Every year as March rolls around, thousands of people set out to fulfill a bucket-list item and complete the Appalachian Trail. Best wishes to those who are setting out now, and in the next couple weeks, as the Class of 2020! Thru-hikers admonish each other to “hike your own hike” – a reminder that there is no right or wrong way to achieve this goal. This is absolutely true – to a point – and I hope my thoughts here are understood in that context.
I’ve always been fascinated with the AT. Ever since that first time, during a hike with my Dad in central Virginia, I saw the familiar white blaze and we discussed the ability to keep going all the way to Maine, the thought of an uninterrupted pathway stretching for 2200 miles or so, through multiple states, environments and habitats drew me in. I’ve pored over maps, read stories, followed the adventures of many a hiker. And I’ve completed some substantial sections of it myself over the years (in fact I was on it last weekend). BUT, I’ve never really had a desire to thru-hike it, and what desire I might have had seems to be waning.
The allure of the AT is great. It offers physical, emotional, and logistical challenges that, when overcome, result in an unmatched experience and sense of accomplishment. And as far as “big adventures” go, it’s very accessible. The trail itself is a masterpiece, but the experience is not something I long for.
Again, “hike your own hike”, and forgive my generalizations – but the mass appeal of the AT as a “thing to do”, and the ability of large numbers of people to (at least) attempt it, is increasingly why I don’t want to do it. It seems that to many, it has become an accomplishment of self-actualization, an effort that is focused inward, on the individual, and on the social aspects of a mobile community that is trying to accomplish and endure the same things you are. There’s a lot to be said for that… but I find myself craving wilderness, and appreciating the mountains, more than I’m interested in the next opportunity for Trail Magic or the All-You-Can-Eat options at the next trail town. I know that it’s natural, after a punishing few weeks on your feet, to be longing for hot showers and good food – but I’ve observed people, too many in my opinion, frame the entire experience around intersections with civilization interrupted by annoying mountains, rather than the other way around. I enjoy camaraderie as much as anybody, but I don’t go into the woods looking to party. Events like Trail Days, in Damascus, VA, have absolutely no appeal to me. I prefer places where I can’t see human impact – I’m more inclined to immerse myself in the mountains, and get annoyed the first time I hear traffic on an intersecting road. This difference of opinion is definitely not the Trail’s fault, it’s me – but at the same time it’s hard for me to come to grips with the fact that after a long love affair with the Trail, it may not be what I really want.
I think the romantic veneer of the Trail first started to wear during a 45-mile section I did some time ago. I intersected several times with thru-hikers, of course. But I also marveled, admiring the view while standing on a clifftop, as I watched a long-distance guy trudge by without even looking up, because, he had told me, “I’ve got to make 25 miles today”. Maybe that was a logistical reality because food was running low. Maybe that guy was in a place, mentally, where he’d seen every view and was about to hit a wall if he didn’t keep going. But I couldn’t help but think he was missing out, AND that he’d be one of the many complaining that the Mid-Atlantic portion of the Trail was nothing more than a “Green Tunnel”. This wasn’t really my problem. He was hiking his own hike, and his reasons for being here were simply not in alignment with my own. I just couldn’t help but wonder – is this what happens to you if your goal is a thru-hike?
On the other hand, I leapfrogged a thru-hiker on a recent trip who by all accounts should have been doubling my daily mileage, but he had a tendency to linger on summits, and enjoy long lunches, and we wound up camping near each other for almost a week. When asked about it, he told me, “Being out here is the best experience I’ve ever had. I’m not in a hurry to end it.” This, I could relate to. (An interesting side note, he was a Southbounder, hiking alone).
So, knowing it’s a long trail, with a lot of open spaces despite the numbers of people, I’m willing to recognize that I can bypass the roving community and that there’s room to hike my own hike as well. I have to believe that the growing popularity of Southbounding and Flip-Flop hikes (where you start in the middle and go north, then come back to the middle and go south, or some variation on this theme) has to do with avoiding the “bubble” of Northbounders as much as it takes advantage of differing logistics and weather considerations. So, with approaches like this, some part of me believes I could make an AT thru-hike resemble the experience I’d want.
I’m not opposed to people, per se. Honestly, I’ve met a lot of great people out there, and generally enjoyed their company. The problem is that some bad apples intrude on the experience the rest of us can have. I’ve seen lots of litter out there. At the extreme, I’ve seen shelters absolutely trashed. I’ve seen hikers openly doing illegal drugs at shelters, near shelters, and while hiking – people who literally show up at an occupied shelter and light up. I’ve watched hikers cut switchbacks and perpetuate erosion damage that will take many man hours to repair (shout-out to tireless trail crews). I’ve seen human excrement ON the trail. I’ve talked to hostel managers who love the Trail community and every bit of “Hiker Trash” that comes in – and yet still lament that some just completely destroy the place in a night. This weekend, I saw a hunk of rock that had been inscribed – as in, carved into with a hunk of metal – with the words “Keep Going”, halfway up a mountain, and then another, “Almost There”, near the top. This inspirational graffiti – and that’s what it is, graffiti – took somebody a long time and a lot of effort. And it ruined the experience for me, focused as it was on the individual challenge and effort, and completely forgetting the experience of the place, the isolation, the wild. It will, no doubt, continue to ruin it for others, for a nice long time.
I know people like this are in the minority – but I’d be willing to guess that everybody on the Trail has encountered somebody like those I’m describing. Those that didn’t really come out to enjoy the outdoors, but to endure it. Those that, perhaps well-intentioned, believe that adding convenience and civilization and semi-permanent human presence to the Trail is an improvement upon what and where it is. And those that, like it or not, barge into the outdoors with an attitude that these mountains exist ONLY to help them with a sense of personal fulfillment, and with no sense of outdoor ethics at all.
It’s just not my thing.
I’m not trying to diminish the experience or the accomplishment for those who hike the Appalachian Trail, but I’ve got to believe that a little self-policing among the hiker community, a little bit of respect for the outdoors and a hint of environmental ethics would improve the experience for everybody. You can revel in the accomplishment in walking over 2,000 miles AND minimizing your impact in the process. The AT has been a part of my life, in some ways, for almost 40 years. I’ll always love it. But as much as I respect the “hike your own hike” ethos, there IS a wrong way to do it. I love the outdoors, and unfortunately there are people and behaviors that ruin it for me.
I wish the Class of 2020 all the best, and hope they find what they’re looking for. Just, please, respect it. In hiking your own hike, don’t make it impossible for me to hike mine.
Get Out There