Where 14th-century English pilgrims once trod, an Alabama outdoorsman finds hotels, convenience stores, and plenty of other things that remind him—remarkably—of Chaucer.
Ellis has a knack for retracing famous journeys. He’s followed the Trail of Tears (Walking the Trail, 1991), ridden the path of the Pony Express (Bareback!, 1993), and shadowed Sherman to the sea (Marching Through Georgia, 1995). His most recent trek appeals to a sense of spirituality, a topic he tackles by linking the modern British landscape to the lives of the pilgrims who once walked to Becket’s shrine. The author’s trip, like the pilgrims’, takes seven days, each organized around a figure from The Canterbury Tales. Like Chaucer, Ellis comes across shopkeepers, gardeners, and religious folk. Some of them resemble characters in the Tales, but others do not, and readers may well feel the connections are weak. One can sympathize with Ellis when he describes the liberation he feels while traveling and how that freedom may translate into spiritual experience, but his asides relating his own hat to that of a pilgrim in the Middle Ages strain credulity, scallop shell or not. (Pilgrims, writes Ellis, wore scallops to display their piousness.) Moreover, it seems a strange oversight that a writer who constantly references his love of the wilderness and his Cherokee ancestry has very little negative to say about the fact that the forests and wolves that were the mainstay of a Chaucerian pilgrimage are now gone, replaced by pavement, towns, and tamed woods. Instead of using the past as a reference point from which to judge the present, Ellis spends a lot of time talking about how oddly and quaintly pilgrims lived. He doesn’t dwell on what’s been lost, even when he reaches his destination and finds a tourist trap.
Hikers may find it useful. Medieval scholars will scowl.