When I hike I always touch the sign posts. I have often marked the time when I began and when I oﬃcially ended a hike. I will typically take a quick picture of my hiking poles leaning against the posts as I come and go. It is a handy way to have a time stamp on the trek.
There is something exciting about touching the post and hitting the trail for an adventure. The best laid plans cannot account for everything—and there is always something that arises unexpectedly. Getting ready and then heading out are incredibly fun. I’m sure it’s part of what keeps me moving and exploring and getting out there where life is happening.
But there is also something good about having gone, having experienced something new or diﬀerent, and then returning home. Touching the post on the way home is equally satisfying, but in a diﬀerent way.
I have written about how trekking is about what we can take with us. We have to consider time and space and what we are capable of carrying. With forethought and planning and experience we arrive at a kit that we feel can handle the day, the night, and anything in between. We put it in our pack and hit the trail.
But part of the journey is also what we bring back with us. We go out exploring and experiencing the world, but at some point we return and touch home base. There are lots of touch points along the way, lots of sign posts that direct us, lots of twists and turns and ups and downs, But eventually the adventurer feels the need to come home, or at least I do.
We are not the same when we return. We have been changed in some way. We have seen new sights and heard new things. Driving a new road, or seeing a new vista, or hearing an unfamiliar bird, smelling a new combination of scents—all of them are imprinted on us in a new or fresh way. We are changed by the accumulation of stimuli we encounter. New stimuli will make new connections.
We will have experienced nature in a diﬀerent way because it is never the same trip twice. I have been hiking in the Smoky Mountains since I was a boy. I have trails that I have taken numerous times (I would say ‘countless,’ but the truth is that I was never keeping count.). Yet, each time I visit a familiar place it reveals itself with some diﬀerences. The water level in the river is higher or lower; the sound of the wind varies; the colors of the leaves changes with the seasons; the sun may be brighter or it may be gray and cold. Recently the eﬀects of the damaging ﬁres of 2016 are still evident everywhere; rocks are exposed and seen that were always covered with undergrowth and trees. Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic philosopher, said you cannot step in the same river twice. Lots of truth in that.
We will have experienced ourselves in new ways as well. It is not just the trek but the interior journey that ﬁnds fertile soil when venturing out. When hiking I ﬁnd myself being more keenly aware and attuned to the world around me and the world within me. I am watching the woods and the trail. I am monitoring my breath and heart rate. I am keeping track of thoughts and ideas that are arising within me. I am checking the map or my way points so that I am oriented to where I am and how I am progressing. None of this would happen were I still sitting at home thinking about it. Daydreams are delightful, but they are not what actually happens when I head out for real. Going through all this mental process alters my perceptions. Maybe I should say that having all of this going through me is what produces the change.
I often ﬁnd myself as eager to get to the ending point as I was to get started. At some point along the way there is a sense that this is what I came out here to ﬁnd; the trek has been fulﬁlled; the return is now what takes priority. Hiking out takes on the sense of a review. I’m mindful of what worked and what didn’t, what I used and what could have stayed behind, what I saw and how it either matched my expectations or was disappointing, what I learned and what I am going to change when I get back to where I can address that issue.
Touching the last signpost means that I have completed that leg of the journey. One part of it is now in the books. It will not be repeated. It was its own moment in time and it will not come round again.
And I will not be the same when I head out again. I will not go forth with the same items in my pack and on my back. I will not go forth with the same expectations. I will not go forth with the same level of education and experience. Home is a place of reﬂection and putting what I’ve learned into planning for the next time.
The journey changes, and it changes me. Touching home reminds me of that.