According to Paulo Coelho, author of the Alchemist, a pilgrimage changes your life forever. It means you are open to life and to discovering something new. It is an opportunity to learn about your body, your emotions and your soul. The John Muir Way, a 134-mile trek across Scotland, was suggested to me by my friend, Christine Harris, as a celebration of my 75th birthday. I saw it as my pilgrimage, a way to step off the path of the known, experience the unexpected and affirm that age does not define me.

The first day we walked over eleven miles, climbed 800-feet in elevation and traversed trails that were rockier than anticipated. The landscape shifted from beautiful views of Loch Lomond to rocky outcroppings, lush vegetation and streams. The adventure turned real as the path narrowed and we entered a dark dense forest. The only sounds were those of the wind, my own breath, and occasionally, an unidentified animal. By the third hour of hiking, I just focused on putting one foot in front of the other, not looking too far ahead. After six hours, I welcomed signs of civilization. I took a deep breath knowing a pint of Scottish ale was not far away.

Each day became easier as the focus shifted from the sore feet and muscles to the landscape, cloud formations and milagros (small miracles) along the way. One day after walking several miles, we were in search of the Wayfarer’s Inn where we planned to stop for lunch. Following what we thought was the path, a woman stopped us and asked where we were going. After we told her, she said we were going in the wrong direction, and the inn was closed for remodeling. She redirected our path to another town, two miles further down the road. We dragged ourselves into the first café we encountered and scoured our notes to locate our hotel for the night assuming it was another 4-5 miles away. To our surprise, looking out the window of the café, the hotel was across the street. Our notes were incorrect. Our milagro was a stranger who unknowingly guided us to our lodgings.

Another milagro graced us later in the trip. Our taxi driver, Murray, took us to the get Chris a new pair of shoes, waited for us and then took us on a tour of Edinburgh. He had hopes of becoming a tour guide and practiced on us. During our 134-miles our strength in body, mind and spirit grew. We relaxed and allowed the flow, trusting that whatever happened was for our benefit.

At the end, we celebrated our accomplishments and felt we’d pushed beyond what we thought possible. The trip did not end as we boarded the plane at the Glasgow airport. It continues as insights arise and are recorded in my journal. Paulo Coelho said, “The real pilgrimage starts when the journey is complete. It is an instrument of change that demands you fulfill your dreams or give them up forever.” Serious thoughts to consider and the perfect present for my birthday.