What we mean by rites of passage


Back to Earth guide Amani Cary Simms presides over a ceremonial river crossing that marked this young woman's graduation from 8th grade.

When we talk about settling the world's problems, we're barking up the wrong tree. The world is perfect. It's a mess. It has always been a mess. We're not going to change it. Our job is to straighten out our own lives.
-Joseph Campbell

Rites of passage begin with… a phase of separation [that] detaches us from the daily world and disrupts familiar patterns. The second step entails a period of undetermined duration involving uncertainty, ordeals and transitions. The third step involves a reincorporation… at a level of deeper understanding and greater unity.
-Michael Meade
It’s hard to be alive in this world. It is especially difficult for teens to look out at the state of the world and feel hopeful that the long arc of their lives will be full of peace, love and beauty. And yet that is what we want for our young people. 

Back to Earth works to realize that world of peace through supporting young people to become their truest selves. One of the basic elements of disarray in many of our lives is the sense of separation from nature. We lead young people through a process of reuniting with the natural world, and begin the process of healing that most basic wound. We believe that human development is marked by several key transitions.

Human development happens in stages. Childhood, adolescence, adulthood, elderhood. Of course, each stage has many smaller phases as well. It is critical to live each stage to its fullest, to learn its lessons, feel its joys and pains and overcome its challenges. If we fail to do this, we start racking up a developmental debt, and carry the burden of unrealized opportunities and undeveloped potentials. Rites of passage are ways of measuring and marking the thresholds between life-stages. 

Back to Earth is focused on the transitions of adolescence, a time that our culture is currently not well-equipped to support. Middle school gets a bad reputation, and what could be magical and powerful years of transformation are thought of as the worst years of one’s youth. Unhealthy patterns, bad habits, and trauma from middle school often carry into high school.

Adolescence is a nonstop rollercoaster of internal transformation. Middle school and puberty bring about dramatic physical, emotions, and interpersonal changes. The adolescent brain is suddenly much more aware of social cues and needs a lot of practice to begin interpreting them. So much of the practice occurs in high-pressure environments (at school and on social media) that inevitably do harm. 

What adolescence as a life phase really calls for is a culture that can foster the uniqueness and individual character of each child as they transform into adults. They also need opportunities to test their growing capacities, to overcome new challenges that are developmentally appropriate, rather than staying in the habits and comfort zones of a younger self. And when they do overcome these challenges, or pass these tests and prove themselves, they need to be witnessed and honored as their new, bigger, more capable selves, and to be given the commensurate responsibility and respect that inheres to that level of maturity. 

Since our first summer guiding backpacking trips with youth, we have consistently heard them say “This trip was the hardest and most satisfying thing I’ve ever done”. Whether it’s the physical challenge of climbing a mountain pass with a heavy pack, going without hot showers, experiencing withdrawals from technology, or sitting alone for 24 hours on their solos, participants on our trips are given many opportunities to test their new capacities and find out how strong they can be. And these difficult trials are balanced with the joy of being with their peers on the trail and in camp, playing games, and through practices that cultivate their capacity for vulnerability and honesty like singing, check-ins around the fire, and giving greetings and thanks to the natural world. 

All of our trips follow the basic formula for rites of passage: 

  1. Separation (leaving the familiar)
  2. Ordeal (a time of testing, learning and growth)
  3. Reincorporation (returning)

A 5-day trip for rising 8th and 9th graders that consist mostly of day-hikes in Yosemite will be a developmentally appropriate version of this basic process, and youth who complete these trips will come home more mature, more connected, more self-sufficient and more skilled at working in a team. The most formal expression of rites of passage in our program is the 24-hour solo, which is an integral element of our 10-day trips. The solo gives older teens a ceremonious ordeal, a sort of emotional and physical trial for them to overcome. We have developed a system that allows for each participant’s ceremony to be catered somewhat to their individual growth-edge, while having the experience of solidarity and mutual support as they are out on the land as a group. 


W.I.L.D. is a wilderness skills, outdoor adventure, rites of passage program for teens and young adults, grades 7 and up.

We offer 5-day, 7-day, and 10-day trips for youth of all genders in Yosemite National Park and the John Muir Wilderness. Trips run throughout the summer from mid-June through early August. Learn more about our W.I.L.D. 2023 Programs.

Registration is currently open. Each trip is limited to 12 participants. Enroll now to reserve your spot for the summer.