I recently picked up Backpacker’s Magazine’s Guide to the Appalachian Trail at the library. I realized quickly that the book was a resource for day hikers and other light users. However, I did find some golden nuggets on page 5:
“If you run into thru-hikers on the Trail, you’ll quickly realize that they are not there for the same reason as the rest of us are….chances are they will be polite but a bit distant. The fact is, they tend to regard us day hikers as tourists, and themselves as the true natives of the Trail community. Don’t let it bother you. It’s just that, engaged as they are in such a major undertaking, they tend to be a bit detached from the world the rest of us live in….they have a schedule to keep.”
The author Jim Chase portrays thru-hikers almost whimsically, but ultimately I’m left with the feeling that they are decidedly feral. Chase’s description makes me visualize notices at trailheads that say “Leave the thru-hikers alone” in a similar tone as signs that say “Do not approach the wildlife.”
With this in mind, let’s fast forward to last weekend when I hiked a few miles on the A.T. around the Blue Ridge Parkway. Halfway back to the trailhead on my return, I saw a hiker approaching. He had the typical look about him: thin/sinewy, long locks, mountain man facial hair, carrying a pack, and progressing at a good clip with a hiking pole braced in his right hand. I’ll preface by saying that I can’t be sure if he was thru-, section-, or day-hiking, but he had the look, ya know. Well, immediately I got excited. I thought to myself, “Oh, wow, maybe I can chat him up about his hike. This’ll be great!” This is what I probably looked like. Yep, that’s right, I felt compelled to approach the wildlife. As he passed, I said in my best sing-song lilt, “Hi-iiii, how’s it gooo-ing?” He kept his eyes on the ground in front of him and responded, “I’m fine. How are you?” His response was the verbal equivalent of a trudge, and he moved on.
I spent the next five minutes over-analyzing what had just happened, as I’m wont to do. I nearly beat myself up over it: “What were you thinking? Of course that was going to happen. Clearly, he was busy.” He seemed a cross between the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland (“Oh dear, oh dear, I shall be too late!”) and, maybe, Eeyore (“I might have known….Somebody spoke to me only yesterday.”) He had no time to spare. And I was a tourist. Sadness.
I want to think that I won’t be like that during the course of my trek, but let’s be real, some days I will be in my own little world. I imagine other days I’ll be craving company with time to chat up passing hikers. It’s a similar dynamic as I experience living in the DC area, which is obviously a tourist haven. Some days I just want everybody to stand on the right side of the metro escalators (!!!) so that I can catch the train before the doors close. Other days I’m glad to provide advice and directions to the nearest monument or museum.
So just remember, if you happen to see a female version of Elmer Fudd while you’re day hiking on the trail next year, the best way to get her attention is with (gluten free) snacks. And feel free to approach the wildlife.