I met David, a 26-year-old combat veteran, on May 27th, 2022, just four days after his six years of service as an Army medic ended. He’d come to the Appalachian Trail to sort through his experiences and to think about what came next. I didn’t ask what war was like, what he’d seen. It was evident he’d seen enough during a couple tours in Afghanistan. I mention the date we met because because it’s common on the trail to make fast friends. In fact, within 20 minutes, I learned everything I’ve just mentioned and have his number and will touch base as he continues north, bound for Maine, with a group of friends around his age.
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Seven weeks ago on a different section hike with three good friends, I met Billy Goat, a trail-wise, fast-moving, native Dominican thru-hiking southbound from Maine to Georgia. [Hiking southbound (SOBO) on the AT is far more difficult than hiking northbound (NOBO).] For four days covering 50 miles, we hiked with (but mostly behind) Billy Goat. We’d end up at the same campsites or hostel and have pleasant conversations about the day, the trail, and her future plans to open a spa and salon when she finished her hike. On our last day, we wished her well.
This is the way of the trail. Your hike parallels another traveler’s for a couple days or more until you move on or fall back. Then, someone else—or perhaps a group—will fill the void. In essence, you’re on your own while also in community with a rotating cast of characters, each with a story about why they came to the trail.
The community on and surrounding the trail defies easy description. It’s too diverse. In spite of this, a commonality exists across these people who would not likely interact in the world. On-trail, manual laborers mix with business executives, the jobless with the employed, and recent college graduates with old folks like me. The trail is the great leveler. It extinguishes the boundaries within which we operate off-trail because here, everyone wakes up with the same routine: eat breakfast, break camp, begin walking.
I’ve posted before about trail names, which thru-hikers adopt or are given. Consider some names of the people I’ve hiked with: Faceplant, Stealth, Terrapin, Double-Vision, Quiet, Dog Tags, Bandana Man, Lost Boy, Rainbow, Oomo, Hot Dog, Cheesehead, Frying Pan. Consider the hostel owners, Lisa and Gordon Simmons of Hostel Around the Bend, whose presence with guests can only be described as “chill,” a term my students use. Consider the shuttle drivers Sherpa Al, Grateful, and Suches. Think about the word “tramily,” the conflation of “trail” and “family,” and how it captures the intimate communities that form fast and solid.
In the brief time we interact, hikers drop pretense. Before I knew her name, Tracy — a young, engaging community wellness expert with a Masters of Public Health from Yale — shared about her exciting work while at the Nantahala Outdoor Center where she was learning wilderness first aid. Sprite (for the soda), a mild-mannered sixty-year-old, confided that he worked in food services in a federal prison. (I didn’t ask which side of the fence he was on, but I got the sense that he didn’t go home after his shifts.) There was Terrapin, slow and steady, with whom I walked several days. A leukemia survivor, manufacturing executive, and turnaround specialist, Terrapin’s job was to create efficiencies by laying off swaths of people. I can’t forget Albert, the contractor, tired of hard-living, who came to the trail to get sober. He’d saved $4,000 for the trip, “Cheaper than a treatment facility,” he told me. “Besides, all they talk is that god-crap,” he added after a long drag off his joint.
I’m enriched by having met all of them and wish I’d had time to ask more questions, to know them better.
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On my most recent section hike—the 150 miles between Springer Mtn, GA to Stecoah Gap, NC—Terrapin and I rounded a bend on my 12th day and ran into Billy Goat. She’d covered more than 400 miles since we last met and had just finished the challenging Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We hugged, marveled over our meeting again, and exchanged stories of storms, bears, and navigating blown-down trees. With less than 120 miles remaining in her thru-hike, Billy Goat was full of conflicting emotions, and tears formed as she expressed amazement at her accomplishment, relief to be so far in her journey, and tender from the mental toll the trail can take.
After we parted, I received a text from her that evening: “An amazing treat to see you again. The highlight of my week and just the boost I needed to finish my hike.”
While so much is troublesome these days, I find solace in the quick-and-fast connections hikers make on the trail. They give me hope that there are ways to close the gaps between society’s factions. The people we meet — especially those who are least like us — provide opportunities to learn one another’s stories and to discover that, while we all hike our own hikes, we are ultimately on the same path.