Ned Tibbits is the founder and director of Mountain Education, a non-profit dedicated to the education of “wilderness users in the skills and understanding needed for safe and enjoyable backpacking”. Their website is www.mountaineducation.org. Since Mountain Education is one of the few, “PCT-centric” wilderness schools out there, they follow how the thru-hikers are doing every summer.
Ned’s observations really focus on the transition from life on the trail to life off of the trail … and bringing with us, like Thoreau, the lessons from our commune with nature. For some those lessons may be spiritual, others they may be about community, and for all, most certainly, about who we are. These comments fit well with other recent posts about the larger philosophy of walking, pilgrimages, and life on (and off) the PCT.
By Ned Tibbits
Well, the feeling of Fall has come into the woods, the nights are colder, the days are shorter, and we’re beginning to hear talk amongst the trees and spires that the thru hikers are ending their multi-month passages with bitter-sweet memories.
There has been joy and struggle in the Journey, all of which has brought growth, maturity, and wisdom to take home and see if it can be applied there, where once proudly strode an ambitious hiker anxiously awaiting the start of an unknown adventure.
Back in 1974 when I thru hiked the PCT from March 14-Sept 2, I felt bitter-sweet about its end. Adjusting to society has jokingly become known as “Re-Entry,” but for me it lasted 11 years until I met another thru hiker who knew how I felt. The trail changed me on the inside. I needed someone else who had walked in my boots, who, also, had felt this change, so I could relate to someone like me.
In ‘74, there was no one out there to share the incredible wilderness experience of a 5 or 6-month hike. There were few trail registers where I could see who’s ahead of me and wonder what it would be like to actually meet the person whose footsteps I see and step on every day. There was no communication “backwards” to know if anyone was following me, and there were few.
You were alone.
I was 17 and had to wait for my high school friends to graduate that summer before any of them could come out to the trail and join me for a while. Companionship had become a big deal.
The wonderful thing about how the trail is walked these days is the camaraderie, because you are seldom alone.
The trail can heal you from the inside out, the longer you can stay out there. You develop an “umbilical” connection to all things wild and simple of rhythm. Each new day brings a basic series of events, sun-up to sun-down, walk, eat, sleep, and marvel. You share this new and daily reward with everyone else out there. You all have the same desire, to live life simply and joy over all it offers.
Henry David Thoreau said it best,
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
Life on the long trail forges this great truth into our very souls. God’s voice echoes amongst the massive granite cathedrals of his creation and slowly re-makes our spirits without our even knowing. So, as we put each step in front of the other along the trail, we marvel and talk and He shares and we change.
It is the people, though, the “greater community of hikers,” that roots itself within us that we take home and long for when we leave the woods. Relationships, loving, caring, and sharing is what life has become all about. On-trail, whether alone or with your group of “best buds,” hikers begin to look out for each other as they deal with the daily challenges of body and environment. Through it all at the end, in contrast to what we realize when we re-enter society is that we have don’t seem to fit anymore.
Like coming out of a cocoon, when a thru hiker emerges from the woods at trail’s end, everything along the road, in the parking lot, and in town was suddenly foreign. Loud noises were frightening, speed of travel was scary, intensity of purpose was imposing, and escape back to the trail was impossible.
During the journey, the hiker knew this immersion was only temporary and that he could soon escape “home,” back to the trail that had become “known” and safe. Once the hike was over, there was no going back. Re-entry had to happen and become permanent and you felt like a stranger in a strange land.
So, when you come off the trail, whether it was 40 years ago or this year, realize what you have become, embrace it, see the difference, stand on it, and share it however you can. Speak of the trail in the assembly, share pictures with friends, and tell stories of how you were challenged, broken, and re-born!
Your rite of passage has been balanced with sorrows and sufferings along side joys and triumphs! You have come out the other end forged with a wisdom and understanding not found in modern civilization, but born of this simple life.
Find a way to shout it from the rooftops. Encourage others to find what you found via a long hike of their own, so that they will realize, as Thoreau said, what it is like to truly live!