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The Appalachian Thru-Hiker

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November 17, 2019

The best of all there is on the Appalachian Trail


I have on several occasions along my journey come across students who were receiving college credit for hiking the AT, whether they were hiking a section or planning on a thru-hike, usually in conjunction with some type of write-up on their experience.

I have been thinking often about how this is such an incredible learning experience that I think it would benefit many if more of these programs existed, accompanied by an amount of credit truly equal to the valuable insights gained. Even if I were not voraciously tearing through many books and audio books, I would still believe that there is more to be learned through this adventure than is possible during six months anywhere else, and certainly more than a semester of full-time coursework.

I have spoken frequently it seems of so many extremes. Very hard days on the trail compared to absolutely amazing ones, very easy parts of the trail versus monster climbs and so on. The AT seems to know no moderation, only the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

There is another aspect of extremes I have found, and I think the dichotomy of these two extremes are possibly the most valuable learning experience on the trail. It is this: AT thru-hikers are rarely received with indifference. Thru-hikers are met with some of the greatest generosities of the human spirit and occasionally some of the greatest levels of distaste and distrust. Thru-hikers seem to bring out both the best and worst of all there is in human nature.

I will explain clearly what I mean by this, but know from the start that the latter is not a complaint; without it, the second learning experience would not be possible, and both learning experiences are more valuable than you can imagine.

First, I will need to begin by defining a few terms that may be unfamiliar to some. Trail magic is a term for all sorts of kindnesses on the trail, from a cooler full of sodas at a road-crossing to a ride into town to resupply. Trail Angels are simply people that do trail magic. For example, at an AT road crossing on a major road that would be long and difficult to walk, there may be a note posted of Trail Angels willing to give hikers a ride.

Since before my hike even began, I have experienced such an overwhelming amount of generosity from family, friends and complete strangers, to a degree I can still scarcely believe or endeavor how to repay. It is everywhere.

As an example, during the 30-40 miles of trail leading up to Port Clinton, where many water sources had run dry, three times I came across individuals handing out bottles of water. During that same stretch I also came across a group of hikers who were out for the morning to give out hot coffee and junk food of all imaginable types.

Hikers are also the recipients of incredible kindness in town in a variety of ways. I have been handed everything from bottles of Gatorade to beef jerky coming out of stores by people who could tell I was a thru-hiker. I recently saw a hiker ask for their check at a restaurant only to find it had been paid by a couple who had just left. Entire towns such as Glasgow, VA provide a free place for hikers to stay while resupplying, and most hikers receive an incredible number of rides on a regular basis, no small gift considering our usual state and large, dirty packs. The examples are endless.

More than endless, contagious. Early on along the trail hikers talk excitedly about coming back in future years to hand out snacks and such, and the veracity of these desires is shown by all the former thru-hikers that do come to the trail every year to “do” trail magic. However, most hikers cannot wait until future years.

Current thru-hikers are constantly looking for ways to brighten another hiker’s day, whether it’s buying extra of something to bring back or even doing trail magic on zero days. Occasionally the chain seems never-ending. In one town I ended up about the same pace as another hiker and as we started preparing our packs had gifted some things back and forth. I had an extra of this, he had an extra of that. The next morning he wanted to buy me a cup of coffee, and even though I assured him I had made some that morning where I camped, he was adamant — because he just wanted to do something nice for someone. An hour later he was handing me two candy bars. Someone had just given him some beef jerky and he wanted to pass it on.

I first met Sergeant Sunshine, who showed me much kindness (and Diet Pepsi!) a few towns ago, in central Virginia (I mention her name only because she already outed herself). She was doing a 100 mile section with a friend and had a car, and took that advantage to bring in donuts, fruit, sodas, sandwiches and the like for hikers passing through. At about 7 that slightly rainy day, I not only passed through, but happened to be camping there, and I didn’t have to cook that night.

The feeling spreads like wildfire.

So I promised there was a lesson in this, and there is. As I hike through Pennsylvania I think a lot about a friend who lives in the same development of my grandmother in one of the many places I consider home — Delaware — for this is his home state. I have been overwhelmed by how much he has helped me along this journey, but it is his everyday life that will help me communicate the learning experience to be found on the trail. He spends much of his time fixing this and installing that for the entire community simply because he has the skills and time to do so. He is always happy to do it, and often all he need hear is that someone needs the help, and there he is with his truck before they even ask.

I could cite all sorts of psychological research as to why generous people are so generous, but it shouldn’t be necessary. There is an incredible happiness to be found in helping others — a happiness much greater, in fact, than by being on the receiving end of such generosity. It is a wonderful feeling that cannot be rivaled. That is the valuable lesson to be learned on the Appalachian Trail, because kindnesses are passed back and forth in ways not often found in everyday life.

An event that occurred about six months before I left on my hike has stubbornly refused to leave my mind. I was in line at the grocery store and the women in front of me told the cashier that she needed assistance getting a very large bag — of pet food or something similar — to her car because she was recovering from an injury and had already lifted more than she was supposed to. She was still waiting for help when I was finished checking out, and as I passed with only a couple grocery bags in one hand, I instinctively offered to carry it out.

Both the woman and the cashier looked at me as if I was crazy. It seemed like a no-brainer to me. It would have to be a no-brainer for me to offer at all, for my agoraphobia flexes it’s muscles the most in social situations, and you will not often find me initiating conversation with strangers. In this case, it would have been more uncomfortable for me to walk by without offering to help than it did to initiate the conversation.

I will surely live the rest of my life without learning what it was that was going through the mind of both woman and cashier, but I do know this: Many of us, in our daily lives, would not dare to extend the random generosities seen on the trail, nor would we receive such random generosities without suspicion. When was the last time you walked up to a stranger and handed them a pepperoni pizza, or what would you do if someone made this offer to you?

This is the valuable lesson, the gift really, that among other things a thru-hiker gets to carry with them the rest of their lives. We can no longer see such generosities as abnormal, for we have been mostly on the receiving end, and sometimes the giving end, for a pretty good chunk of time. We have drank the kool-aid, so to speak, we don’t have to be afraid of generosity anymore, and we shall let it continue to spread like wildfire the rest of our days.

The second lesson is important as well. I feel, at least in my experience, that the negative reactions to hikers are far less frequent than the positive, but perhaps sometimes make more of an impression.

I don’t want to go too deep into the negative, but I must at least wade in to my ankles if I am to adequately explain the second lesson. As an example, let me describe my experience of but a few short hours heading to and from Walmart yesterday.

The Walmart was about 2 miles down a four-lane state highway from the AT in Port Clinton. Luckily, there was a giant shoulder making it a much safer trek than I sometimes find. As I walked to the Walmart it was incredibly hot and I didn’t have the cover of trees that I normally do, but it was a beautiful day and my pack felt light as I hiked the easy, smooth pavement.

This was a busy highway, so the stream of cars was constant. During the 45 minute walk, five cars blasted their horns loudly just as they passed me. Now, it is an agoraphobic tendency to assume that every car horn is angry and meant for you, but when you hear only five car horns over 2 miles, and each one pounces just as the car reaches you, the drivers are trying to tell you something. Nor were these the friendly “beep beep’s” that are occasionally accompanied by a wave by drivers, usually on more rural roads, who see you are a thru-hiker.

In any case, I made it to Walmart and headed to the pharmacy first where I had prescriptions waiting. As soon as I walked indoors, I was quite aware of my unavoidable stench. I had just taken a shower, which I try to always do when available before wandering around towns, but I had also just hiked 2 miles in 90 degrees on the hot blacktop.

I was elated to find my prescriptions were there, and so had no qualms when I found I needed to wait while they put my insurance card into the system. When you’re thru-hiking the AT, you tend to be pretty relaxed about time. I have much experience waiting for prescriptions, and so I did what I always do: I wandered around the pharmacy aisles. First I checked the diabetic section, just in case they found a cure while I was hiking, and then I went looking for Prilosec that I was almost out of.

At some point I noticed that an employee was watching me very intently. When I changed aisles, inevitably he found a reason to change aisles. This continued, and he was clearly and vigilantly ensuring I did not steal anything, and perhaps wondered why I was “hanging around” with an all but empty shopping basket. I finally tired of this and decided to go in search of the fuel, razor, and high-carb snacks I also needed and come back. I am not sure what makes one suspect a hiker of anything but being pretty sweaty, I just know that they do. Far off the trail one might not identify you as a hiker, but when you walk into a store 2 miles from the AT wearing trail runners and a bandana, they know.

Running around the store to fetch everything I received some of the typical looks of disgust or disapproval, but such is life. When I went back to the pharmacy I sat down on an empty bench and soon enough my prescriptions were ready.

On my hike back to the trail I received a few more of the honks, including one station wagon from which an entire torso and head of a man emerged from the passenger window to shout something angry but unintelligible at me as it went by.

Now, please understand, these things do not even begin to ruin the hike. On my way into town I had to get past a bear, a rattlesnake, and 9 miles with no water, and I had a fabulous time. In comparison, these experiences getting out of town are mere trifles.

My point, which unfortunately would be impossible to make without sharing some of this minor negativity, is that this too is part of the hike, and part of the second but equally important learning experience.

How could I ever in my life treat a homeless man like garbage, having had the smallest taste of what that must be like? How could I ever judge someone solely by their appearances, after being judged incorrectly so many times? How could I not walk away from this journey with a little more humility after having to awkwardly make my way through crowded tourist traps feeling my absolute best but likely looking and smelling my worst?

It is a lesson whose value cannot be underestimated, and cannot be taught to such a degree without the accompanying experiences.

I began this by saying that thru-hikers receive both the best and worst of all there is, but now that my thoughts are down in words, I was clearly wrong. Even the negative brings with it a valuable life experience, a gift, which will alter who I am to the core for the rest of my life.

Thru-hikers truly do get the best of all there is.

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