“Nice Backpack! Man I wish mine had that stretchy pocket on the outside. What kind of pack is that?”
“it’s an Osprey Volt.”
“Have you checked out the water source yet?”
“Yeah, the first spot you come to is dry, but if you keep hiking down the path another 100 yards, there’s a small pool just big enough to dip water out of with a cup. It takes a while, but you can filter what you need.”
And then the scruffy bearded man and I converse a few more minutes about our gear. We discuss possible changes we may make the next time we “upgrade” or change gear in order to cut a few more ounces or pounds.
As we engage in hiker small talk, we remove mud crusted boots and socks, damp with sweat, hanging them on various nearby limbs. Slipping our sore achy feet into crocs, we open our packs and allow the innards to explode onto the wooden shelter’s floor. Cinch bags containing food, toiletries, sleeping bags, and various items spill out in every direction. Depending on the time of day and the weather, we may begin setting out our sleeping gear, collecting firewood and looking for a good tree to hang our bear bag. Camp chores, as most hikers refer to these tasks, are easier to do before your muscles and joints stiffen… before you stop to relax and decide you’re done for the day.
Then someone asks the question, “So why did you decide to hike the Appalachian Trail?” And that is an invitation to shift from hiker small talk to authentic conversation.
“My wife passed away last year and I came out here to grieve.”
“I used to love backpacking when I was in the boy scouts, and then lost interest. During my sophomore year of college I was diagnosed with cancer and was in the hospital on and off for a year. Once I was cancer free and began building back my strength, I decided I would hike the trail when I graduated.”
“I was in the military and stationed overseas… saw a lot … taking some space to figure things out.”
“My kids are grown now and can take care of themselves. This is something I’ve always dreamed of doing.”
“I was burned out in my career, and need some time to consider which direction to take next.”
“Our son committed suicide and I needed the solace of the woods.”
The list goes on and on. Real. Authentic. Individuals with a life and a soul. Some hikers are more reserved, but these raw conversations are common. In the short time your paths cross, a special bond occurs… one formed by a mutual understanding that sometimes, the only peace to be found is in the solitude and quiet of a physical struggle over mountain ridges. There’s a realization that in order to move forward in life, we need to nurture our soul in the quiet first. Maybe this is why we feel safe baring our deepest struggles and insecurities to one another upon first meeting.
In the morning, as we pack up our outdoor survival equipment and fuel our bodies for the miles ahead, there’s a bittersweet parting. With some, we exchange contact information, along with a promise to keep in touch. Sometimes, we all gather shoulder to shoulder and snap a quick selfie to remember one another’s faces.
“If you’re ever in the area, let me know.”
“We live pretty close to each other, we should meet up for a day hike this winter.”
“Don’t forget to send me that information about the hiking massage yoga retreat center.”
This is Tramily, Trail Family, a common term used on the Appalachian Trail. This is why I will drive an hour out of my way to connect with a hiker I met once, months ago, to celebrate another section of the trail accomplished. This is why I decide to stop overnight at a hiker hostel instead of driving straight through on a road trip. This is why I now have friends all over the country who invite me to come visit and meet their families.
Perhaps this authenticity on the trail helps us live authentically in other areas of life. On the trail, there’s no pressure to present yourself as a successful, reputable member of society. On the trail, there is societal anonymity that removes preconceived ideas about another person. We all look pretty rough and smell even worse. We don’t know each other’s chosen profession or career. We only have a slight inkling of socio economic status if we happen to recognize top of the line gear versus mid grade gear… but even that is not really an issue. Bankers depend on the advice and resourcefulness of high school drop outs. College professors open up their insecurities to elementary school teachers.
In our day to day lives, there isn’t one simple question we can use to invite genuine conversation, but I still think it’s possible to risk being real. Maybe we start by realizing that we all have a story and something to offer another person, regardless of his or her education or experience. Maybe we accept, in the same vane, that this other person has something to offer us.
I’m curious, and would love for you to comment on this post: What is a question that you use to trigger authenticity? (If you’re reading this post on the Home page, you have to click on the post in order to get the comment box. I don’t know why and I’m not tech savvy enough to fix it!)