The Appalachian Trail is 2,189 miles of opportunity to connect with people I never would have met otherwise. It’s an eclectic group of folks who trek the miles of terrain between Georgia and Maine. My husband, Brian, and I have been section hiking the trail since spring 2015, completing 10 to 25 miles each day. Over those long weekends on the trail, we enjoy conversations with thru-hikers, section hikers and folks out for a weekend backpacking trip.
I’m drawn to the stories that people are so willing to share while walking on the trail. Thru-hikers have trail names — nicknames bestowed upon them by other hikers. The names reflect food, home towns, trail abilities, personalities and mishaps: Taco, Frenchie, Digital Traveler, Moonwalker and Potable. I love swapping stories of our adventures, talking about storms, bears, the heat and hiking after nightfall. My favorite part of our conversations is learning why each hiker decided to make the trek.
Some hike to check off the physical challenge from the bucket list.
Others because they now have the time and financial resources to do so; they want to slow down and smell the roses.
Some are between careers or have just completed college or grad school and they choose the trail as a way to figure out where they want to go in life.
The trail is a great place to ponder and get advice from strangers who don’t have a vested interest in sharing an opinion. A few weeks ago I hiked with a young man who had recently completed his first year of seminary. He began hiking the Appalachian Trail to decide if he should continue his quest to become a priest, or if he should open a coffee shop down south and sell local art. After 500 miles, he was ready to leave the trail and make his decision.
On an 18-mile day in Virginia, we fell in line with a young hiker from New Mexico named Roadrunner. We talked for miles and she shared that the week had been a particularly difficult one. She was back on the trail after taking several days off to attend a family member’s funeral. The trail that had been her refuge for 900 miles was suddenly lonely. She was grateful that the funeral was close by in Pennsylvania.
“Where in Pa.?” I asked. “That is where we are from.”
“York,” she replied.
Ironically, her aunt is a new member of a task force on which I serve.
We’ve met hundreds of hikers over the past year. I wish that I’d snapped a quick photo and gotten contact information for those with whom I hiked for miles. Some I have connected with on Facebook or by following their blogs. Others I think about, wondering if they accomplished what they set out to do on the Appalachian Trail. Did the young southbound hiker who started in Maine make it home to Georgia?
How did our California friend make out with her decision to leave the trail and volunteer with the Red Cross in the Louisiana disaster?
I will never know the rest of the story for many of the hikers we have met. But perhaps that’s part of the allure of hiking on the trail; being honest, open and anonymous.