“ONCE YOU’RE OUT THERE, you belong to this group of people,” says Hobo Joe, a 22-year-old long-distance hiker from Massachusetts. “It’s very exclusive that way.” He is talking about attending Trail Days, a high-spirited annual hikers’ reunion in Damascus, Virginia (population 814), that draws about 10,000 Appalachian Trail enthusiasts. But he could have been referring to the entire 2,190-mile journey along America’s longest and skinniest national park.
Belonging is an important part of hiking this special, storied place for people like Hobo Joe and Drifter, a 44-year-old repeat “thru-hiker” — AT-speak for those who go all the way — from New Hampshire who has made lifelong friendships over 11 years of hiking the trail. The shared experiences that Drifter says he can only have on the AT bring him back again and again. “If you do a hike like this, I don’t think you ever lose it,” he says. “To this day, I still have flashbacks of places I’ve been, things I’ve done, just for no reason. You’ll be in the middle of doing something at home and, bam, you’re on a mountaintop in Maine.”
Thru-hikers are at the top of the hierarchy of the special community that forms every year between the start of the 78-year-old trail in Springer Mountain, Georgia, and its northern terminus at Maine’s Mount Katahdin. In descending sequence, the pecking order also encompasses section hikers (those who eventually do the whole trail, but not all at once), weekend and overnight hikers, and day hikers, and includes arcane subcategories like purist, white blazer, blue blazer, yellow blazer, pink blazer, flip-flopper, slackpacker, northbounder, and southbounder. But to the outside world, long-distance hikers are identifiable mainly by their unkempt look and funky smell, since stopovers with indoor plumbing are few and far between on the trail.
My hiking partner and I, after five grueling days on the trail — half of which are spent on the infamous Roller Coaster, 14 miles of PUDS (pointless ups and downs) — arrive at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, wanting nothing more than a shower, a hot meal, and a bed to sleep in for the night. We have dirt under our fingernails and in the creases of our skin. Our hair is matted. As we begin looking for signs indicating a hostel is near, a man catches us in his stare. With his tall, thin build, his white goatee, and a faded bandana wrapped tightly around his head, he is almost a dead ringer for Osama bin Laden. Were it not for his carpenter’s belt, we might have been fooled. He walks over, greeting us with “You look like butt, you smell like butt. You’re coming to my place.” We laugh and laugh. My hiking partner — who has chosen the trail name Dirty South — and I spend that weekend in May with Bonzo, his dog Rio, and his girlfriend at their home in Harpers Ferry, where the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a clearinghouse of AT information, is located.
Bonzo frequently refers to the hiking community as a family and says if he were the only hiker out on the trail he would trip himself and “wish for death.” As a thru-hiker, he had attained the highest status recognized by members of the AT community, and with it the prestige and authority to name — or in this case, rename — novice hikers. There are no rules for the giving and receiving of trail names, but one day in Bonzo’s van on the way to grab a cheeseburger and a beer, my hiking partner keeps saying, “I’m gunna make it, I’m gunna make it,” to which Bonzo replies, “If you didn’t have a trail name, I’d name you ‘Gunna.’ ”
My hiking partner accepts his new name without hesitation and is known as Gunna from that day forward.
ABOUT 3 MILLION PEOPLE set foot on the Appalachian Trail each year, but since 1937, when the trail officially opened, only 15,000 have hiked its length, either in sections or in a single continuous journey. In 1970, only 10 people were recognized as “2,000-milers.” The number has increased dramatically since then, and it’s likely to continue going up, especially among women, given the popularity of the 2012 book Wild and the subsequent movie of the same name. Wild recounts author Cheryl Strayed’s experience on the Pacific Crest Trail, West Coast cousin to the AT. The AT’s profile is rising even further this year: A film of travel writer Bill Bryson’s 1998 bestseller A Walk in the Woods, a humorous account of the author’s ordeal on the trail, opened this month with Robert Redford as Bryson and Nick Nolte as his out-of-shape pal Katz.
An online search finds more than 35 memoirs about hiking the trail, which has been imbued with multiple meanings since the idea of creating a multi-state footpath was first proposed in 1921 by Benton MacKaye, a Harvard-educated conservationist who envisioned the AT as an alternative to urbanization and development. Today, it provides an antidote to modern society in which long-distance hikers can temporarily separate themselves from the world.
Those visitors who spend the entire four to seven months it takes to thru-hike live in isolation for the most part and have their own ways of acting, talking, and thinking; their own vocabulary; their own activities and interests; and their own concepts of what is significant in life. All this leads to intense bonding with other hikers and to a unique subcultural identity.
Though sometimes members of this one-of-a-kind group are perceived as uncivilized or lazy, they are, for the most part, highly self-disciplined and motivated. They have to be to endure backpacking and camping outdoors on a daily basis for weeks at a time and the attendant discomfort and injury. Only about a quarter of those who set out to thru-hike continuously make it despite the pain, the terrain, and the weather, which can make or break a hiker’s day, bringing invigorating relief or adding punishment to the agony you’re already feeling.
The discomfort of walking 10 to 20 miles a day over untamed earth becomes such a regular part of daily life that those in for the long haul tend to develop a particular gait. The “hiker’s hobble” looks about the same for all of us, but the reasons for it can vary, from blisters to muscle or joint pain to missing toenails. I am happy to report I lost only two toenails on my last trip — both from my pinky toes.
SO WHY WOULD ANYONE DO IT? Simple: magic.
Trail magic is “known and spoken of with reverence,” according to Bill Bryson. The phenomenon, he writes, “holds that often when things look darkest some little piece of serendipity comes along to put you back on a heavenly plane.” More often than not, trail magic comes when it’s least expected and most needed. It can be many things, including but not limited to a kind word from a stranger, a ride to one of the many towns that dot the route, the finding of a lost item, or an elaborate food spread. It is conferred by trail angels, typically defined as individuals who bestow random acts of kindness on hikers. They are sometimes anonymous; they are frequently former hikers, local religious congregations, and hiking clubs that return year after year to show their support.
Trail magic allows long-distance hikers to sit down and relax, even if only momentarily, before continuing their journey. It can take the form of a cold six-pack of soda or beer floating in a stream or lockboxes full of miniature chocolates — like the one my hiking partner and I encountered near McAfee Knob in southern Virginia — scattered randomly along the trail. It appeared another time without the help of human beings: I was having difficulty staying motivated and just wanted to quit and go home. Sweat was pouring off me as I walked alone, climbing a mountain that seemed to have no summit. I had not showered or eaten, other than dehydrated noodles and cold oatmeal, for probably a week. I was near tears. Then I glanced to my left and saw a lily of the valley. At that moment, I knew I was not alone. I could feel myself almost being carried up the rest of the mountain, as the hymn “The Lily of the Valley” played over and over in my head. My whole demeanor changed as I smiled and continued on my way. Whereas trail magic in the form of “hiker feeds” strengthens camaraderie among the hiking community, in this type of trail magic, it seems almost as though the AT itself is giving it to you.
Hiking the trail is not just a physical accomplishment; it’s transformative in other ways as well. Hikers’ experiences of rebirth are not merely figurative and don’t always disappear after the hike is over. Some feel they’re communing with God while on the trail; for others, it restores their faith in humanity. Because hikers are away from family, friends, and significant others for weeks or months at a time, they must trust and rally behind one another. More than one romantic relationship and countless friendships have started on the trail and continued once the hike is over. The trail has its “sacred sites” — not only gatherings like Trail Days but also the shelters, camping areas, and towns along the way, where hikers laugh, dance, and tell stories of adventures, of hiker traditions, of trail magic, and of the heroes and legends that have grown up around the arduous walk. It also has its sacred texts, in the form of guidebooks and shelter journals, which hikers sign upon arrival at each outpost, debating philosophy, telling jokes, letting others know about “unfriendlies” in the area, working through their own inner struggles, and inspiring those whose energy is flagging. Many are at a crossroads in life and are searching for answers, and their fellow travelers or the trail itself eventually provide them, though the revelations do not come quickly or easily.
Often, hiking the trail is a pilgrimage, a place to be marginal, betwixt and between, neither here nor there, where social norms are unclear or unknown and relationships are unfamiliar. This liminal space can be unnerving, but for many it is also empowering; they get back home and realize the career that has consumed them for so long is unacceptably unfulfilling or their relationships unproductive. “You go back and talk to your friends and [they] talk about stuff that has interested you for 20 years,” says a 35-year-old Canadian and repeat thru-hiker know as Montreal, “and you listen to them, and you’re thinking, ‘You’re so boring. I’m sorry, but that’s not my life anymore.’ ”
As for me, it took awhile to adjust to life back home after spending a few weeks on the trail, interacting with strangers. I’d gotten so used to being able to trust people and see the goodness in them that I was told more than once to take off my rose-colored glasses — but that is simply who I am today. As 57-year-old Spirit, a section hiker from Tennessee, put it, “You may not be religious, but you are going to go through something on this trail.”
Kristi M. Fondren is a professor of sociology at Marshall University in West Virginia. This story was adapted from her forthcoming book, “Walking on the Wild Side: Long-Distance Hiking on the Appalachian Trail,” due out from Rutgers University Press in December. Copyright © 2016 by Kristi M. Fondren. Reprinted with permission. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.