Finding Saint Michael on the Gone Viking trail
A slosh of cool sea sussed a watery score as I shuffled through shallows, a thousand-year
pilgrimage trail. In fact the route I was on had been tread for millennia. Only now, my
destination was that of the clergy who founded this place, pious trekkers I considered my
“brothers in alms,” an order of Benedictine monks. Three miles ahead, a line of high stakes
protruded from silt in the narrows, guiding travellers over tide flats through treacherous
sinkholes of quicksand. As though having to slog a menacing gauntlet to prove oneself worthy.
The day had begun as a pall of spindrift and gossamer haar, horizon hidden in fog, the thrum
of low breakers the only indication of seaward, a literal thin blue line separating ocean from land.
Tide was mid ebb, a window for wanderers like me to cross a briny expanse from mainland to
the part-time islet, a vertical hunk of basalt and granite set adrift twice a day. Topping the
waterlogged rock is a castle, a cherry on a cupcake of stone. The castle is named for Saint
Michael, a winged-soldier tasked with the destruction of evil. Having been ousted from heaven,
he continued to fight for the light and for good, the ongoing slaughter of dragons.
Despite a medieval king’s efforts to destroy every abbey, this one remained. Saint Michael’s
Mount. As though defended by Michael himself. Sure enough, light prevailed. Trumping
oppression. And now I was treading the path of those feet, yet each step that I took left no print,
surge of tide erasing the shoreline. A blank slate, on a seabed of salty ground earth.
For a secular pilgrim the excursion was acutely spiritual, the melding of watery bodies
depicting religion: Celtic and pagan, Christian, occult, in the slow but now determinedly
brightening blend of Irish Sea, North Atlantic, and a bight of south England known as Mount’s
Bay. Which nearly describes what ensued. Concluding my dogged wet tramp through the bay by
climbing the Mount. An ascension.
Sun broke through the overcast fug, igniting the castle, the Mount, the memory of Michael as
well. I imagined I was scaling the path he used to descend, three-dimensional ladders and snakes.
But for this celestial game each serpent took the form of a dragon. I wondered what secrets the ramparts contained, as a crenelated turret leered down, the look of a sardonic rook, turning my ladders and snakes to a chess match. I kept climbing, the sunlight a beacon. And no longer knew if I was playing or watching the contest, this gameboard of mortar and myth. Sun gleamed, splaying fingers of light, in answer to questions I’d unwittingly carried to here. Questions I felt could be answered. Finally. Here, in the light of Saint Michael.
Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of the Gone Viking travel memoirs (Gone Viking: A
Travel Saga, Gone Viking II: Beyond Boundaries, Gone Viking III: The Holy Grail) and A Season
on Vancouver Island. He’s the winner of numerous literary awards and for his expeditions
received a Fellowship at London’s Royal Geographical Society. When not trekking the globe
with a small pack and journal, Bill can be found on Canada’s west coast, making music and