When you hike, do you like loop trails or out-and-back trails better?
What metaphors for life can you make from hiking?
Out and Back
I used to think out and back trails would be boring. What’s so great about getting to the end of a path and then going back the way you came? Wouldn’t it be tedious and redundant?
But the more hikes I take, the more I realize how valuable it is to retrace my steps, especially on the trails with big elevation gain and diverse landscape. The same path, going uphill and then downhill, heading north at daybreak then south at mid-day, is a vastly divergent experience. It is a concrete, tangible exercise in perspective, if ever there were one.
On a loop trail, you get to decide at the outset the way you will go. If you choose clockwise, you miss out on the counterclockwise experience—until next time, perhaps, when you get to choose it. Or maybe you always go the same way? That feels safe—you know what’s coming, perhaps? But on any trail, especially in the high country, you just never know what you’ll encounter. Time of day, time of year, recent events (wildfire, thunderstorm) all alter the path—you could actually never walk the same trail twice—whether it’s out and back (hereafter abbreviated “OAB”) or a loop.
In life, do/can we ever really go back? I’m reminded of the quote attributed to Heraclitus:
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
Whether you choose OAB or a loop, when you arrive at the trailhead again, is it the same as when you started? Are you? And regardless, why hike in the first place? What does it do for you, what do you gain? Why step out from where you live every day, all the time?
Here’s what insightful writers I’m reading lately have to say about it:
John Gardner, in Self-Renewal: “As the years go by we view our familiar surroundings with less and less freshness of perception. We no longer look with a wakeful, perceiving eye at the face of people we see every day, nor at any other features of our everyday world… That is why travel is a vivid experience for most of us. At home we have lost the capacity to see what is before us. Travel shakes us out of our apathy, and we regain an attentiveness that heightens every experience.”
John O’Donohue, in Anam Cara: “Hegel said, ‘Das Bekannte überhaupt ist darum, weil es bekannt ist, nicht erkannt’–that is, ‘Generally, the familiar, precisely because it is familiar, is not known.’ This is a powerful sentence. Behind the facade of the familiar, strange things await us. This is true of our homes, the place where we live, and, indeed, of those with whom we live. Friendships and relationships suffer immense numbing through the mechanism of familiarization. We reduce the wildness and mystery of person and landscape to the external, familiar image. Yet the familiar is merely a facade. Familiarity enables us to tame, control, and ultimately forget the mystery. We make our peace with the surface as image and we stay away from the Otherness and fecund turbulence of the unknown that it masks. Familiarity is one of the most subtle and pervasive forms of human alienation.”
When patients see me for their annual exams, I imagine it can feel tedious and redundant. But it’s always fresh and interesting for me, because I haven’t seen or heard from them in a year. And I’m continuously learning, so I often have new questions and queries to apply. They may not think much of the past year, it goes by so fast; I get to be their fresh eyes, and lend them new lenses. What’s the most interesting thing that happened to you since we last met? What do you want to focus on this day we are together? When you look back at your life a year from now, what do you want to see and say about it? I feel like a ranger at the common trailhead of inifinite paths, checking in with my hikers as they loop and retrace their ways back to me, stopping to debrief before getting back on the road of living and growth, of evolution and development.
I was born in Evanston, Illinois, when my dad was doing his PhD at Northwestern University. We moved to Colorado when I was six, and for as long as I can remember, I have considered that state to be my true home. I go back every chance I get; I savor it, relish it, drink it in with fervor. When I return to Chicago, where I have lived for all but those 12 formative years before I came (back) to NU for college, it’s always with a gnawing reluctance, even a little resentment. I never call it ‘coming home.’ Last night when I arrived at my house after a week in the Colorado Rockies, I did feel myself relax, ready to settle into life as usual. But I still longed to be home for good—back in Colorado—my only real home.
That perspective changed today.
These last days I have thought deeply about my life path. I’ve really only lived in these two places, these vastly different places. Until this morning I thought of my OAB trailhead unequivocally as Littleton, Colorado, where I grew up. My plan is still to go back for good someday. But this morning on the way to church, as I crossed the intersection onto the NU campus, I felt at home. We left our house late and drove through a thunderstorm to get there, and like a flash of lightning, I recalled when I came for my campus visit in the fall of my senior year of high school. It had also rained cats and dogs that whole weekend. But I’m pretty sure I wrote to friends at the time that it felt like coming home. I was born here after all. It is my dad’s and my alma mater. I met my husband here during New Student Week my freshman year. I’ve brought my kids here since they were born. Our church here is my spiritual home, no question.
We were late today, arriving toward the end of the homily, in the chapel across the street, as ours is being renovated. From the back, I first saw the silhouette. Then I heard the voice. Then I listened to the words—always words of connection, truth, service, and love. I was overcome with emotion when I realized: It was Father Ken, director of our church from my sophomore year until I first became a mom. He led my RCIA class for confirmation. He nurtured my early adult development as only a pastor could, and has known me through inspiration as well as struggle. I have only seen him rarely since he left, and missed his calming, comforting presence. Seeing him and hearing his homily today made it suddenly crystal clear to me: This, Chicago and my life here, are also my home, wholly and without question.
I can claim and love both—the places, the people, the cultures, the memories. The mountains and also the lake; where my parents made their life and also where my kids are growing up. Colorado is not the same now as when I left in 1991. Chicago is not the same today as it will be when I finally return to Colorado. Which is the Out and which is the Back? Doesn’t matter. Finally, after all this time feeling conflicted and divided, I really am home.