Two years ago this week, I boarded a one-way plane to the Arctic Circle, filled with excitement, drowning in the Unknown.
Over the next 20 months, I would acquire more valuable knowledge than six years of college and a decade of real world employment combined. I would not learn complicated math equations or rare scientific facts or how to win friends and influence people. I would learn how to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, how to become familiar with a strange world as a stranger. How to coexist. How to understand and accept difference.
They say your life flashes before your eyes in life-threatening situations because your brain is desperately trying to save you. Operating in hyper-speed, your mind instinctively rewinds every single moment of all of your days, shuffling through each experience like an old jukebox scanning for a song, searching for a similar I’m-about-to-die tune from your past, one in which you were somehow able to successfully MacGyver yourself from death’s embrace.
I feel like our subconscious goes through a similar rewind process each time we encounter any Unknown for the first time, especially those of the human variety.
At first sight, the Historians working from cluttered desks tucked deep inside the corner of our minds, quickly gather surface facts, plug them into our memory machines, and calculate a bucket placement for the Unknown; each bucket’s foundation constructed from unscientific, somewhat emotional, highly personal data collected over a lifetime. Before even engaging in conversation with the stranger, we’ve already dropped them into a bucket, directly influencing any future interaction with this person. We already know what they’re all about, what more is there to learn?
Because though we may try hard not to, all of us judge the Human Book by its cover. We see color, class, gender. We note what people are wearing, the gear they’re carrying, the fancy car or camper van they climb out of. And somewhat automatically, based on prior knowledge, personal life experiences and our own definitions of people, we place each Unknown into predefined buckets inside our heads. And that’s fair…we need these buckets. If you think about it, our survival sort of depends on it. It’s how we judge the goodies from the baddies, measure stranger danger, separate the douchebags from the real men. It’s the root of intuition.
But while our immediate judgement of fellow humans makes sense, it also sort of sucks. I mean, haven’t we all been victims of this silent crime? Carelessly dropped into a bucket which we don’t belong? I like to believe I’m this accepting, equal opportunist of all people, but even my historians trick me into thinking I already know all there is to know about people I know nothing about. And too often, my snap bucket placement determines whether or not I choose to explore a relationship further, to even allow a person a fair say in their own bucket placement.
See, we tend to swim around in buckets filled with people similar to us, because it’s safe and easy, and we’re lazy. We like to be understood, to be validated without explanation or defense. The kind of understanding, the kind of appreciation people deserve, takes time. If you never take the time to peak inside other buckets, associate with people outside your circle, you’re gonna end up with a hell of a lot of buckets filled with half-truths and assumptions. You’ll never learn a thing about people who live outside your box. You’ll never understand that different isn’t bad, it isn’t wrong, it’s just different. You’ll never realize not everyone is like you; not everyone grew up like you, made the same choices, the same mistakes, or had the same opportunities. Instead, you’ll surround yourself with people who think like you and look like you and make you feel comfortable, and real people will forever live trapped inside the imaginary buckets in which you’ve placed them.
Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail was incredible for more reasons than words exist, but the unicorn of all reasons is, no matter who we were before the trail, we all started off in the same bucket. The trail opened her slender green arms to people from all different backgrounds, from all forks of every road, dressed us in outdoorsy costumes and tossed us onto Springer Mountain. Everyone began as a hopeful hiker, making their way to Katahdin. We all wore packs on our back and clung desperately to our trekking poles, because it was the only thing we had left to cling onto. We excitedly stared at one another from the bottom of the Thru-Hiker bucket.
Externally, we all looked the same: Dirty. Hungry. Determined. To those with a positive view of hikers, we were carefree dreamers, on an incredible journey. To those with a less positive view, we were homeless hooligans, lost in life. Only those of us in the Thru-Hiker bucket were able to see through the cloak everyone else draped over us. As the miles accumulated, slowly, we started to climb out of that homogenous bucket and step into our identities. We separated ourselves through actions, reactions, interactions with others. We communicated. We shared. We listened. Some of us learned we could be whoever we wanted to be: our best self, a total different self, any self. Others, like me, learned we didn’t know how to be anything but ourselves. We may have all looked like the same thru-hiker to the outside world, but time together gave us the ability to see past that facade and through the windows into our own unique worlds.
We met Todd somewhere in North Carolina, helping Living Proof up the side of the trail. Living Proof had somehow tumbled off the edge of the mountain, breaking his scapula (or so we later discovered) rendering him unable to carry his pack five miles down to Stecoah Gap, where he could get help. We joined the effort and divvied up his belongings; my hiking partner Emily took as much weight as she could handle, while I took Living Proof’s injured-arm hiking pole. Don’t judge, it was literally all I could handle at that point. Todd ended up with the rest.
A built-like-a-tank retired Marine, engrained with a leave-no-man behind mentality, Todd hoisted Living Proof’s pack onto his chest and gave us this those five miles ain’t gonna walk themselves look and proceeded to beat us down to the gap.
Later, as we ate lunch and entertained ourselves by watching Living Proof try to get a hitch into town with his bum shoulder, Emily and I made the mistake of attempting to give Todd a trail name – Captain America. As an actual badass Marine, Todd declined sarcastically, “Yeeeeeah, like I’m really going to go around introducing myself as Captain America.” Fair enough. We called him RCA anyway, short for, The REAL Captain America.
We were fortunate enough to hike with RCA for a week until he said in not-so-many words, “Well ladies, it’s been great, thanks for slowing me down, but this Maine Train has no breaks!” He summited Katahdin one month and nine days ahead of us, if that tells you anything. But our journey together was big, and one moment sticks out particularly far. We were crossing some random road where a van of elderly tourists were taking photos by an AT sign, some twenty feet up the trail.
After the same small talk that comes standard with every non-thru-hiker conversation, one gentleman pointed at RCA’s ridiculously muscular legs and asked him if he got those from hiking. RCA laughed and laughed.
“These old things? These were built from 20 years in the Marine Corp, Sir. I didn’t get these from walking a few measly miles in the woods.”
As we hiked on, RCA laughed again as he shook his head, “I mean, come on, do I look like a hiker to you?”
We both silently observed him: Hiking up a mountain? Check. Backpack? Check. Trekking poles? Trainers? Check, check. Plus that bonus floppy sunhat? Definite check.
I glanced back at Emily – we shared the same smile: Yup, you look exactly like a hiker.
And externally, he did. Our historians had placed him in the same bucket as us because of how he looked and where we met him. But in reality, we knew very little about his life; in fact at that point, his hiker status was nearly the only thing we knew. While he was theoretically on the same journey as everyone else walking north, RCA saw himself as a Marine hiking a trail, but not necessarily as a Hiker. We saw him as a badass who carried two huge packs down a mountain.
Over the next few months, I heard that same phrase, “Do I look like a hiker to you?” from all sorts of hikers: teenage drug addicts, 60-year-old aspiring authors, wives surviving the loss of a husband, fathers coping with the loss of a child. The Professor’s son died in a plane crash the previous year. His son had dreamed about hiking the AT after college, so the Professor hiked it for him. Our friend RCA was a retired Marine who sold everything that tied him down, choosing instead to travel around in an RV. While his wife finished a degree…he hiked. Living Proof was battling brain cancer; and with this new definition of time, the trail beckoned him. Dapper Dan, a 20-something recovering heroine addict, hoped to score enough money working odd jobs to buy an old guitar, and sing himself up the trail. Cakes, a self-proclaimed city boy, found himself at rock-bottom of the meth bucket and took to the trail in search of the rest of his life.
But I would have never known all of that at first glance, had I relied solely on my historians. Time allowed these unknowns to climb out of their bucket, the one filled with a sea of indistinguishable humans wearing Hiker covers. I watched in awe as they stepped out onto the trail, taking off their book jackets, revealing individuals with unique stories to tell, confusing the hell out of my historians.
When all of the covers look the same, look like you, it’s harder to judge the human book so immediately. Aside from their general purpose and direction, I knew nothing more about the people I walked with, until I opened their book and read a few pages. Admittedly, not every book was for me. I appreciated some genres more than others, identified with some stories, and some, not so much.
But the point is, I read. I read, and I read some more. A boatload of different books, from all walks of life. I came to respect so many on the trail, people I may have never had the opportunity to meet without those 2,189.2 miles. Because I had nothing but time to give. In my off-trail life, I don’t know many recovering drug addicts or people with lives and pasts so drastically different from my own. Not because I actively avoid these people, but because in the Venn Diagram of Life, our circles simply don’t intersect.
That right there, is the true magic of the Appalachian Trail. It brings the most unlikely people together. It strips us of our covers, exposes us, encourages us to read these human books we might never pick up otherwise. It keeps our historians on their toes, stocks our mental library with shelves of the previously unknown.
And those shelves remain stocked long after descending Katahdin.