Monk Skill: The Pilgrimage

Many religions subscribe to the idea of a pilgrimage.   These are journeys to a specific place in order to pay homage and respect, and to learn and grow.  Taking part in pilgrimages helps us come to terms with our mortality and our place in the world.  At times you may find yourself on a very formal planned pilgrimage, but occasionally you find may find yourself on an unplanned pilgrimage.  It is an important skill to know when you are on one of these journeys… or when it is time to seek one out.

In my life I have been able to take part in quite a few pilgrimages some related to religions, and some personal or related to my work.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

The Battle of Little Big Horn, more commonly known as Custer’s Last Stand, is a winding battle field memorial located along the Big Horn River in South Central Montana.  It is the place where Custer’s 7th Cavalierly was overwhelmed and wiped out by the combined forces of the Souix Nation during the Great Souix Wars of 1876.


I went to Little Bighorn with my family in 1990 when we drove from California to Minnesota and back.  We stopped at the visitor center and then spent hours covering the expansive battlefield stopping to read markers and to see where the battle was fought. we were able to relive every moment of this trip because my Dad had a camcorder running the whole time.

This trip was one that has long lived in our collective family memory and has spurred the Nelson tradition of seeking out “culture” where ever and when ever We can find it. I was too young at the time to learn any of the important lessons that can be observed from the Great Souix Wars, but having been to this battlefield has help shaped my views on conflict and warfare to this day.

What I learned:

  • One nation’s enemy can be another nation’s hero
  • Don’t underestimate your adversaries
  • Don’t overestimate your own strength

The Zigurat at Ur

The Zigurat at Ur is located in southern Iraq and is said to be the birth place of Abraham, making it an important location for both Jewish and Christian faiths.  The Zigurat is a massive earthen structure over 60 feet tall and visually dominates the plain that it sits on.  The Zigurat is believed to have been built to worship the ancient Mesopotamian Moon God.

By Hardnfast, CC BY 3.0,

In 2004 I was deployed to a Tallil Air Base a small airfield located near Nasiriyah Iraq.  The majority of my time in Iraq was spent at work sustaining C-130 operations, and training Iraqi aircraft maintenance crews.  On Easter Sunday, the chaplain organized a trip to visit the Zigurat for an early morning sunrise sermon.  I was able to join about 100 other Airmen on this excursion.

The weight of visiting this ancient and sacred site was not lost on me.  I was a in my early twenties, with a pregnant wife and young daughter at home while I was living in a war zone.  Needless to say, I had quite a bit on my mind as I wandered through the ruins and scaled the Zigurat. Our guide was a young Iraqi who made his living prior to the war advising and working for archaeological expeditions at Ur.

What I learned:

  • A site can be sacred to many people, for many reasons
  • War is a destructive force
  • People find a way

Driving Coast to Coast

In June 2006 I received orders to move from Edwards Air Force Base, California to Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina.  In honor of the Nelson family tradition (established above) we decided to drive.

The Drive

We left Edwards and drove via Historic Route 66 until we turned North to visit my brother in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  After a brief stop we drove through Little Rock, Arkansas where I contracted a severe case of food poisoning and had to be admitted to the ER.  Once I recovered we drove across Southern Tennessee and then down into Charleston.

This trip was full of adventure but also incredibly hard with young kids.  We toured the Grand Canyon (by helicopter), stopped on a corner in Winslow Arizona, and fell in love with the Blue Ridge Mountains.  I also learned how dependent I am on Anna.  I could not have asked for a better partner in my life.

What I learned:

  • Never eat the free Mexican buffet offered at a shady motel (ie: have standards)
  • Take the long road
  • Some experiences are worth the extra expense

Ground Zero, New York City

September 11th, 2001 left a huge scar on the collective American psyche.  Having lived through that day as a member of the US Military, a journey to Ground Zero in New York City was almost an inevitable event.


I made the trip to New York city during a break from pre-deployment training at Fort Dix, New Jersey in 2008.  A group of us attending training together took a train into the city on a Friday night and stayed until Sunday morning which gave us plenty of time for a somber visit to the site of the collapsed World Trade Center.

It had been less then a decade since the attacks that had been defining my life and military service since they occurred.  I had already deployed once to Iraq and was preparing to spend a year living in Saudi Arabia.  This pilgrimage really solidified the intent I held behind my service.  I serve in the hopes that my children wont have to.

What I learned:

  • The depth of American resilience
  • The focus of my personal resolve

Khobar Towers

On 25 Jun 1996, the US Air Force barracks building at Dharan Air Base was attacked using a truck bomb.  20 people were killed and 498 were injured in the Khobar Towers Bombing.  This attack has held a resounding impact on US military and was one of the pre-coursers to the Global War on Terror.


I was able to travel to Dhahran in 2009 while I was stationed at Eskan Village outside of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  We drove to the site of the old barracks to pay our respects.  We found the spot using GPS grid coordinates.

While at the site I was able to reflect on what I know and how I feel about the job I have to protect lives from attacks like the Khobar Towers Bombing.  It was a somber day, and a day to reflect on the road ahead.  Shortly after visiting the site I extended my obligation to the Air Force another six years.

What I learned:

  • Not everyone memorializes tragedies the same way
  • I was still committed to preventing these types of attacks and protecting people

The Hajj

The Hajj is an annual formal pilgrimage to Mecca made by Muslims.  While I was not able to go to Mecca (it is restricted to only Muslims) I was able to see first hand the massive surge of pilgrims into the country.  I was also able to hear first hand the impact the Hajj had on my Muslim co-workers.

By Zakaryaamr at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Observing the Hajj was a result of my assignment to Saudi Arabia from 2008 to 2009.  While I lived on the outskirts of Riyadh, we made frequent trips into the city.  Seeing the massive influx of pilgrims was truly a sight to behold.  The airport and roads swelled with people as the Hajj approached with over 2 million people moving about the country.

What I learned:

  • Some people are willing to work their whole lives, and sacrifice everything to meet their honor bound obligations

The National Mall

The National Mall is a collection of US memorials and museums located in Washington DC.  It is home to some of the most important institutions in the US including the National Archives, the Capitol Building, the White House, the Smithsonian Institute and many, many other sites.


From 2012 to 2013 I was stationed at Bolling Air Force Base, located on the Southern bank of the Potomac River across from downtown Washington.  We were able to spend a lot of time at the National Mall exploring the museums and memorials.  I was even able to re-enlist at the Jefferson Memorial.


My time in and around Washington DC gave loads of insight in the wealth and power of our Nation.  The access to the Smithsonian Museums was a highlight, but also being able to see government at work was an amazing experience.  The most lasting memory I carry with me is Arlington National Cemetery and the heroes resting there.

What I learned:

  • The impressive power of the US extends well beyond the Government and into the institutions it has enabled to grow
  • Countless sacrifices have been made, and continue to be made, in the name of our Nation and what we stand for


The Gettysburg National Military Park commemorates the epic Battle of Gettysburg fought in 1836 and the Gettysburg National Cemetery was the site of President Lincolns historic Gettysburg Address.


In Nelson family tradition we spent a day touring the Battle Field by car (in this case truck), but this time we were guided by a CD audio tour.  We included the visit to Gettysburg as part of our pre-departure tour of the North Eastern US before we moved to Germany in 2013.

While exploring the rolling hills and memorials we learned a lot about the cost in lives spent to define our country during The Civil War.  The trip allowed me to think deeply about the reasons people would fight and defend their decisions and beliefs.  It also gave me the opportunity to pay my respects to my predecessors in the profession of arms.

What I learned

  • War is hell and will always be hell
  • It is easy to gloss over history and lose sight of the root of a conflict
  • Right and wrong is not always simple


The beaches and battlements of the Normandy Invasion are located in Northern France where the D-Day invasion of World War II took place.  It is also home to the Normandy American Military Cemetery.


Our family toured Normandy in 2016 (yes by car).  We were afforded this great opportunity by an assignment to Ramstein Air Base, Germany from 2013 to 2016.  This assignment gave us the chance to just get in the car and go see a great deal of Europe.

Much like the trip to Gettysburg, my visit to Normandy allowed for some deep reflection into my service and the nature and cost of war.  Anna’s grand father fought in World War II and we were able to retrace some of his footsteps in France.

What I learned:

  • People do not soon forget the sacrifices made on their behalf
  • War will bond allies together
  • We can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds through grit and skill

Rome – Saint Peter’s Basilica

Saint Peter’s Basilica is located in the Vatican, which of course is located with in the city of Rome, Italy.  The Basilica draws millions of pilgrims every year to visit one of the holiest sites in the Catholic faith.

By Alvesgaspar - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Again, I was able to visit Rome as during my assignment to Ramstein.  We made the visit as a family by driving 17 hours from Germany to Pompeii before making our way back (more slowly) over two weeks.

Seeing the massive Basilica spoke volumes to me about the power of religious institutions in our world.  Being in line for hours waiting our turn to tour the inside  provided insights into how the scope and span of the impact of religion on the planet.  The crowed gathered to experience the Basilica would have reviled a complete gathering of the United Nations.  The most notable thing for me however, was the difference between the massive wealth and power held behind the walls of the Vatican compared to the gathering of North African migrants and refugees who built an ad-hoc bazaar wrapping around the complex.

What I learned:

  • The scale of disparity between the powerful and poor is staggering
  • We have built incredible feats of engineering to house our institutions of power
  • Modern marvels and beauty can transcend race and religion

Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji is the tallest single standing mountain in Japan and is also an active volcano.  Approximately 300,000 people a year attempt to climb to the summit every year during the climbing season which lasts from late June to early September.   It is about a two to three hour trip from Tokyo.  Climbing Mount Fuji is Shinto tradition and is an opportunity to pray to the spirit enshrined at the temple resting at the summit.

By DoctorJoeE - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

In 2016 we moved from Germany to Yokota Air Base, Japan.  Yokota is located on the eastern side of Tokyo and has an amazing view of Mount Fuji on a clear day.  Anna I traveled to Mount Fuji with a tour group, but made the climb just the two of us.

Anna and I are very active and trained for the climb but we still had to push ourselves up from the 9th station to the summit.  The change in altitude, from sea level to over 12,000 feet, is nothing to scoff at.  The climb to the top takes about 6 hours, while the decent takes 3.

What I learned:

  • Preparation can get you most of the way, but you will need a reserve of grit
  • Making progress includes taking time to rest
  • Reaching your goal doesn’t mean the hard part is over

A Life of Pilgrimages

Finishing off this article I am left with one final thought.  That life is the pilgrimage and we are the pilgrims.  Where have your journeys taken you?  Where do you want to go next?

I would love to hear from you.  Come on over to our closed facebook discussion group to share your insights.  Or you can email me directly at  You can also sign up to receive The Friday Huddle, a short weekly email from me that gives you the tips, insights, and musings that have gotten me through the week.

Live Skillfully!


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