Tom Thwaites’ passing felt like one of these losses. His 50 Hikes books sit on my shelf to influence future hikes in the same ways that they motivated me to go on hikes in the past. His contributions to the origins and existence of the Standing Stone Trail are part of the reason that I am so actively involved in the political / literary / trail maintenance aspects of the hiking community. However, he was so much more than that.
In the Standing Stone Trail’s newsletter (The Rockhopper), I wrote that he was “The father of the Mid State Trail. The man who thought up the idea of the Standing Stone Trail. Penn State physics professor. Faculty Adviser to the Penn State Outing Club. University of Wisconsin graduate. Keystone Trails Advocate. Author of the series 50 Hikes in Pennsylvania (West, East, AND Central) as well as the author of the guidebook for the Mid State Trail and various other writings. Husband, father, and grandfather. Beloved and respected man by those who knew him (and those like me who wish they would have). This list, while brief, stands as the testament to a man who helped make Pennsylvania hiking what it is and what it will be. For all of this and more, we offer him a moment of silence and appreciation.”
And all of these things are true, for this is who he was and is to me, this guy who is sitting here in Ephrata, reflecting on Thwaites’ life despite the fact that I never knew him – I only knew of him.
Henry Miller wrote how, “once in a great while I came across a being whom I felt I could give myself to completely. Alas, these beings existed only in books. They were worse than dead to me- they had never existed except in imagination. Ah, what dialogues I conducted with kindred, ghostly spirits! Soul searching colloquies, of which not a line has ever been recorded. Indeed these “excriminations”, as I chose to style them, defied recording. They were carried on in a language that does not exist, a language so simple, so direct, so transparent, that words were useless. It was not a silent language either, as is often used in communications with “higher beings.”
But the thing is that for all of the people we never get to meet, there are some real people out there who understand and who get it. They’re not always the people that you meet in everyday life, but they’re good people and they get it. They have many of the same interests and ideas that we do, even if their day to day lives are different. They too like the trail and they get the point of existence in shades of the way we all hope we live when we think about Jack London’s credo of how I (he) “would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time."
They live their life to do things. They tell the stories that we want to listen to at the lunch table. They have the abilities that will teach us how to do things better. They may be the be all end all best friend forever, but then again they might be. In some cases, they may be just one of an endless stream of acquaintances in the middle of the book or some variation of what comes in between. Be it the mythlike Dean Moriarity, the best friend forever, the bit part, the supporting actor / actress, the wise grandparent, or some other special role chosen just for them.
Who knows? These people could be the trail guide, the photographer, the poet, the social media like to our posts, or the person who tells us what to experience in that brief passing moment that makes all things after it right when we experience it.
It doesn’t matter because they are and we are, and the whole is expressed by Walt Whitman when he wrote that, “O ME! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; Of the endless trains of the faithless--of cities fill'd with the foolish; Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?) Of eyes that vainly crave the light--of the objects mean--of the struggle ever renew'd; Of the poor results of all--of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me; Of the empty and useless years of the rest--with the rest me intertwined; The question, O me! so sad, recurring- What good amid these, O me, O life? Answer. That you are here--that life exists, and identity; That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.”
And so it was that Peter Fleszar and Neil Brennan were set to go with me to the Mid-State Trail meeting outside of Penn State Main Campus back in January, only to have it cancelled due to one of the many snowstorms of the season. However, while we didn’t get to celebrate the life of Tom at the meeting, we did get to celebrate and reflect the man’s life in a way that we hoped could be acceptable for whom Tom was when we went to Pete’s cabin for a Saturday and Sunday guy’s trip in Tioga County.
And during that time, I hope that our lives contributed a verse while walking through the snowy woods of northern Pennsylvania and southern New York. I hope that in getting to know and hear the adventures of one another while checking out a nearly frozen waterfall and stepping out across a frozen lake to hear the tales of ice fisherman, we experienced the great communion of kindred souls and an understanding of everything that would be with the year and for our lives. I hope that when we looked across the vistas and fields and mountains of the northern realm of the state that we all made a difference for each other, and in the passing of this essay to your life as well.
And it’s true that none of the hikes were the kind of things that would make Backpacker Magazine’s pages, but they do represent a first hike of the year (for me). They give me a chance to ditch the arm and back pains that had been plaguing me for the 2 previous months so that I could move on from them to The Thousand Steps, Hawk Rock, the waterfalls of Ithaca, Ricketts Glen, and the sights of Ephrata’s rails to trails path in the other weeks of the year. Winter is tough, and the cold snow, ice, and wind bite hard against our faces and hands, but still we go on.
That’s what it’s all about.
Sometimes, it’s common places sites in another corner of the world with people, stories and books on a shelf, dreams and hopes, memories and just hanging out with the guys.
I’m sure Tom would be “down” with more weekends like this… as long as what happens in Tioga County stays there.