As a child, whenever my brothers and I would start speculating about all the places we wanted to live and all the things we wanted to do, my father would sagaciously explain that “It’s not about the places you live, but the people you’re with. It’s always about the people.” I’ve been on the trail for over four months and have witnessed so much spellbinding scenery and fascinating flora and fauna that at times it’s truly overwhelming. The opportunity to immerse myself in the natural beauty was doubtless one of my key motivations for hiking the trail; however, after hiking over 1,700 miles I can positively state that the absolute best part of the Appalachian Trail is the people.
From the very beginning, I have frequently found myself humbled and inspired by various people I’ve encountered. First, there are the numerous trail workers and volunteers who are not only helpful with information and encouragement, but also make the hike possible by maintaining the trail itself. It amazes me how much work and manpower has been required to create and preserve this 2,190 mile wilderness path – from removing fallen trees to clearing overgrowth to building and repairing shelters and campsites. The fact that the majority of these laborers are volunteers who do it out of a passion for the trail is astounding, and something for which I am continually grateful.
Another well-known phenomenon in the hiking community is something called “trail magic”. Trail magic is any unexpected act of kindness encountered along the trail, and can range from cold sodas left in a cooler near a road crossing to a kind soul taking hikers in for the evening. Sometimes these “trail angels” who provide such deeds are former thru-hikers or section hikers, or people who have had loved ones who hiked in previous years, but many times they are just strangers who wanted to do something nice for others. I have been on the receiving end of so many of these kindnesses – often when I needed it the most. Recently, as I neared the Vermont-New Hampshire border, I was caught in a proper deluge of rain. After hiking twenty miles that day, I was exhausted, soaked, and alarmed by the increasing lightning and thunder. At that point, I happened upon a list of people in the area who volunteered to take in thru-hikers. After calling a number, I was swiftly picked up, taken to get ice cream, and then treated to a shower, laundry, and a roof over my head that night along with six other hikers. And what did this gracious family ask of us in return for their hospitality? Only that we would one day pay it forward in some manner. I can assure you that words will never be able to express my appreciation to them and all the other trail angels I have encountered, but I certainly will do my best to pay it forward.
Then there is the hiking community itself. As I’ve alluded to in a previous blog post, the hiking community is comprised of a diverse group of people. Over the course of my hike, I’ve met young children and eighty-year-olds, professionals and retirees and recent high school graduates, people from all over the country and from abroad, and many with years of outdoors experience and those with a decided lack of backpacking know-how prior to starting (myself included). Often times we, as a society, tend to segregate ourselves on a variety of levels, such as by age, education, line of work, etc. But these superficial barriers do not exist on the trail. There is almost an instant camaraderie one feels as soon as you recognize another as a fellow thru-hiker. This simple awareness transcends any biases or assumptions we might normally harbor in “the real world”. These bonds with other people of different backgrounds are what makes a tight-knit community, and it’s something that we sadly often seem to lack today.
As I cross into New Hampshire and prepare myself for the fabled White Mountains, I am aware that my time with my cherished hiking community will soon be drawing to a close. While that realization is difficult to think about, it has allowed me to better appreciate the time I have left among the people hiking Appalachian Trail, and I am taking every opportunity I have to enjoy their companionship while this journey lasts.
Until our paths cross again,