Thru-Hiking Inevitably Is a Big Part of a Person’s Life

Posted by on November 1, 2013 in Appalachian Trail, Cheryl Strayed, Pacific Crest Trail, Skywalker--Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail, Skywalker--Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail | 0 comments

“I’m in a wheelchair in a nursing home with no chance of ever getting out. It is my days on the Appalachian Trail I remember most fondly.”

Those are the words of former Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, Colin Fletcher. Yet I suspect he is speaking for many of us.

This fact of life is brought home to me when I look at the number of my Facebook friends that so many people–including, very much, myself–have met through long-distance hiking. People from all walks of American life participate in these exhilarating, but grueling, journeys. Many are well accomplished people in their professions, businesses, and agencies. But the striking thing is how prominently their long-distance hikes figure in their memories.

Except for those outdoorspeople of extraordinary ability–climbers, explorers, etc.–an Appalachian Trail (AT) or Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hike is bound to be the journey of a person’s lifetime. It certainly has been in my case (I never could choose between the two). Long-distance hiking on America’s great national scenic trails affords the average person such as myself the opportunity to experience that unparalleled feeling of all-out effort and use of one’s abilities. It also offers a hint–just a hint–of that sense of adventure of the explorers of days yore. Those days are long gone; but for the average person a trek on the AT or PCT is a step into the wild.

And make no mistake–the stakes are high. People make lifetime friends out there. Countless couples have met on the trail and later gotten married. But it must also be said that, whatever anyone tells you, these journeys are also fraught with a bit of peril. Just in 2013, at least four thru-hikers have died on the AT, and a 66 year-old woman is missing. In the year 2000, a female hiker, Claudia Bradley, was eaten by two bears. My year, 2005, a thru-hiker that I had become close friends with–and am now friends with his still-grieving mother–got hit by a train in Duncannon, Pennsylvania and died.

This is not in any way to devalue a long-distance hike. Just the opposite. It’s just to say that when hikers head to Springer Mountain in north Georgia to be the AT and the California-Mexico Border for the PCT, the game is on. You not only are headed into the journey of your lifetime, but the stakes are high. The reasons more and more people are drawn into these journeys are profound. They reflect our most authentic selves. Bill Bryson has professed himself to be shocked at how popular his Appalachian Trail narrative, A Walk in the Woods, has been for fifteen years running. Cheryl Strayed, author of the Pacific Crest Trail book, Wild, has described the explosion of interest in her narrative as ‘the bomb’ that went off.

The bottom line is that these hikes touch deep within the wells of our beings. As Thoreau said, “In wilderness lies the salvation of our civilization.”

Bill Walker is the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail. He is also the author of Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail, The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago, and Getting High–The Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. Walker, who is 7-feet tall, is currently working on a whimsical book on the subject of height.

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