An aboriginal boy in his early teens becomes a man by going on a journey, a walkabout, living in the wilderness for months. This is his spiritual and traditional transition into manhood.
A young Native American ventures off to a sacred place chosen by the elders and prays in search of a vision that will help define purpose in his life. This type of vision quest is a critical first step in mastering his new found purpose. When he returns he will prove out his vision under the supervision of a mentor.
Many religions around the world have locations of importance. Followers embark on a pilgrimage to these places in search of answers, healing, or to fulfill a religious obligation. For some, the pilgrimage results in meaningful change or brings a deeper meaning to life.
Those who hike long trails of hundreds or even thousands of miles are called thru-hikers. A thru-hike is many things to many people. For some people a thru-hike is a segue by which they depart from their old life into something new or different, a reset of purpose and meaning, a type of vision quest. It can be a time of reflection to help come to terms with a part of their life not yet understood. It can be a means of unplugging for a while to rejuvenate the mind and spirit. For some it’s an opportunity to run away or to escape something negative in their current situation. And for others it has nothing to do with anything emotional or spiritual; it’s as simple as “I like hiking”.
In any case and for whatever reason a person would hike a long distance, it is a rite of passage at least in one sense: a thru-hiker cannot claim the title until the hike is actually accomplished. Like an aborigine cannot earn the right to be called a man in his tribe without having completed a walkabout and the full benefit of a pilgrimage cannot be realized without having reached the destination, a person does not earn that title “thru-hiker” until they have joined into the fellowship of those who have experienced the fullness of the trail from one terminus to the other.
Whether a person completes a thru-hike or not may be significant, but the act of finishing is not the capstone of the event for most people. Cheryl Strayed in Wild, writes about it. So does Carrot Quinn in Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart. As does Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods), David Miller (Awol on the Appalachian Trail), and many others. Pacific Crest Trials: A Psychological and Emotional Guide to Successfully Thru-Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is another good resource. As is Backpacker Long Trails: Mastering the Art of the Thru-Hike
Surviving for weeks in the wilderness with many miles of self-powered travel is a dichotomous experience. There are trials and victories. There are pains and bliss. There are tears of anguish and overwhelming joys. The trail will absolutely break you down and build you up. This is why it seems to me that it’s important to define a purpose before venturing a thru-hike. This purpose is what drives a person through the tough times and what makes the good days even better. The purpose is what defines the greatest intentional value from the experience.
When I began looking into the idea of associating a thru-hike with a rite-of-passage, I discovered that there are three distinct phases: separation, liminality, and incorporation. These phases perfectly describe the experience of a thru-hike.
Separation: Separation is an intentional withdrawal from the current status and a preparation to move on to the next place. It’s the initializing, the action of detachment, the initial move to cut away. Separation develops during the planning for the trip and reaches its apex when the first step is taken at the trailhead. When a person takes that first step and has that first “I’m actually doing this” moment, this is separation.
Liminality: As separation matures, into view comes liminality, literally meaning: a threshold. It’s the transition, the space between old and new. A leaving of the present while not yet joining the next. This is the most delicate space because here is ambiguity and disorientation. It’s were the greatest doubt creeps in. It’s where the will to continue is the toughest. Liminality happens after the initial excitement wares off and a full realization of purpose has not yet happened, but the anticipation is building.
Incorporation: After making it past the threshold sometimes there is a breakthrough moment where a person has fully embraced the purpose of the venture. This is where acceptance of the new state is first experienced. This is when the greatest feeling of freedom happens; this is where a new found joy fills the spirit – at first in moments but eventually filling more and more of each day. And then after having completed the rite and assumed the new identity, something sacred happens: a thru-hiker is born.
There are rites of passage in each of our lives. It might be a difficult period or a significant loss. It might be a religious pilgrimage or a cultural tradition. It could even be a thru-hike. These are earned. The resultant titles have deep internal and individual meanings. They are a source of pride and fulfillment, but they are not to be flaunted. They are a gateway and a power source for what life becomes.
So, for all those (including me) who have set their sights on becoming a member of this next season’s thru-hiker alumni, I wish you well and hope you gain the fullest from your experience. Happy trails!