Chris Rosenblum: Hiking pioneer blazes the final trail

Tom Thwaites, a retired Penn State physics professor, spent decades hiking and creating trails in the area. His wife, Barbara, said the only thing he loved more than hiking was helping others enjoy the hobby. He died Christmas Day at age 83.
Tom Thwaites, a retired Penn State physics professor, spent decades hiking and creating trails in the area. His wife, Barbara, said the only thing he loved more than hiking was helping others enjoy the hobby. He died Christmas Day at age 83. Photo provided

Barbara Thwaites remembers her husband being somewhat quiet and reserved in cities.

But along a trail threading through woods or crowning a rocky ridgetop, a different side to Tom Thwaites emerged.

“I think he felt more alive in the outdoors,” Barbara Thwaites said. “That was where he belonged.”

Thwaites, a retired Penn State physics professor, reached the end of a lifelong path on Christmas Day, succumbing to heart disease at 83 at his Foxdale Village home.

He left behind lasting gifts for those who shared his passion for lacing up boots and setting out on long treks. In addition to writing three guides to Pennsylvania trails, he built one of the state’s most famous: the Mid State Trail.

In 1969, well into his 29 years serving as the adviser to the Penn State Outing Club’s hiking division, Thwaites and his students connected existing trails to build the state’s longest hiking and backpacking trail. Some of its 325 miles cross Centre County, topping Tussey Mountain and passing through the Seven Mountains region while linking the Maryland and New York borders and providing passage to the celebrated Appalachian Trail.

Over the years, the Mid State Trail has garnered national acclaim. In his “Guide to Backpacking in the United States,” author Eric Meves called it “the wildest trail in Pennsylvania,” and “The Best Hiking Trails in the United States” included it among its choices.

A stone monument erected in 2003 in honor of Thwaites’ achievement marks the trail locally near the Little Flat Fire Tower on Greenlee Mountain in Rothrock State Forest. Appropriately enough, he also wrote a Mid State Trail guide and, in 1982, founded the Mid State Trail Association to recruit volunteers for clearing the trail and other maintenance.

As much as he enjoyed hiking, his wife of 61 years recalled, he loved drawing people to it even more.

“I guess he just wanted to spread the news,” she said.

Thwaites, a Wisconsin native, arrived in State College in 1959 to a faculty position with a fresh physics doctorate from the University of Rochester and a limited knowledge of Pennsylvania’s natural charm.

“Tom thought the suburbs of Pittsburgh bumped into the suburbs of Philadelphia,” Barbara Thwaites said.

He quickly discovered otherwise, falling in love with the mountains, valleys and forests near his new home and across the state and developing a passion for weekend hiking. Every Sunday, he led student expeditions across hill and dale — the sky over his head, the crunch of rocks and leaves under his soles and gorgeous views just ahead.

“He almost never seemed to get tired or too discouraged if it started to rain or if the hike was rougher than we thought,” Barbara Thwaites said. “He just liked being out there.”

Sometimes, she and their two children, Jeremy Thwaites and Rebecca Batt, went along, though they camped together as a family more often. Long, strenuous hikes were really his thing. So was trail-blazing. As a Sierra Club member, he teamed with fellow veteran hiker and PSOC adviser Ralph Seeley in 1981 to lay out the Rock Run Trail system in Rush Township.

“Hiking is a particular delight for me,” Thwaites wrote in his introduction to “50 Hikes in Eastern Pennsylvania,” the companion to similar titles for the state’s western and central regions.

“Every season there are new things to discover, even on the same old trail. Wildflowers of spring give way to the soft green velvet beauty of summer, which in turn gives way to the color riot of autumn, followed by the snows of winter, with their many animal tracks.

“All of us return to the roots of our species when we walk.”

Throughout her husband’s life, Barbara Thwaites said, he remained proud of the Mid State Trail. When his friends surprised him with their tribute, leading him to the marker one day, they touched him to the core.

“Why do large numbers of hikers venture into the wet, wild woods with biting insects and stinging nettles, on trails lined with roots and studded with rocks? There is something different and deeply appealing about hiking in the out-of-doors,” he once wrote.

“The wilder and more beautiful land, the better the hiking. Clearly, these experiences are spiritual. It is the deep, but bright, secret of hiking. Spiritual experience is essential to our well-being, so hiking remains popular.”

An April 4 memorial service at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County church will remember a zeal for the outdoors — and for sharing it with generations of hikers — that only a failing heart could take away.

After retiring in 1989, Thwaites completed hiking the Appalachian Trail. He also traveled frequently with his wife, out West and to exotic locations abroad such as the Galapagos Islands, Turkey and Egypt. The trips were memorable, but each time, he returned to his favorite spots on Earth.

“He was glad to get home and hike,” Barbara Thwaites said.

Happy trails, Tom.