Guiding the Unknown Trail

When I first started as a wilderness therapy field guide, I knew nothing about the trails I was headed out on. Of course, I had the map, so I knew where we were going, but I did not know what the trails looked like or how hard they would be to traverse. I was leading my crew into the unknown.

As hikers, we face this reality every time we embark on a new trail, but it becomes something different when we are taking responsibility for others on that unknown trail. Most of the time, we just explored scenic trails throughout the Olympic National Park, and I felt blessed to be where I was, but then there were those times when the unexpected happened. Broken trails, the campsite wasn’t where it was supposed to be, your tent pole snaps while pitching it in the rain…

In time, I learned that I didn’t have to know the trail to be a good guide, I simply had to know how to hike the trail. That’s what it meant to be a guide. It wasn’t about knowing what lay ahead, it was about knowing how to encounter whatever lay ahead.

Towards the end of my time with Rites of Passage Wilderness Therapy, I had developed a saying for our clients. Whenever they expressed fear or uncertainty about the path ahead, I would tell them, “The trail ahead is the same as the trail behind. You made it through the unknown then, and you’ll make it through the unknown now.”

This is our power as mentors. We lead others into the unknown, not because we know everything there is to know about the path ahead, but because we have experience to share about how to encounter the unknown. We’ve learned to choose love over fear, to be intentional and rigorously honest. We’ve learned that power comes not from being in control but by taking personal responsibility. 

Such are the tools mentors teach others how to use. Like a veteran backpacker teaching a beginner the essential gear we use on the trail. Whatever path you choose, here’s how you adjust your pack. Carry your heaviest weight close to your back, otherwise, it will pull on you the whole time you’re hiking. Oh, and you ruin your waterproof lining if you dry your shoes by the fire.

We may not know what awaits us down the trail, but we do know the allure of the unknown and the thrill of walking into it. And sometimes, that’s exactly what someone needs to set their foot to a new path of their own.