Although I’ll have to focus on the “job at hand” each day –
getting from Point A to Point B in a reasonable amount of time – I intend to
enjoy the company I have along the way.
In reading thru-hikers’ journals, this point has been made
time and time again: although many hikers looked forward to the journey itself,
the scenery, and the personal growth they would experience, it was the
friendships they made on the Trail that was the most memorable aspect of the
trip for most of them.
“ . . . I hiked seven miles and bought new,
lightweight gear. I never did get to see the world’s second largest
poplar tree and probably never will. But I did get to see a couple of
trail friends who I’ll probably never get to see again. I realize now
that the AT is much much more about people than about places.”
- Nat “Bumpo” Stoddard,
thru-hiker, on Day 12 on the Trail
The impact of the shared experience and mutual support
among thru-hikers can be very powerful, resulting in lasting friendships among
diverse people who never would have been friends otherwise.
This happens with AT runners, too. When David Horton ran
the Trail in 1991, he became close friends with fellow competitor Maineak (Scott
Grierson) despite the fact they were moving along very quickly and didn’t even
spend that much time together. They had a common goal (beating the current
record) and respected each other’s ability. They remain good friends today.
THE POWER OF SHARED EXPERIENCE
“It occurs to me that the "AT experience" is
perhaps not about the footpath itself, but awe one finds and the people
one meets along the way. Mind you, the path itself is necessary, vital -
it is the framework. But there is just something gut-grabbing about the
shared experience, and the tougher the experience, the better.“
- Jan “LiteShoe,”
I’m pretty much used to running alone for hours on end,
happy to be one with the trees and mountains. There are times I will want to be
alone on the AT, traveling at my own pace and enjoying the moment. But I also
want to socialize with other trail users, whether they are out for a day, a
section, or the whole enchilada. Even if they aren’t runners, we share a common
love of physical activity and nature.
Since I plan to finish the trek two or three months faster
than most of the “Class of 2005” thru-hikers, I won’t likely run into the same
people week after week the way they do. So I may not be able to get to know
anyone very well. But I do want to be friendly and courteous to the other trail
users, and it would be a nice bonus to enlarge my circle of friends.
“My sense is that I can always revisit certain spots to appreciate once
again their scenic beauty, but will never again be able to capture the
magic of the relationships I will experience on the trail. Long after we
have forgotten the bad parts of the hike, it is the people we hike with
that will remain in our thoughts and in our hearts.”
- 2005 thru-hiker
Dick “Longhaul” Calkin
I need to be careful what I say to hikers for my own safety
and so I don’t alienate the traditionalists among them. I’ve been cautioned more
than once not to brag about how fast I’m going or how much crew support I have.
Although many thru-hikers take advantage of “slack-packing”
or “freedom hiking” a few days along the way (when they can leave their heavy
back-packs at a hostel, e.g., and use a light pack for a day’s hike), the term
“slacker” doesn’t have a very positive connotation. I’ll be considered a
“slacker” for more than one reason – using a light-weight pack, running when I
can, wearing trail shoes and not boots, and staying in our camper at night. God
forbid I set a female speed record! (not real likely)
One woman gave me this honest
“When I thru hiked in 2002, there was a gentleman on
the trail whose wife met him every 20 miles in their Slack Mobile. I will
confess that you will not be so well received by the other thru hikers if you do
this, though. They will be friendly enough, but some misunderstandings are bound
Even though I had heard this attitude before, I asked
her for clarification. She wrote back:
“The problems some hikers have with slack-packers,
supported runners, and fast packers are:
- bragging about mileages
- bragging about low pack weights
- skipping, or yellow blazing trail
- not having the life style change a long distance hike used to imply
bringing the competitive, fast paced world into the "wilderness" experience, as
sort of pollution
- taking away from the self sufficiency a long distance hiker usually
- going through the hardships, the cold, hunger, aches and pains
- a town/camper experience on a nightly basis is wimping out
Now, Sue, I want you to know that the above feelings are those expressed towards
slack packers, yellow blazers, and town hounds while I was on the trail.
Personally, I think everyone should hike their own hike, but just be honest
about what you are doing, without bragging, etc. You and I have already learned
that there will always
be people judging and criticizing your motives. Be at peace with yourself.
That’s all that really matters.”
And she wished me well.
I appreciated her candor, and promised her (and myself)
that I will remember what she advised.
BEING A GOOD AMBASSADOR FOR ULTRA-RUNNING
When other runners are planning similar treks on the
Appalachian Trail, I’d advise them to also take her words to heart.
Some people may take offense and say, “Screw the
purists,” but I think we should respect the time-honored traditions that have
existed since early AT pioneer Earl Schaffer first “walked with spring” in 1948.
(See the ATC site for the history of the AT.) I don’t know if other long trails
in this country have such a long history and similar traditions – I doubt it.
Jan “LiteShoe” Leitschuh, another thru-hiker who has THE most popular site on
www.TrailJournals.com, eloquently expressed more
tolerance toward a runner she met on the Trail in Pennsylvania in June, 2003.
I know she's referring to Regis "Buckeye" Shivers, from Ohio, who ran the AT in 2003 in just 87+ days
with his wife crewing for him. He also did the Mohican 100-miler along the way:
“We are passed by a
friendly fellow named Buckeye, a marathon runner. He has no pack, only a water
bottle. He is running the AT in prep for his tenth marathon. (Jan corrected
this the next day – Buckeye was training for a 100-miler AND running the whole
His wife, Buckeye Babe, meets him at road crossings with water and sandwiches,
and at night they camp near the truck. Some folks take issue with this way of
hiking the Trail, but it's fine with me. There are many notes in a symphony.”
Very cool analogy!
(“Buckeye” passed Jan
again a few days after running Mohican, and she mentioned him a third time in
her trail journal.)
I wanted David Horton’s perspective on this, since he
also had the audacity <grin> to set a SPEED RECORD on the Trail in 1991. I
figured if anyone had ever alienated the thru-hikers, it would be someone aiming
for a speed record!
But if you know David, you know it’s hard to NOT like
him. He’s outgoing, personable, and funny. He told me he doesn’t remember anyone being
critical of or unfriendly to him on the Trail.
David’s advice to me re: how to coexist peacefully with
the thru hikers was GREAT. He suggested that we act as “Trail Angels” sometimes,
dispensing some “Trail Magic” like I mentioned in
Prep9 – those
serendipitous moments when a stranger does something nice for tired, dirty
thru-hikers, like offer them a ride to town or give them a cold drink from our
truck at the trail head.
I love the
idea, David. That should help us blend into the community of hikers better, and
it’ll be a way we can return the favor of other Trail Angels whose surprises we
find on the Trail.
It’s a win-win