A couple of days ago I pulled into the gas station and immediately noticed that the car in front of me was covered in stickers. Not just any stickers. It was covered in trail stickers: the AT, the PCT, the Pacific Northwest Trail, the Wonderland Trail, the Colorado Trail, the list goes on. I leapt out of my car so I could stop the owner before he drove away and… chat. We talked for upwards of a half an hour and it wasn’t just me asking all the questions. Once he found out about us hiking the AT he wanted to know all about our experiences (he had bailed out two-thirds of the way through) and I of course wanted to know about his PCT thru hike, how he liked the Pacific Northwest Trail (despite having done it twice he actually doesn’t recommend it because of all the road walking), and what was next for him (Hayduke and CDT). When we finally parted ways because I had to get to work I was excited by the connection and I could tell he was too. This is because once a thru hiker, always a thru hiker and always a part of that incredible thru hiker community that exists, even without the trail to give it a sense of place.
This isn’t the first time I have accosted someone simply because of the stickers on their car. When we were living in Eastlake I parked behind a car one day, only to notice that the license plate holder said, “I’d rather be thru hiking”, and on the tailgate was a AT sticker. I left the man a note, with our blog and my email address on it. He emailed me shortly after that and was very glad to hear from me. He gave us advice on the Wonderland Trail because he had done it the summer before and from then on we always smiled and waved at each other.
Meeting other thru hikers is always exciting because even if you have nothing else in common, you spent five or six months of your life doing the same thing. You stayed at many of the same places, ate much of the same food, hiked the same trail and experienced the same misery. This last one is especially important. You can approach each other with that all-knowing look in your eye and respect in your heart. When you have this opportunity to meet up with other thru hikers, even ones you don’t know, you take it. I have made tentative plans with a girl from my high school who did a large section of the PCT last year to meet up for beers over the holidays, despite the fact that we were a couple of years apart in school and don’t actually know each other. Recently two people we met one time on the AT came out to Seattle to visit their son and we met up with them for dinner. When AT thru hikers come to town, even if we only met them a couple of times on trail, we always clear our schedules to hang out and get beers, to chat about the trail and what is next.
Thru hiking creates that common experience that you need to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. I know of nothing else in my life, that can instantly connect me to people the way a long trail can. For me this defines the trail community for me, a group of people always happy to find another thru hiker in the crowd.