouds taken from speeding passenger windows, car-dancing to Poliça and Sudan Archives.
Left to our own devices, Lior and I aren’t much for flashy rituals. When we arrived at the headwaters, we greeted the river with a simple hello and the same song we sing to it every time we travel across or alongside it in our neck of the woods. We gathered some water into small bottles and some rocks into pockets. I left a small hair clipping in a clump of weeds along the bank. I took off my shoes and socks and stood ankle-deep in the ice-cold water.5 And then we sat by the river, simply being in its presence and taking in the beauty of the day.
All told, we were probably at the headwaters just under an hour. Our hearts could’ve stayed all day, but our stomachs and bladders drew us back to food and bathrooms.
That night, I shared one last token with Lior: pilgrimage badges6 I’d made for both the headwaters themselves and for Baxter/Brainerd, our major stop coming and going. Just a fun reminder of our pilgrimage. Besides dirt. And rocks. And water. And Itasca stickers. And soooo many pictures.
Then we came home.
And that, dear readers, is the story of our Mníšošethąka headwaters pilgrimage. It wasn’t profoundly life-changing the way Pagans often get taught that experiences like this “should be.” There is no “should” for religious experiences. This journey connected me more deeply to a Mystery that is dear to my heart. It was the best gift I could’ve asked for myself.
- I recently came across a series of articles from 2016 about a geologist who believes that the Mississippi headwaters are actually in South Dakota. But for any number of reasons, we were not going to go to South Dakota. Wasn’t happening.
- Until posting this blog entry, I only called it this to other Pagans. The older I get, the less inclined or obligated I feel to argue with non-Pagans or other kinds of Pagans who want to dispute my right to claim certain words and concepts for my own practice. So, if you want to dispute my right to use “pilgrimage” in this context… have fun disputing yourself, ’cause I’m not gonna engage.
- Thanks to Erin McCole Cupp, whose blog post at Tekton Ministries gave me the specific idea of gathering other people’s messages.
- I got this idea from Buzzfeed, but their original source appears to be Pete from Salvaged Spaces. Though I’m sure he’s not the only person who’s thought of it.
- Spring-fed northern Minnesota rivers in mid-May are no joke, y’all.
- Not as cool as the ones in this Atlas Obscura article, but it was my inspiration.