Thursday, May 2, 2013

PCT THRU-HIKERS

This morning when I ventured into town on an errand I noticed that the people were being unusually friendly toward me. Perfect strangers were smiling at me, staring at me, holding doors open for me, and asking me how I was doing as though they were sincerely concerned about my well-being. It was confusing. Then I bumped into a friend of mine who said that he almost didn't recognize me with my hat on, "I thought at first you were a thru-hiker," he added. Oh! So that was it. Earlier that morning I had put on wide-brimmed hat (photo above) before heading out the door to work, and it does resemble the sort of hat commonly worn by thru-hikers.

Every year, around this time, thru-hikers begin to trickle into town on their annual migration from Mexico to Canada along the Pacific Crest Trail. They arrive looking trail-weary and bearded. They eagerly drop their packs outside of coffee shops, restaurants, the post office, library and along the front porch of the Idyllwild Inn before reuniting with the comforts of civilization- beds, beer, pizza, and wireless internet. They also seem to have knowing, introspective eyes, as though their intellectual palate had been washed clean in the lonely quiet of the back country, and their reemergence into society allows them to see things differently. I suspect they see things that I am blind to.   

Being confronted by thru-hikers causes me to feel a wide array of emotions. They seem drunk with the novelty of their existence and, in their presence, I feel somewhat dissatisfied with my own. I know it's not fair to them, and also probably wildly inaccurate, but I always feel vaguely judged by them. They always make me feel especially fat.  To be honest, I do envy them a little as well. In some ways I think I was built by my Creator to thrive in solitude, and I would enjoy the opportunity to be alone with my thoughts, putting one foot in front of another for days at a stretch, and then limp into town with new eyes for the place. Plus I know that their vanilla latte will taste far better than mine because it was earned and anticipated over miles of sun-drenched trail. I also wonder at the expense and, frankly, the frivolity of their pursuit. It doesn't benefit anyone. It's not profitable. It seems to be primarily born of catharsis. I think I would enjoy being a thru-hiker, but in order to enjoy it fully I would need to be guided in my endeavor by an ethos larger than personal fulfillment. I've never asked them for their reasons, but such are the sum of my suspicions. I clearly do more judging than them.

Still, in a mysterious way, I am drawn to them. Their experience is magnetic to me, and judging by the reaction of my fellow townspeople to my hat this morning, others feel the same. Folks want to share vicariously in their experience. They excite in me a desire to help them along their way, and this even as I privately judge the merit of their undertaking. Their arrival coincides with a general outpouring of good-will from the people of Idyllwild. Folks who would never think of offering a ride to a neighbor walking along the road will stop and inquire if they can be of service to thru-hikers, and even agree spontaneously to drive them as far as Big Bear. Folks who would never help the needy from within their own community will pay for the meals and groceries of thru-hikers. They offer them hospitality in their homes and consider it no hardship to put themselves out for them. Judging by the way people help thru-hikers you would think they were on a quest to cast a ring into Mordor or taking much needed medicine to a remote village or something, but as best I can discern the long walk is not a means to such a noble end. It is an end all its own. It's strange to me, this desire to help them. Why do we not treat our neighbors with the same concern and generosity as these transients?

6 comments:

julie fogle said...

Great insight...always enjoy your posts and blogs. You are very introspective and we all need that sometime. You definately could pass for one of the PCT hikers, you may not see it, but you do have a peaceful quality about your life...

Kelly Visel said...

Your post made me think of my friend Kristen, she hiked the Appalachian trail last year and did a few blog posts on her experiences.

Here is her thru-hiker blog.
http://coyotebarracuda.wordpress.com/

Josh Tate said...

Thanks for the comments. I will definitely check out that blog, Kelly. I followed a thru-hiker's blog a couple of years ago because I had photographed his beard for my feature, "Beards of Idyllwild," and I found it undeniably entertaining and enjoyable. They have some great stories and all of the quiet introspection that comes from hiking for days and days lends itself to some great writing.

I think that maybe part of the attraction to helping thru-hikers is that it doesn't represent the kind of interpersonal quagmire that would come from helping a neighbor. Helping someone who is not going away could turn into a philanthropic Vietnam with serious, long-term relational consequences, whereas helping a thru-hiker scratches that philanthropic itch with no strings attached. Of course, it is also less meaningful and impactful, but that could possibly explain why some people enjoy being a help to thru-hikers but not necessarily to their neighbors.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's not a philanthropic itch as it is maybe funner more interesting. And like you said there isn't all the stuff your left to deal with if its your neighbor or the local homeless person you don't know what your getting your self into and it could be long term or its just awkward or you have no idea the neighbor has an issue cause not everyone shares their stuff. But to help a hiker its more carefree they are soon gone, your become part of their journey as you help them on their quest. However, I would not say it is less impactfull or meaningless to the person who was hungry, dirty or just needed a ride or bed I'm sure it was awesome to them, and who knows the conversations that are had...so i don't believe that judgement can be made....that's just my thoughts on your thoughts, though, they may not be as well thought out:)

Josh Tate said...

I like your thoughts, anonymous. I guess the larger question in my mind was why the spirit of goodwill is limited to thru-hikers, and why it doesn't seem to exist toward those they see struggling around them all the time. I'm not saying that helping thru-hikers is bad or anything. It most certainly isn't. I just wonder why the disparity exists.

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