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The healing power of a pilgrimage

Is it possible to restore faith in life by walking? Kes Blans from the Netherlands had beaten cancer, but he had lost his ability to trust life. A pilgrimage from Oslo to Trondheim changed everything. ​

“This is for me! It kind of called me – ‘pick me, pick me’!” Kes says with a cheeky smile, holding a stone in his hand.

It is a mild September day, and Kes is surrounded by the rolling hills and drifting clouds in Dovrefjell national park. The stone in his hand is an ordinary, grey stone. But since the 37-year-old Dutchman picked it up along the trail, it has taken on a deeper meaning.

Kes takes a deep breath of fresh mountain air and keeps on walking. One step at a time, he makes his way up the Hardbakken hill towards the top of Allmannsrøysa. This is where numerous pilgrims have left a symbolic burden in the form of a stone before they have continued towards Trondheim a little lighter. Soon, it will be Kes’ turn.

The hardest fight

Kes had his last chemotherapy a year and a half ago. But after he conquered his cancer, he realised that the hardest battle was still to come. The cancer cells were replaced by panic attacks and a fear of being alone, even a fear of being alive.

“Everything that used to give me joy meant nothing to me.”

He didn’t recognise himself anymore.

And then he received a request from Visit Norway: Would he like to walk the 643-kilometre long pilgrim path from the ruins of the Oslo monastery to the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim? The pilgrimage would be part of a documentary series about how walking in nature and taking the time to contemplate a train of thought can change people. Maybe this was what he needed?

“But I didn’t have very high expectations. At the time, nothing affected me”, Kes says.

The art of walking

And this is how, a few weeks later, he is standing at the top of the Dovrefjell mountains, 1,212 metres above sea level, with a grey stone in his hand. He has made it there all by himself and is tired but in a good way.

The last few days he has wandered across fields and forests, through the beautiful cultural landscapes of the Gudbrandsdalen valley, along lakes and over mountains. He has met many wonderful people on the way – some of which have welcomed him in traditional family-owned farms that have housed pilgrims since the Middle Ages. He has eaten well, laughed, cried – and walked.

“Walking is such a pure thing to do. You just walk. From A to B. It’s like meditation”, says Kes.

In the Netherlands, he had tried to distract himself from his thoughts. The pilgrimage gave him the headspace he needed to think. And he finally had feelings again.

“It was beautiful. After so long, it was such a relief to feel something.”

He thinks that it is the combination of walking and nature that made his worries gradually fade away and his smile return.

Natural healing

“I think nature has the power to heal. In nature, everything is connected. The whole ecosystem is affected by what happens nearby. It made me think about myself and what would happen if I weren’t here anymore. It would affect many people around me. I may not be Greta Thunberg or anything like that, but I’m significant anyway.

While he admires the view from Allmannsrøysa, Kes looks misty-eyed. He takes a deep breath of fresh mountain air.

“This one is for letting go of holding back. It’s for the future”, he says as he places the grey stone among the others.

There is still a long way to go to the Nidaros Cathedral, but his steps are a little lighter than before.

Moving forward

Back home in the Netherlands, Kes thinks that he has come a long way. He made it on foot all the way to Trondheim, and this has given him a sense of achievement. During the trip, he was concerned that the good feelings would disappear when he returned home. Fortunately, this was not the case. Even if he is not 100 per cent restored, he feels a lot better than before. Maybe he is even ready for love?

“Well, there is definitely a ‘before and after Norway’”, he concludes.

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