THE PEOPLE OF THE TRAIL
We have arrived at Hot Springs, North Carolina. 150 miles of rugged mountains to go before we hit Virginia. This tough stretch includes days where we will climb over 4000 feet many days. Not until thru-hikers get to the White Mountains is the trail this difficult.
We have stretched out our hiking miles and hours per day. We have been achieving 13+ miles a day and walking 8 or so hours a day. While it may seem slow, you can’t really walk at a pace that you would walk if you weren’t on the trail. There is rocks, roots, steep climbs and steep descents that slow you down. The average hiker without breaks averages 2 miles per hour.
When you walk you have to keep your eyes on the trail or you will trip and fall. The trail is littered with exposed roots and rocks. Plus we have 25-30 pound backpacks that slow us, but also make our balance more difficult. Any slip, the backpack acts in a way that accentuates any off-balance activity.
In bad weather, the older hikers have an advantage over the younger hikers. Older hikers have more financial resources and can head into town for safety. But the younger hikers have fewer resources and many times have to stay out in the weather. The younger hikers also have less money to buy food, get gear repaired or have the luxury of a going into town for dinner. They walk a much harder trail.
Every day we meet new people or get to catch up with people who hike in our wave of people. When we go in town we meet people that own or work at places to stay. These places are B&B’s or cabins. Theses modern innkeepers do everything, from making breakfast to giving advice on where to go or important aspects of the trail in their area. The hardest part is leaving. You meet these people and become friends with them. But know you have to move on and when we walk out their doors of hospitality they are gone from our lives.
In one B & B, we met Steve and Maggie. Steve completed his thru-hike in 2010. Even today, almost 10 years later he remembers many of his days on the trail. Past thru-hikers like Steve give you information that you won’t find in the books you read.
For instance, Steve confirmed what we found. That socio-economic status has no weight on the trail. Your relationships are based on who you are as a person. Hiking this trail has nothing to do with your life off the trail. It’s all about helping, caring and treating others with respect. There is no privilege on the trail.
Steve also reminded us to avoid rules and counting miles. That each hike is very personal and a common phrase is, “hike your own hike.” In other words, it is our hike and not someone else’s. Nor is it ours to decide how others should hike. We are all on our adventure. It’s the adventure and people you meet that are most important. Miles don’t count in the journey, it is about your individual day and who you meet.
Steve is right, do whatever it takes to stay on the trail. Walk the miles you are comfortable with and don’t worry about if others are faster or slower. By now, statistically of the 3000 or so hikers who started, over 50% have dropped out. We see smaller numbers on the trail. Steve’s theory is that people drop because of not being focused on the adventure. Instead, they focus on the wrong things and they are too impatient with rules, their own abilities and find they can’t live a life where the rules are different every day. In other words, if you can’t hike ten miles that day, rest! If camping out every night isn’t good for you, go into town.
As we go, we find we have to be creative in how we walk. While we have plans for each day, we have to adjust to terrain, weather and how we are feeling that day. That means some days we walk longer than we planned or other days quit after 6 miles.
Along the way, we have discovered many other wonderful people like Steve or Mike. Some on the trail or others in town. But one thing we discover every day is kindness and faith. On a particularly cold, windy and rainy day, we had decided to hunker down at Steve and Maggie’s B&B. Maggie had gotten a call from a “Lady Bug” who wanted to hike but stay that evening with Maggie and Steve.
Steve told Lady Bug that he wouldn’t pick her up at her planned destination but at a much closer and safer location. This meant Lady Bug wouldn’t be hiking very far that day.
Steve knew she wouldn’t make it and was worried about her safety. It turned out Steve was right. When Lady Bug arrived she was in the early stages of hypothermia. She was shivering and soaked from the rain driven by winds that reached 60 miles an hour. Steve had rescued her.
When Lady Bug settled in and was warm again, we got to know her. A woman of grace and tenacity. Her faith was out in the open and clear. This is the one surprising thing we have found about the trail. People of faith talk about their faith. Not in a way that is commanding or demanding, but how their faith affects them.
Lady Bug later told us she saw the same thing on the trail. It’s another rule from the outside that doesn’t exist on the trail. Off the trail, back home, we are told not to discuss our faith with others, because it can be volatile. But on the trail, you need your faith. Simply walking is a demonstration of faith. We are advised to walk as if there is a string pulling us up from heaven. Both a practical suggestion to have good form, but also a statement of the importance of faith.
We have also met the Ozark Mountain Boys. Yep, they are from the Ozark’s and live a different life off the trail. Each night they build a huge campfire and invite others over to share stories. They are the community social butterflies. They say hi and welcome all. In the world away from the trail, they are part of “the deplorables.” They may not have a college degree, but they love their wives and children, know about the woods, have strong faith lives and are inviting. In this world they are kings.
Each day, I see God at work in our lives. In the trail as God’s creation, by the unusual events that occur, but mostly in the human capacity to be extraordinarily kind to each other. People talk about their faith without any insistence to see things their way, but with thankfulness.
Steve, the Ozark mountain boys, and Lady Bug are people you meet on the trail. We have and will meet many others. We are all equal and the mountains we climb don’t differentiate between who we are outside of the woods. You go up hills like everyone else. These hills don’t care who you are off the trail.
The people of the trail carry their home on their back and learn what is most important, fellow humanity.
Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman