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Walking home: Reflections from a summer trail in the Olympic National Park

edited from a soundwalk while backpacking out of the 3rd annual Adult Mountain Quest with Rite of Passage Journeys:

Walking through the forest on the East Quinalt trail, water coursing nearby as the vast verticality of the forest canopies my gaze. We are emerging, slowly, just a few days remain on this two-week expedition. I feel reflective, connected, deeply in tune. Barry Lopez (2022) once said that to remember the essential details of his ventures into the wild places of this world, the embodied somatic particulars and magic of the experience, he needed to wake up at five am and write. My dear friend calls this the ambrosia hour. I, a many-decades-long night owl, find that in the natural rhythms of immersive wilderness time, such a shift toward dawn birdsong comes easy.

I am 1.03 miles towards home from the Pyrites campsite. I'm standing amongst a younger section of Hemlock, Douglas Fir, Alder, and these ginormous Maples who have inches-thick moss growing all over them. The light is cascading through on the plate size leaves below me. The ground is dried out, but the ferns and nettle are still abounding. 

It's such a dry year here—the driest we've experienced in our three years of coming; this year, this program is later in the season. On the right is a humyn-sized hollow in an easily one-hundred-foot-tall tree that is still radiant with life. Along the trail, so much of what was waist-high, impassable, is now open or low and fallen down, some slightly brown, others just dwarfed by the drought. 

My prayer is that these people have had an experience that (re)shapes them, something that they can carry with them back into the busy, urbanized, and digital culture to which we return. Yet, we know them for just such a little moment in the vast expanse of their existence. How can such a small moment?—three days and three nights on solo and ten days carrying to and from… 

Farther along, the hemlock on my right is actually three trunks, perhaps grown from the same nursery tree. The diameter is easily 20 feet at the bottom. The moss grows on its flat, scaly, snake-like bark. The one on my left is a single trunk up to 20 feet and then branching to two, base maybe 30 feet in diameter. On this particular section of the old floodplain, some of these trees, perhaps 1,000 years they've been holding this spot…

This is day 11, and while we don't go so far—about 15 miles in the first three days and 15 miles in the last three days—we carry the psyche and invite a deconstruction/reconstruction through a rite-of-passage ceremony held in the wilderness. There's an ordeal—living without food for three days, being alone, finding the edge of our comfort/discomfort, and then staying.

We come from a lineage of bare-bones ceremony. At the core is the framework of self-generated ceremony. We don't ask people to believe anything. In fact, we invite them to suspend disbelief—to suspend disbelief— and allow, even just for an instance, the potential for magic, the divine, of unseen reciprocity with the natural world, of all of it and none of it, to be real.

It's interesting to think that, in a way, I'm the dirtiest I've been in perhaps a year; and yet, in another… as I look around, up at the immediacy of the forest, or around to the river and the broad expansive meadow, or to the far side of the forest, where I hear: bird, river, wind, different bird… I'm cleansed, truly, of distractions. 

This pulse of aliveness here in the depth of this forest time, this deep time, beckons to all of us in different ways. Yet, we make promises along the way that we will return because we know that is the true work of it. There's no way to fail a ceremony because there's no right and wrong way to live ceremony; whatever is needed, whatever is aching, whatever is necessary, enact that. The essential, the literal ground, is that we go onto the land to cultivate the depth of our beingness, our gifts, our sacred essence, so that we can carry that back to our people, our community, and the world to which we belong.

A little further on the trail, a delicate feather the size of my palm. I leave it so the next person can see the wonder.

In the early 1900s, traveling ethnographer and anthropology researcher Arnold von Gennep began to see three recurring phases in ceremonies which marked transitional phases: severance (separating from all that which was before), threshold (the ceremonial time on the land, betwixt and between, the ordeal), and incorporation (the return, bringing our gifts back to our people). Gennep coined the term rites of passage

The thing is, we come out to the threshold not to get lost in it, not to lose our shadow or material self, but to return—to alchemize our wounds and bring our gifts back to our people and our broken world. That is the work of it, and it's hard. 

It's really f***ing hard

It's really hard to remember that I sat alone, empty, and exposed through the long dark night during the last hours of my fast holding my purpose circle, praying for that vision… when stuck in a traffic jam; when there's not enough money in the bank account to pay the bill; when passed over for promotion; when working unpaid hours; when I have to say goodbye to someone unexpectedly and they are way too young to die…

This is the essence of it: holding an internal chamber of heart-resilient fortitude that there is a way in which each of us can carry meaning through every step of our lives.

When I was young, I spent four months abroad in India. I saw so much that my Southern, Traditional, Christian, affluent life had unconsciously hidden, and I felt like Siddhartha being outside the palace for the first time. One of the things I saw, so profoundly, was joy: people had, ostensibly, so much less, and yet they found, created, and cultivated so much joy. How could this be so? The discontinuity, the paradox, cast me into a crucible of transformation, a threshold space where past understandings were severed and a new paradigm of understanding emerged. The time in between, that threshold, was the dark night of my soul that helped me take my seat and do this work

Walking on, heading down river, now 200 meters past No Name Creek, I am entering one of my favorite sections of the trail where the quality of the acoustic landscape around us shifts dramatically, perhaps the most along the entirety of the 14 miles from an Enchanted Valley to Graves Creek Trailhead.

The trail ascends from either direction until you're perhaps 200 vertical feet above the river, a narrowing of the canyon below; still, you can hear the water and the riparian corridor below. Then, all of the sudden, we round the bend and the rustle of the water's higher frequencies are attenuated as we've reached eye level with the top of the towering canopy.

Fantastically remarkable: the tree roots down to my left now are 150 feet vertically below me and yet still tower 75 feet above me. Because of the decrease in the foliage and the trail being cut angled into a very steep hill, all we hear of the river now is the low rumbling, low frequencies which are omnidirectional. The lifeworld begins to glitter with slight, subtle, bird sounds that I can hear all around me. What's amazing is that, even here, still very little light reaches the trail and at this mid-morning hour, such dark, deep, rich, and beautiful shade these giants create. 

So how do we bring our gifts home? How do we incorporate?

-corpus : body - self, community, gifts, people, family

in- : in, into - bringing into, carrying into, walking into

Darkness breaks to dawn, sunrise: departing their purpose circle, each person shoulders their pack, alone but together they make their way back to basecamp. This is the first act of incorporation. Through the threshold circle, tears and community, and then everyone has a moment with food: miso, crackers, potatoes. These are the first moments of return. Soon, rested, each will share their story, be heard, mirrored, and their wild-eyed vision and vast embodied presence will be shared and grounded with one another and the listening forest.

Walking these last three days, miles downcreek from the story councils and reconnective framework of meal and time with one another post-fast, we have invited them into different ways of considering the incorporation process: what do you need to do to bring the medicine from your ceremony home to your people? How can you keep your ceremony alive?

We stir the pot with the four shields of incorporation, with all of our quips, antics, and anecdotes. Truly, though, there is no single answer or fixed path, just as no two ceremonies are the same. No matter our education—a full synthesis of what we've read, experienced, seen, heard, anything else, and none of it—nothing can quite reach into the mythopoetic soul like intentional time made sacred. Yet, each step draws us closer to that emergence and return.

One of the shadows of being a guide in this work is that these community's which form become deeply personal, interpersonal, and then disband. That is okay—just like it is okay to be tired after an all-night vigil, bone-weary after a grief ceremony, or ecstatic with joy after jumping into that 41-degree water each morning—because it all belongs

That is the essence of it—the essence that came through in various forms, over and over, in the psyche of humanity:

even as we left the garden

even as we constructed a builtworld

air-conditioned rooms

square walls


transportation delivery networks…

even then—perhaps especially then—

our birthright is belonging to this earthen lifeworld.

Here's the thing: maybe you didn't know this, but your toes, they're free. Your patella, that 3.8 billion year piece sesamoidal intelligence, it's free. Earth says, "Here you go. Take good care. Explore and enjoy the mystery of life lived together." What more can we ask for than to know that kind of liberation, to be given all of it, for free…

Tomorrow around noon we'll get in a car, and then begin the four-hour drive back to where the elders of the community who envisioned this work will be ready to greet us at our thresholds circle as each of us, one by one, are brought back through the portal, hugged, loved, held, and fed.


We will have some goodbyes, and they are, for the most part, good byes. And then, with tear-soaked eyes, stepping into the embrace of existence, we will say goodbye to this ceremony as a new one begins.

In humility, reverence, and gratitude thompson (tbird) bishop


Lopex, B. (2022). Embrace fearlessly the burning world: Essays. Random House.

[Text and Images Copyright Thompson Bishop 2024]

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