At this point this is our life. We wake up in the morning and we hike and we go to sleep at night and get up again. It is exactly what I expected we would be doing but everything else is different, everything else was an unknown and has been a complete surprise. Looking back…
The trail is a social place, I knew that from hearsay. I was actually looking forward to that aspect of it. Meeting hordes o people who were as crazy as we were, who had a similar goal in common. What I was not prepared for was the pressure that trail culture exudes, that it seeps from its pack seams and boot soles. I don’t think people mean to pressure each other, I mean, there is always that good natured ribbing and the casual “Oh come on, you can do a thirty miler today!” It’s more of a perceived pressure, no doubt one we put on ourselves, the need to explain yourselves to others. Just the other day another hiker we had been leap frogging all day felt the need to justify why he was stopping at seventeen miles, felt the need to puff up his chest and point out that seventeen was still a good day, and heck, the terrain had been real tough so it had been a hard day, right! We didn’t think seventeen was a short day, we hadn’t said anything to make him feel that way, and yet he had to prove himself to us.
Zero days have to be explained and earned and the earning has to be described in detail to other hikers. We have felt this pressure every day that we are with groups of people on the trail, and you feel it even more when you are incorporated into a group. Groups form effortlessly on the trail, cliques pop up and name themselves in a heartbeat. It must be the human need to associate, that pack mentality. Kyle and I have drifted through a few different groups made up of wonderful people whom we have enjoyed to no end. But groups can be hard. There is this pressure to keep up, make decisions based on the groups movements, eat where they eat, sleep where they sleep, hike their hike. The AT is supposed to be about hiking your own hike and I thought that would be easy to do, but it has taken an incredible amount of mental strength to stay independent. It is harder then I had ever imagined to know what I want to do and then to act on it. I applaud Kyle and I for making the decisions we have made and making them for us.
I also expected people out here to be hikers, backpackers, outdoorsmen to some extent. The diversity of experience is impressive and is really admirable, when people tell me that this is really their first time camping I am wowed, awed, moved and happy that they have made it to the woods. But I am also disappointed with people’s lack of knowledge about leave no trace and environmental stewardship. Although it has been getting better as we move north there has been a surprising amount of trash left on the trail, food and supplies left at shelters because someone didn’t want to carry them anymore. I have watched and stopped many a hiker from burning trash and throwing food scraps in the woods. And then there is the toilet paper and excrement everywhere. I don’t mean to make the trail sound like a trash pile, it is beautiful and scenic but it also had the harder signs of human impact written all over it.
But probably the biggest surprise is the amount of people out here doing this that don’t seem like they want to be doing it. The AT should be a choice, a get away, a paradise, a retreat, the trail should be like your sanctuary. Sure there are hard days, hard moments, hard mornings and nights, but for the most part if you like thru-hiking you like thru-hiking. And some people don’t. For some people it is the weather, the clouds and rain and cold get them down. Others like hiking but they don’t really like camping or visa versa (I had never even considered that the two would be separate in my mind, to me they go hand in hand). Some people only like the social aspect, others hate the bugs, some are in pain. Yet people keep going, because they have a goal, because they think commitment and completion is the most important thing. I say being happy is the most important thing, why keep doing something you dislike every day? That’s what crappy jobs are for. The trail is your time. The other night I had a moment, a twinge, a reality check when I realized that at some point I would be laying in my sleeping bag and the next day would be my last day. I would be laying there the night before summiting Katahdin and I would be feeling nervous, nauseous, scared, and sad. That’s one of a million ways that I know I love this trail.
I feel like these surprises might seem like disappointments, but really I just want to level with you, whoever you are, reading this blog. For the most part we have wonderful, funny, amazing things to write about but the trail life is a well rounded one, full of human drama and struggle. It would be unfair of me not to share these aspects of it with you, especially if you are thinking of doing it yourself. The AT is a social place, you aren’t going to like everyone you meet and you are going to meet a lot of people whom you will never see again but wish you would. You cycle through groups of people and come out ahead only to find the first person you met waiting for you in the next town. People always said, well the AT is a social trail, a party trail and looking back I had no idea what that meant.