I only believed myself close to death once on my Holy Year pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi. I had been walking in the sun for seven hours along the ancient footpaths and cart tracks between Gubbio—where the saint tamed the wolf that had been terrorizing the townsfolk—and Valfabbrica, the only village of any size before Assisi itself. I was —lost. There was no one to ask the way; I hadn’t seen a soul since breakfast. Whoever had been paid to put up the wayside signs that mark the Sentiero Francescano—the Footpath of St. Francis—had clearly had enough of struggling across the steeply undulating landscape with his paint pots and finger-posts and had abandoned the task when the going had got tough. If he had been as hot and tired as I was, I thought, I could almost forgive him. My backpack felt so heavy that I dare not take it off for fear of not being able to pick it up again, and I had ran out of water some four hours earlier. The slow-moving River Chiasco offered no relief—in high summer, it runs brown and undrinkable through uncrossably wide slabs of mud.

When I got halfway up the stony track that climbs the western side of the gorge, I realized that I just wasn’t going to make it to the top. I slackened the straps on my rucksack, lay down across the shadeless road, and fell asleep. Everybody has to die somewhere, I remember thinking, and a remote corner of Franciscan Umbria is a better place to do so than most. I recalled that it wasn’t far from here that St. Francis himself had been set upon by robbers, beaten, stripped of his clothes, and left for dead in a ditch. In the event, he survived; I wondered whether I would be as fortunate. I was. Two teenagers out on dirt bikes found me, looked at me with disbelief, helped me to my feet, and told me that I was only a kilometer from a village: Castello di Biscina. When I got there, the first person I saw was a gardener setting up a sprinkler to water a lawn. I must have looked as desperate as I felt, for before I could ask, he disengaged the hose and handed me the end of it so that I could drink; while I drank, he pointed out the track to Assisi. If he was wondering why a fat, unfit, 45-year-old foreigner was dragging a backpack across the countryside in high summer, he was too polite to ask.

Had he done so, I would have replied that I had been moved to make my pilgrimage by a chance encounter with a book. I had come across Harold Elsdale Goad’s Franciscan Italy in the spring, when I had been dusting the bookshelves in my study. It had been sitting there for some 15 years, along with a couple of yards of ancient religious travelogues and works of spiritual counsel that I had inherited from a distant relative. In all the time I had owned it, I had not yet opened it. When I did, I was captivated. The binding, paper, typeface, illustrations, and even the smell of it somehow took me not just to Umbria but to the Umbria of 1926, when the book had been printed and published; the text took me thence to the landscape lived in by St. Francis 700 years before that, suggesting it had only changed a little since then. And when I read that, “for the pilgrim who is a good walker with sufficient Italian to ask his way, there is nothing more delightful than to follow him, if possible as far as Gubbio,” I felt that those words were addressed directly to me.

I responded quickly to this call because last year was a Holy Year: Pious exercises undertaken at such times earn double spiritual air miles for the faithful. My own faith being less full than it had been, such an opportunity seemed attractive. For some time, my spiritual pilot light had been guttering and flickering, and I had been thinking that I should do something about it before it spluttered out entirely. So, as I turned the last page of the book, I resolved then and there to make a roughly planned pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi, flying to Italy and walking as far as time allowed on the paths that had been trodden by St. Francis. I would leave it to Providence to look after all the details and to make sure that things turned out safely for the best.

My pilgrimage certainly kept Providence busy. On any number of occasions, I was rescued from disappointment and disaster. On the only occasion I would get to see Gozzoli’s frescoes of the life of St. Francis at Montefalco, I arrived as the church was about to close; there was no way my schedule could allow me time to wait for it to reopen. Seeing my disappointment, the doorman let me in “just for ten minutes.” I was disappointed to find the apse filled with scaffolding: The paintings were being restored by a team of experts. But they had just gone to lunch, so I was able to climb their tower unchallenged and get as close to the paintings on the ceiling as Gozzoli had been himself.

When I stupidly lost the path after Valfabbrica, I found myself following the main highway to Perugia for miles, picking my way through roadkill and Coke cans while container lorries tugged at my backpack with their slipstreams. But when I cut back toward Assisi at Planello, I encountered delights that I would otherwise have missed, including the intricately unrestored castle of S. Gregorio, with tall, woody weeds growing from the broken line of its battlements, and a gatehouse topped by a grinning overhang with slits through which boiling oil had once been poured onto less-welcome visitors. A few hundred yards further on, as I sat down under a wayside shrine for my lunch, the Angelus bells jangled and tinkled across the countryside to put my enjoyment of the landscape in context.

Perhaps the greatest good fortune I enjoyed—in matters practical, that is—was to have been able to find and follow so much of the Franciscan Footpath at all. On one of the colorful maps I had obtained from the tourist office, the Sentiero Francescano between La Verna and Gubbio is not marked, and though the leg between Gubbio and Assisi is boldly represented by a fat line running in a zigzag between them, the more detailed map shows it running straight. And the larger-scale map I had been given was a black-and-white photocopy. Without color, whether the lines on it represented roads, paths, railway lines, rivers, or boundaries was anybody’s guess. Worse, the elaborate wayside signboards that mark the key stages of the route itself display not directions but lyrical descriptions of the landscape. And though they are invariably placed at junctions or crossroads, not one that I found gave even a hint as to which direction to turn. Just as frustrating was my discovery that the route is considered to run north from—not south to—Assisi, so the few fingerposts that I did find at junctions only pointed back the way I had come, leaving me to guess which way to go next.

Yet, somehow, none of this mattered. I found myself inspired by an irrationally calm confidence. Even when I thought my number was up near Biscina, I was strangely unbothered by the prospect. There is something about a walking pilgrimage that stills the mind and soothes the spirit. It is as if the distractible part of the imagination is busied with controlling the physical effort required, leaving the rest of the mind calm and at peace. There is a sense that you have somehow conquered time, which no longer naggingly reminds you that a beautiful sight, sound, or smell is transient. On a pilgrimage, such pleasures are enjoyed from a moving perspective: The pilgrim moves on before the beauty has had time to fade.

And the beauty of Umbria is timeless, even if it is no longer quite that suggested by the half-tone photographs published in Franciscan Italy in 1926. Gubbio has been over-enthusiastically restored only recently, and last year, Assisi’s streets and buildings were still braced with the brass knuckled scaffolding that had been put up after the 1997 earthquake; and though every town of any size has long been besieged or invaded by the motor car, the places in between are much as they must have been for centuries. It really is possible to lose oneself in the landscape and sever contact with the business and the burdens of contemporary life. And it is in the landscape more than in the basilicas, shrines, and convents that one finds the spirit of St. Francis, for whom the earth, sky, sun, moon, and stars were brothers and sisters, and who spent his life keeping material possessions at bay. The buildings that St. Francis knew—including the church at S. Damiano, which he helped rebuild with his own hands—seem to spring from the landscape, their soft-edged architecture in gentle harmony with the soil.

What a disheartening contrast I found in Rome, where spirituality seemed to lie entombed under the cold, angular, marble-and-gilding triumphalism of the Baroque. But that glorious, infernal, eternal city was not quite the last stop on my pilgrimage. Between it and Giampino airport lie the S. Sebastiano Catacombs, and, having met up with a friend who had been following me at a distance in his car, I planned to make a brief visit to them before I had to check in for my flight. Dense traffic and irrational signposting nearly defeated us. We got to the catacomb entrance ten minutes after the last torn should have departed. But it hadn’t: The tour guide was late, too, arriving just after we did. So I was able to mark the end of my pilgrimage by taking 20 steps down and 1,600 years back into the tomb-warren of the early Christian community. On one of the tunnel walls, I saw a marble tablet carved with the outline of a fish. When the guide wasn’t looking, I ran my finger over it. It was wet with condensation. Without thinking, I crossed myself. It was one of many blessings I encountered on my pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Francis. Perhaps the greatest of them all is the knowledge that, even if I am never again in Franciscan Italy, there will always be a little of Franciscan Italy in me.