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  • Tim Mathis

Go alone, but take people with you: Individual pilgrimage as a community endeavor.

Updated: May 28, 2023

In this series, we’ve been introducing the GAP Month as a reliable framework for transformational travel. In short, it's a month of goal-directed adventure or pilgrimage with the following characteristics:

In this post we’re focusing on community - the part about going alone, but bringing people along with you.



Hiker with a friend in Yosemite near the PCT

In writing this series of articles about putting together a GAP Month, I’ve followed a straightforward formula to this point: I’ll read up on peoples’ thoughts around specific aspects of traditional pilgrimage, crib some ideas, and add a bit of my own spice. No problem.


When I got to the point about community though, things started to get confusing. People generally agree that there’s both an individual and a communal element in any transformative journey.


But “there’s both and individual and a communal element” in literally everything that human beings do, so that’s not particularly helpful.


“Pilgrimage” is a broad concept, and when people discuss the role of community in pilgrimage, they come out at some complicated and contradictory places.


In some discussions, pilgrimage is very much defined by the community. Pilgrims are sent at a spiritual leader’s behest. Pilgrims go as a group together. Pilgrims go because it’s a religious obligation, or a cultural norm. Masses of pilgrims converge together on a sacred site and participate in collective rituals as a core aspect of the experience.


But there is also the tradition of the pilgrim as a solo traveler: someone wandering alone in the wilderness, or walking a lonely path towards their goal. Taking a pilgrimage is often seen as an individual decision that requires one to leave behind their most important relationships, at least for a period of time, to search for something outside of their day to day existence. It’s a personal, internal journey.


I spent some time trying to reconcile these seemingly contrasting visions of pilgrimage, and the epiphany came when I was reflecting on my own experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2015 while also coping with my father’s death.


You go alone, it’s true, but you also bring people along with you.


Sorry if this is a little dark, but I promise it isn’t pessimistic.


You will be alone


As a product of individualistic American cultural imagination, it’s probably not surprising that the most common image of a thru-hike is of the individual hiker struggling along, alone in the wilderness against the bears and the elements.


It’s not exactly like that in most cases. On the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, thousands of people start around the same time each year, hiking north in a bubble together. For most people, the experience very much involves the building of community. Some of us - like me - go with a partner. I walked with my wife Angel, and we slept in a tiny, smelly two person tent, which meant that I was literally never actually alone for the 5 months we were on trail.


But a thru hike is an experience of being a lot more alone than normal. You’ve left behind your home community, focused on the idiosyncratic interest of doing nothing but walking for months, and you live most of your life in your own mind. You normally see people every day, but only a few. Even when you walk with others, it can feel like an individual, isolating pursuit: Angel and I ran out of things to talk about within a month. After that you mostly walk in silence.


Trigger warning:


For me, I became hyper-aware of my own isolation on the PCT because my dad died in the middle of our hike. He had glioblastoma - an aggressive, terminal form of brain cancer. It came out of nowhere.


It’s hard to keep a discussion of the death of a parent simple, but there’s really only one thing I want to highlight about the experience here: the isolation.


When a parent dies, it sucks you into a black hole. When people describe bad ketamine trips, I think about the months around my father’s death. You feel detached from life, and for a period of time you can’t feel things properly at all. You’re paralyzed, and nothing seems to matter any more.


It’s hard to describe, but I think it’s common. Regardless of whether you’re in the middle of a thru hike, grief makes you feel entirely alone.


It sucks you into your own head.


It also highlights the fact that no one really understands what you’re going through.


I’m foreshadowing here, but when you’re struggling, all you want is a sense that you’re not in it on your own.


One of the problems is that, as you go through it, you realize that other people aren’t actually experiencing things the way you are. Even within my immediate family, we coped in different ways and struggled with different aspects of Dad’s dying. There was Dad himself, of course, who was going through an experience that none of us could relate to, and a physical process that none of us could do anything to prevent. But my mother and siblings and wife had different struggles than I did. We tried to support each other, but all of us were emotionally wrecked in ways that made it messy. We didn’t fight. We just had our own stuff to deal with.


When we got back on trail after Dad’s death, for two straight months I walked along with Angel, fully in my head. I rightfully felt that she didn’t actually understand what I was experiencing, but I recognized that I didn’t understand what she was going through either. Even when you’re together, no one suffers in the same way.


Losing my dad was the most isolating experience of my life.


And, I was already alone in the woods when it happened.


It was a hard, complicated situation to navigate.


Isolation drives connection


Grief makes you all dark and hopeless, but isolation is a normal fact of human existence. Of course no one can ever fully understand another person, even if they read their memoirs.


But the thing is, we don’t normally feel alone. In our day to day lives, most of us feel a sense of connection to other people. We’re communal animals.


For me, the sense of isolation I experienced along the PCT wasn’t “normal.” It wasn’t how I felt prior to Dad’s death, and it wasn’t how I wanted to feel after it. So isolation became a problem to solve.


The way you address a feeling of isolation, of course, is to get closer to other people. Isolation creates a hunger for connection.


In a weird way, it also creates a pathway to connection. I’m foreshadowing again, but that sense of isolation - that we all suffer alone - can become a point of commonality. You realize that even if no one else will ever fully understand your experience, all of us carry around these types of things.


Everyone realizes it at some point.


One thing we have in common is that we’re all alone.


This is an emotional lesson of death, but I think it’s also a lesson of pilgrimage.


Environments where people feel isolated are fertile grounds for community.


In grieving Dad’s death, Angel and I started the process of trying to connect immediately. We wrote messages to friends and family, we reconnected with people we hadn’t spoken with in years. We made calls and wrote blog posts and personal messages. It’s natural. People want to connect when they’re grieving.


But we also got back on trail less than a week after Dad died. It wasn’t intentionally planned, but in doing so we headed into a paradoxically perfect environment for coping with isolation.


On a long hike like the PCT, you go out into the wilderness on your own.


But so do a lot of other people.


When you run into each other on trail, the isolation you’re both feeling is an easy point of connection.


So you make friends quickly.


You’re still alone. Sometimes you don’t see those friends ever again, if your hiking pace is different.


But now you’re alone, with friends, which is quite a bit better.


This is a central social dynamic of the trail. It is an environment where people are more open to connection than normal because they’re isolated. So, you start feeling very alone, but you quickly form a web of connections that make you feel more comfortable.



We went through this process twice.


During the first few months of our hike, Angel and I made a strong set of connections with hikers we met along the way.


But then, we got off trail for three weeks when Dad was passing.


When we got back on, everyone we knew had long since left us behind. We’d gone from the middle of the hiker bubble to the very back, and lost track of everyone we’d been hiking with, outside of an occasional Facebook update.


We were alone again, and now the sense of isolation was magnified because I’d just lost my dad. My emotional range varied between numb, angry and crying. I was lonely and grieving.


But straightaway, we were surrounded by people who were socially disinhibited by their own isolation. Alone in the wilderness, you might as well be open and honest.


I didn’t always want to talk about what had happened. The first person we passed after we got back on trail was a guy whose trail name was “Ellen Boxers.” He was moving really slowly - he was near the very back of the pack - but he was sending videos to Ellen Degeneres from the hike because he wanted to get on her show. I’m not sure if he succeeded, but talking to him about it was the first conversation I’d had in weeks that didn’t involve Dad’s death. It made me feel connected to reality again, there collecting water in a creek in Northern California.


Frequently, I did talk about Dad’s death though.


When Angel and I crossed into Washington, we met a couple of hikers we hadn’t encountered before. Their trail names were Nips and Pie. We camped one night in the same spot, and 12 hours later we were walking through the woods, crying together. We kept a connection through the rest of the trail.


By putting yourself in a situation where you feel isolated, you open yourself up to new community in unexpected ways.


By surrounding yourself with other people who feel isolated, you enter an environment where real connection can happen almost immediately.


People are drawn to inspiring experiences


You’re probably starting to understand a bit of what I mean when I say that, for travel to be transformative, you have to go alone, but also bring people along with you.


It’s about accepting your isolation but also using that as a point of connection with people along the way.


Remember that, because it’s a big part of the point, but there’s another dynamic at play here, because pilgrimage also involves your existing community.


In a GAP experience, even if you go alone, you bring your community along with you in some way or another.


The idea here is that you leave home for a significant period of time, but then you come back. You go out from your community, but you also return to it.


The connections from home never really go away.


Because you’re doing something big and interesting, some percentage of your friends and family will want to be involved. That might just mean that they will want to hear your stories about how it went. But often people will want to be connected more directly. They will want to know how they can support you in your experience, or may even want to join.


That’s a standard social dynamic when you decide to do something inspiring, which is what we’re talking about here.


You’ll go, but your community will want to go with you in some way or another.



From the beginning of our PCT hike, Angel and I had a lot of support from home. A friend shipped us our food boxes as we approached our resupply points through the whole trail - a six month commitment that started before we even left. During the first half of our hike, my parents drove us to the start at the Southern Terminus. We met up with friends near San Diego and Yosemite. Family visited when we passed through Big Bear. A few friends from Seattle drove down and hiked with us for a day in Northern California.


But when my dad died, the support increased dramatically.


When we told friends from home that Dad had passed, and that we were going back on trail, two things happened:

  1. People expressed their empathy and love.

  2. A mass of friends and family sprung into action to join and support us along the way.

Why? It’s a potent combination - doing something inspiring and needing the sort of support that people can empathize with.


I think people were naturally interested in what it’s like to spend five months walking across a country, but they were also interested in the emotional part of the process. Once Dad died, our PCT became a real, epic quest with emotional resonance. It felt that way for us, and I think other people felt it too.


When people understand the why, they’re more drawn to the what.


After we got back on trail, one set of friends rearranged their vacation to meet us for a five day stretch in Northern California, hiking 20 mile days to keep up. Another friend drove all the way from Seattle to Southern Oregon to help us get from the trail to the airport for my father’s memorial service (it happened a month after his death for a variety of reasons that aren’t important here). After Northern Oregon, people met us at every major road crossing. On at least 7 different occasions, friends drove for hours to connect at a random point in the woods for moral support, to transport us into town, or to bring us food and supplies. More than 50 separate friends and family met us at some point along the way.


There was a lot of hugging, and a bit of crying, but also a lot of laughing and eating and appreciation for the opportunity to walk miles through the mountains with friends.


We made it to Canada eventually.


Mom met us with my uncle, and we spread some of Dad’s ashes at the Northern Terminus.


On the PCT, we invited people along, without a doubt, so we were intentional about involving our community. But we only begged for help once. Otherwise people came along to support and be a part of the experience because they wanted to.


Why?


I can’t fully speak for them, but I think there are a lot of reasons. People recognize a struggle and want to help you through it. It feels good to support someone doing something hard or inspiring. Watching someone else going through something challenging also teaches you lessons that you might need for later, so it’s personally valuable. And when you know what it’s like to go through hard things yourself, there’s something uniquely meaningful about walking beside someone who’s doing the same. When you help someone along the way, you feel like a part of it.


In short, people are drawn to support this kind of thing because they get something out of it too.


Your pilgrimage affects other people


Go alone, but bring other people along with you.


It suggests something about the isolation you’ll experience on a GAP month.


But it also gets at the point that traditionally, pilgrimage hasn’t just been about the pilgrim. It’s also been about the impact that pilgrims have on their community.


When people support you on a trip like this, they have a meaningful experience.


When you return to your community from a trip like this, you bring back lessons that are broadly significant.


Your trip impacts your community.


In the religious world, there have always been inbuilt ways that pilgrims involve and report back to their home churches and communities. The communities know that they benefit from their experiences, so they support them. Religious pilgrims then typically know that their journeys are not just about them. They feel a responsibility to the communities that have sent them out. They pray for them along the way, and then speak in church and prepare presentations and help other people arrange their own pilgrimages in the future.


For those of us without religious communities though, the process is maybe a little less obvious - or a little less structurally guaranteed.


After the PCT, I had to sort out ways to report back on my own, but it felt like a compulsion.


The lesson I learned, and the thing that I talked about when I got back home, was that it’s your friends and family that get you through.


I don’t know how profound that is, but it’s what I felt at a deep level during the process of hiking and grieving.


I wrote things online. I also had a lot of melancholy conversations with friends on walks in the woods. We had reunions with other hikers. We gathered with friends and told stories.


In our immediate friend group, because so many people had supported us, we had new points of connection. We had new depth in a broad set of relationships. New shared experiences. Our friends helped us get through a big, crazy, difficult walk in the wilderness, literally and figuratively. For our part Angel and I bared our souls during one of the hardest periods of our life together, and we kept walking north until we finished.


We weren’t the same as when we left, but neither were our relationships. Our community was different too.


If you’ve known me for a while, you’ll also know that after the PCT Angel and I started Boldly Went - a series of events where people could gather and tell their own stories about the things they learned on adventures. That project was an expression of the lesson that it’s friends and family that get you through.


I’m not saying that we changed the world, but I do think that, as a result of our trip, our community was impacted. For a few years, we helped tighten the bonds between people in the outdoor community in the Pacific Northwest as a direct outgrowth of the lessons we learned on the PCT.


It wasn’t an intentional GAP Month, but that’s what can happen as a result of this sort of trip.


So what does it mean to go alone, but bring people with you?


There’s been a lot of storytelling and innuendo here, so let’s just state it directly.


Here’s why I say that our PCT trip was a good model for the GAP experience:

  1. A GAP Month will highlight how alone you are. It’ll be something you experience differently from anyone else - even if it’s along an established route where you meet a lot of other people doing the same thing.

  2. It will also open up avenues for connection.

    1. It will make you more open to connecting with new people yourself, in part because you’ll be lonely.

    2. It will also make other people interested in what you’re up to, and will make them want to join in, directly and indirectly.

    3. Bonus points if you go along an established route, because then you will be surrounded by other people who are also lonely and more open to new relationships than normal.

  3. A GAP Month is an intervention aimed at personal growth, but it is also a way to make an impact in your community. The degree to which this will happen is determined by the degree to which you involve other people, and how intentional you are in welcoming them in to the process - from start to finish.

All of this is summarized by the idea that “you go alone, but bring other people along with you.”


This is about you, but it’s also about your people.


That’s what you’re aiming for with a GAP month.


Some ways to intentionally bring people along on pilgrimage with you


It can feel self-indulgent or embarrassing to invite people along on something like this, but remember that people like supporting epic journeys and being exposed to people doing inspiring things. People like to support their friends through big events. It makes them more confident that they can do similar things themselves. It helps them learn what the experience of overcoming a challenge is like so they can repeat it. And being a part of events that are important to other people just feels good.


How can you create that opportunity for them? And for yourself? Here are a few straightforward suggestions.

  1. Go on an established route. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There’s an advantage to picking an established route for your trip. It’s easier to sort out logistics, and you’ll meet people along the way doing the same thing that you are. You don’t have to, but it makes a solo experience social without putting in any additional work. Just go do the Camino or part of the Appalachian Trail or the Bibbulmun Track or something.

  2. Involve others in planning your experience. Find people who have done similar things, who like to travel, or who are interested in what you’re doing. Grab coffee and talk through your plans with them. Get their input.

  3. Go as a representative of your community. For religious people, this might mean involving your faith community. A secular option might look like fundraising or “walking for” a specific cause or community. People understand that. It’s an inroad to connection.

  4. Take along a friend or partner or family member. Maybe it goes without saying at this point, but you don’t have to do this by yourself These types of trips will be transformative whether you go alone, with a partner, or in a group.

  5. Integrate friends into your experience even if they can’t go along through the whole process. If you’re designing a local route, consider crashing at friends’ houses along the way. Ask if they want to join you for part of the trip, or support with transport or logistics in some way or another.

  6. Send out the itinerary you’re planning to follow so people will concretely understand what you’re doing.

  7. Make the training process a social experience. Invite friends to go with you if you’re taking long walks, runs, bikes, paddles, whatever in preparation for the bigger trip.

  8. Share your experience via social media - photos, writing, music, whatever. It’s one of the few healthy ways to use social media.

  9. Think about how you’ll report back after the experience. You don’t have to sort this out now. Let it take a shape that makes sense for you. You’ll probably feel compelled to do this in some way during the trip so don’t stress. Just recognize that sharing lessons learned afterwards is part of the process. It’ll continue for years. This article is still part of that for me. 8 years later now and I’m still talking about the PCT and what I learned from it.

Conclusion


You can maybe see why people get a bit muddled when they try to describe the relationship between the individual and their community on a pilgrimage. It’s complicated. We’re all individuals living in our own heads, but tied up in a web of connections. We’re always both alone and connected.


So, one more time, what does it mean to “go alone, but bring people along with you?”


It means recognizing that travel, like life, is a journey that you’ll experience alone. Even if you go on a trip with thousands of other people, you’ll experience it differently from anyone else. You’ll be headed out into the world for your own reasons and will collect your own experiences. You’ll feel isolated by this fact at times.


However, that isolation can be an important driver for human connection. It can make you hungry for relationships. You can anticipate this and integrate it intentionally.


You might be surprised about how excited other people will be to be involved, because what you’re planning is inspiring.


Invite them along, and make it easy for them to join in some way or another.


They’ll appreciate it. Human beings are social creatures. All of us form our identities together. What you’re doing will be important for your community.


But your community will also be important to what you’re doing.


By involving them, you’ll impact not just your own experience, but the shape of the social world that you live in.


You’ll turn your own solo experience into something that changes other people as well.

Transformative travel isn’t just about you. Like everything in life, it’s about you, me and everyone.


So, in conclusion, go alone, but bring people along with you.


You probably already know this, but this post is part of a series about the GAP month model for transformative travel. I made the model up, sort of, but really it's based on classic pilgrimage principles. Have a look at the rest of the articles when you get a chance!

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