A few years back, my good friend Christina took one of those major life leaps so many people only dream of making. Trying to figure out her place in this crowded world, she loaded up the Honda with boxes of essentials, drove cross country with her dog Bella, and exchanged Wisconsin for Washington, slightly terrified and totally ready to pen a new chapter in her Book of Life.
And of course, Washington did what Washington does best. Gear became the main recipient of extra cash. Carabiners and ropes became a natural part of her weekend wardrobe; she dressed to impress only Mother Nature. Mountaineering courses happily dominated her free time, the Honda transformed into a Subaru and her essentials narrowed to ten.
Sometime after scrambling up big-ass mountains became her favorite weekend tune, Christina texted she hit the outdoor jackpot, winning a two-night permit in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. I can’t even remember if she extended an actual invite, but I jumped at the chance to join her group of mountain friends on a west coast adventure.
After living out in the wilderness for almost five months straight last year, life inside never quite regained its former appeal. And yet that’s where I find myself way too much these days. I can point all the fingers I want at Life, at Employment, at Circumstance for building these walls around me, but I know in my heart I’m partially (or more) to blame for not finding the open door. It’s there, I know it’s there; it’s the same door I’ve used before, the same door I will use again. But lately I seem to be settling for the window.
Now I stared blankly into my gear closet as I attempted to pack, overwhelmed by options. What did I actually need? Is surviving a weekend really any different from surviving five months in the great outdoors? Would it be fair to say, if I didn’t need it for hiking up and down mountains then, I wouldn’t need it now? I called Christina for advice. As we chatted, taking comfort in the fact our gear lists resembled pages from the same book, I wondered aloud what the major difference was between what I did, as a thru-hiker, and what she did, as a mountaineer. We both climbed mountains again and again…right? Not really knowing anything at all about each other’s outdoor world, we eventually settled on gear and routes. Oversimplified, Mountaineers take much more technical routes requiring helmets and ropes. Hikers take less technical routes, avoiding situations requiring helmets and ropes, because well, have you seen those heavily humongous ropes?
Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail changed my life in so many Forever ways, I’m still discovering all of them. It refocused the lens through which I see perfect strangers, no name towns and hitchhikers. It redefined gas stations, public restrooms and shitty motels (like, really shitty motels). Against my better judgement, I learned to revere cheap ramen noodles, Cheez-Its, and Little Debbie cream cheese streusel cakes (I still unconsciously look for them in every establishment that sells anything edible, overcome with joy when I spot them, but never quite able to justify the purchase). Mother Nature reached full personification, rounding out my Top Five Favorite People in the Whole World, and I have no reservations assuming I’m one of hers; I’ve learned this mutual respect goes a long way, even if it’s all in my head. Thru-hiking restored my faith in humanity, in America, in myself.
But I had yet to realize how thru-hiking shaped the way I approached the outdoors, period. It took approximately one minute and 45 seconds of reaching the Stuart Lake Trailhead for me to catch on. I watched Past Tosha evaporate into the crisp mountain air, the wisps of my assumptions winking at me, a safe distance from reality.
I loaded my pack onto expectant shoulders, snapped the buckles into place, adjusted the straps and grabbed my hiking poles, ready to tackle anything the day had to offer. The instant my fingers curled around the cork and the familiar sounds of hiking found my ears, floodgates holding back months of memories opened and energy roared through my body, eagerness dripped out my pores.
I smiled as Iinna, my favorite energetic, misfit husky back in Finland, empathetically crossed my mind. I pictured her and the rest of my team all harnessed up, secured to the gang line, lunging forward with anticipation, howling with enthusiasm, knowing in just a few seconds…they…I would be free. Then I lunged so hard, I broke free from my team.
That happens sometimes with a mismatched sled-dog team. Two great dogs might perform terrible together, two subpar dogs might make magic. You’re constantly swapping dogs around, trying to identify where they run best. Are they lead dogs, wheel dogs or best in swing? Do they run in rhythm? Personalities clash, too distracted? Do they trust each other?
Over time on a long distance trail, you organically become a community, a team of thru-hikers made up of a bunch of random people with similar goals, motivations, expectations for this one major life journey. Everyone walks through the same highs and lows, ups and downs, lefts and rights. You share this unspoken camaraderie no one quite understands or can totally explain, but all the same, makes absolute sense. No matter who you are in the real world, everyone just sort of gets it out there, whatever it may be.
But today I was hooked up to a foreign team, one sprinkled with all kinds of outdoor enthusiasts. It took a trip full of (mostly) non thru-hikers for me to make a breakthrough in what it truly means to identify as a thru-hiker. For reference, mountaineers are the intelligent lead dogs, or the steadfast wheel dogs of the outdoor world; thru-hikers are the unpredictable misfit sled dogs no one really knows what to do with.
Flashback to that conversation with Christina; Future Tosha would now have an answer for Past Tosha when she pondered what made mountaineering different from hiking. Only Future Tosha would realize Past Tosha had lost her mind and point out that walking thousands of miles for months through forests, across deserts, up and down mountains, is not really similar at all to hiking thousands of feet up snow-covered, rock-faced mountain peaks for the weekend. But because Future Tosha is sort of a know-it-all, she would also try to answer the question.
Welllllllll, Past Tosha, both mountaineers and thru-hikers most certainly are adventure seekers, adrenaline junkies, totally crazy and obviously awesome.
But mountaineering is really more of a team sport. Actually, after taking a quick peak into that world, I’m not even sure it is safe, sane or possible to make it a solo sport. They have this amazing bond formed by respect and admiration for their mutual passion. They operate under the Leave No Man Behind principle and rely heavily on the buddy system. I mean, seriously, mountaineers are often literally connected to each other in some fashion, whether rappelling down a rock face, crossing a steep snow field, climbing to the summit connected by rope. You get there together, or you don’t get there at all. Until next weekend of course, when you try again. Because that’s what you do.
Thru-hiking, is definitely more of a “let’s do this alone, together” activity. I hiked from Georgia to Maine with Emily, but I didn’t hike by her side every mile of every day. Some days I didn’t see her much at all. We sort of just fell into an unspoken rhythm, a simple understanding. She was always just ahead of me, or just behind, and if too much time passed or the trail got sketchy, we’d wait. It’s impossible to dance to the exact same beat as another person, day after day. We knew we’d meet up…eventually. We are incredibly lucky our hiking styles ended up being similar. Because more often than not, hikers start at the Mexico border, Springer Mountain, at whatever terminus, alone. Sure, groups form over time, but the trail families that last are molded by hiking speed, motivation and priorities. Bubbles formed by start date or attraction often dissolve as someone realizes someone is holding someone back, or priorities just aren’t the same.
And even with perfectly matched groups, a thru-hiker will definitely leave a man behind. Not because they want to, because they have to. Time and money trees are scarce, and everyone is plucking from a different orchard. Everyone has something calling them home. When I was struggling with shin splints on the trail, another thru-hiker jokingly advised Emily to press on. It wasn’t really a joke and I wasn’t insulted. We want the best for our fellow hikers, even if that means being left behind. We even have an overused and abused motto to excuse any and all behavior: Hike Your Own Hike (HYOH). We’re a selfish lot, eh?
Because base camps are a thing, mountaineers are less obsessed with pack weight and can focus more on safety, comfort and camp happiness when packing. They carry a bunch of gear necessary to get them where they are going, preferably alive: ten(+) pound ropes, heaps of carabiners, appropriate attire for any and all possible weather situations. They don’t have to think twice about inflatable pillows, multiple pairs of footwear, delicious fruit and vegetables, sleep clothes/town clothes, extra anything period. Bricks of cheese and rolls of sausage are considered snacks, two foods you’ll see more thru-hikers salivating over than eating themselves, as they stare at day hikers with starving puppy dog eyes. And yes, that look works. And get this, they have communal garbage bags.
I will cut a B if someone tries to slip their snickers wrapper into my old beef-jerky-packet-converted-to-trash bag. Like some men have a waist-to-hip ratio, thru-hikers have a weight-to-calorie ratio, a weight-to-howmanyusesdoesithave-ratio, a weight-to-anything ratio. We’ll spend minutes hemming and hawing in the 7-Eleven over instant Idahoan Potatoes or Easy Mac, noting exactly how much weight we’ll be carrying per day if we choose one over the other. We cut off the ends of our toothbrushes. We construct cooking stoves from empty cat food cans just to shave three measly ounces off our base-weight. Because. Every. Ounce. Counts. Yes, that means we aren’t always prepared, often eat like shit, and know way more about Idahoan Potatoes than any decent human being should. Yes, we’re a little off in the head.
In general, Time takes on a slightly different meaning when you are outdoors and not thru-hiking. Meals that take 20 minutes to prepare, aren’t absurd. You have time to socialize, interact, play games, do things other than hike. On the trail, you finally roll into camp as the sun is going down, you’re starving, but too exhausted to eat, and within 20 minutes you’ve already passed out, so it is essential meals take a nanosecond to prepare, or you will starve to death. Camp, defined for a thru-hiker, boils down an awesome view when you wake up from sleep. Sweet, sweet, uninterrupted, sleep. And you sleep when the sun goes down: hiker midnight.
Mountaineers are extremely aware of their surroundings, prepared for anything Mother Nature picks from her hat. They know their stuff. They take classes, have certifications, and are pretty serious about those ten essentials; the mountain isn’t a place to play around with life and death. As our group made it’s way toward Dragontail Peak, we were heavily reminded of this as we watched a rock triggered avalanche rush down the exact pass we were about to climb. Even one hour ahead of schedule, we could have been the actors instead of the audience in the scene we watched unfold around us. Immediately after, we passed a group of climbers looking for the body of their friend who had fallen through an air pocket while glissading a few weeks prior. If anything, the weekend definitely made me question my overall outdoor-survival-skills-when-shit-really-hits-the-fan for hiking PCT next year.
Thru-hikers are aware of their surroundings, there just isn’t much you can do to change them when you live outside. We can’t wait for perfect conditions, let alone decent ones. We’re not here for the weekend. We’re not even sure when the weekend is most of the time. We’re here until we reach the last dot on the map, whenever that may be, and we often have a small window to get there. It’s Mother N’s world, we’re just walking through it. The ten essentials are 100% essential, because no matter who you are, where you are, SHIT GOES WRONG. But “essential” is a loaded word. Though I’ve never technically counted, every item in my pack is deemed essential in some fashion, or I wouldn’t carry it on my back for thousands of miles. When I attempted to recite the actual ten essentials to a mountaineer, I snuck in an “errr…cribbage?” when I got stuck. Chances are, if it’s not cribbage and it weighs more than a Snickers bar and I can’t eat or drink it, I’ve down-graded the level of essentialness. Which is probably stupid of me, but also true of me.
If you ask a mountaineer how many total miles are scheduled for the day, they might look at you funny. They measure their adventures in elevation, not distance. Mountaineers live for the summit, dream about the climb, driven by lists of peaks to bag; hiking is a piece of the journey that often helps them reach their destination, but standing at the top of the world is the real carrot they chase, and it’s a damn tasty carrot.
For thru-hikers, the entire hike is the destination, the purpose. Fording rivers, climbing mountains, ridge walking, deep in the forest, middle of the desert; no matter where we’re at on the trail, it’s where we want to be. We’re driven by our own lists of distance trails to travel. But we know the more you focus on the top of the map, the more lofty your ambition becomes. Oh, we still dream about Katahdin, United States borders, or wherever the “end” may be, but reaching them wouldn’t be half as momentous without experiencing everything in between.
Thru-hikers calculate their days in miles because elevation is one tricky bitch. Over the course of the AT you gain over 515,000 feet. In one 25-mile day you can gain 7,000 feet in elevation, but still end up lower than you started, a phenomenon fondly referred to as PUDs (Pointless Ups and Downs). One section of the trail is literally referred to as the Roller Coaster. On that day, we expertly calculated elevation: okay only eight more ups and seven more downs….we got this. Thru-hikers love to boast that hiking the entire AT is equivalent to hiking Mt Everest 17 times, probably because that sounds more badass than: it’s packed full of PUDs.
You know those outdoor advertisements with people sipping hot mugs of steaming coffee staring out over the most amazing, remote, wild vista, all beautiful, badass and clean, every hair in place, and everything just makes you smile, makes you want to wear what they are wearing, be where they are, do what they are doing? They could be climbers, mountaineers, day hikers…but there’s no chance in hell they are thru-hikers. You could smell a thru-hiker through that magazine, wipe the grime from the page.
Mountaineers are true badasses. They climb scary-ass mountains using intimidating (to lay people) gear, their survival skills are top-notch, they take phenomenal summit photos, and tell stories that will make any thru-hiker retreat to the smelly ultra-light cave they live in. From their world, it would pretty easy to boil thru-hiking down to just a long-ass, dirty, often uneventful, walk.
And it most definitely is a long-ass, dirty, often uneventful, walk. But that’s not all it is.
It’s overcoming constant exhaustion, walking through pain, hiking through hunger, thirst, stress, and obstacle after obstacle after freaking obstacle. It’s not knowing what to do in every situation, making it up as you go. It’s learning from mistakes. It’s not having the right gear for every possible situation. It’s learning over time what you really need, and what you can live without…which is almost everything. It’s being cold. It’s being hot. It’s being wet. It’s being hungry. It’s being uncomfortable. It’s being comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s making do with what you have. It’s surviving. It’s knowing better than anyone, tomorrow is a different day. The sun will come out, the rocks will go away, everything will dry. Water is just around the corner, the town is just a half-day’s hike away. You will shower, you will eat real food, you will make it. Things will get better…eventually.
Thru-hiking is a mental and physical rollercoaster of punishment and ecstasy, and you love it all the same. Why? Because you know, after you are back in that Real World, where everything is exactly the way it was when you left it, except for some reason you see it sooo much differently, you’d give anything to be back on the trail, even at it’s most miserable moment. Embrace the suck, because you, my friend, are hiker trash.
I’ve never liked that term. I mean, who wants to be looked at as trash? But it finally makes sense to me. It’s sort of who I am.
It’s who I want to be.
But don’t take my word for it, Past Tosha. Go play outside and live your own experiences.
**Originally posted on AppalachianTrials.com**