Hiking Through Liminal Space

Every time we go hiking we follow the three stages of a rite of passage.

In his book, The Rites of Passage, Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957) defined the three parts of a rite of passage as Separation, Liminal Space, and (Re-)Integration (with corresponding rituals for each). I went into this in some detail in my post, Wilderness Therapy as a Rite of Passage, but I’ll just draw the parallels to hiking here.

When we go hiking, we Separate from our homes in the “normal world” and set out on the trail. The trail is the Liminal Space where time moves a little differently and normal things take on new meanings. Finally, we Reintegrate into the “normal world” when we leave the trail and return home.

I love this because it’s not a big, dramatic, ceremonial thing. It’s just the flow of things, the natural order and process of moving through the world. Growing in spirals, if you will.

The thing about Liminal Space is that it’s akin to the underworld in mythology. It is not a place of black and white certainty, but it’s not all gray area, either. Liminal Space is the space between the then and the not-yet. (Interestingly, this makes the Now liminal space, as we are always Separating from the past and Integrating into the future.) The Liminal Space is where the Hero’s grand adventure takes place.

It’s not like we enter some mystical realm when we get out on the trail, where the laws of nature are somehow different or unreliable, but surely you’ve experienced that distortion of time when you’ve become enchanted on a new trail? Or you’ve found reserves of strength and courage, even creativity, that you wouldn’t have believed possible in the “normal world” back home?

I remember hiking the Selway River Trail for the first time with Beth, and getting so caught up in our conversation and the beauty of the trail that when it was time to turn around we discovered we had hiked some 5 miles in but felt we had the energy to go another five! We certainly didn’t want to go back so soon.

That’s the Liminal Space. That moment between two normals where we encounter new ideas, new limits, and new perceptions. 

In a similar way, the Coronavirus has separated us from our normal world living. We are now on a new path where normal things have taken on new meaning. In this space, we have the opportunity to look at every aspect of our lives with travelers’ eyes. We are free to rethink everything. To re-evaluate everything. To recommit to core values, to each other. To let go of those things that have only been weighing us down. (Be careful here, for things can only reflect the value you project onto them, but people are living expressions of the Divine, veritable springs of infinite value.)

Soon, we will cross another threshold and return to our normal world, but things will not be the same. No, we will not have changed yet, but we will have seen our lives through travelers’ eyes. We will have understood old things in new ways. We will have been witness to new possibilities, new ways of being human. The change that is available to us upon return will depend on the choices we make then.

It’s like when you come back from your backpacking trip aware of your need for new boots, a specific piece of gear, or repairs that need to be made to your tent. The journey didn’t make those changes for you, it only made you aware of them as new possibilities. Now, you have to follow through on actually getting it done.

So it will be when we return to our “new” normal. Now is not the time when changes will be made. Now is the time to become aware of new possibilities awaiting us upon our return. We’re on a new trail. What heights will it take us to? What depths? Like all new trails, there is nothing you have to do, except be present and aware.

Soon enough, we’ll be headed home again. Then we will have 1,000 choices to make about the new possibilities we choose to live into.

Enjoy the trail with your eyes wide open, my friends.


*Seek the Clearwater

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