“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. 

Dogfather and I met on the Appalachian Trail this Fall in Connecticut. He is hiking the entire trail in sections and just completed two more states! We met up for a 6.5 mile hike into Harper’s Ferry to celebrate over lunch.

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.”

Yes Man and I shared a “Thanksgiving Dinner” on the AT in October with two other hikers in Great Barrington, MA. It was such a treat to see him again at Angel’s Rest Hiker Haven this winter!

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. 

Yes Man with the two angels of Angel’s Rest Hiker Haven, Doc Peppa and Bam Bam. Thank you for your amazing hospitality! I can’t wait to stay again when I’m hiking through Virginia! Click HERE to check out their website.

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!)

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  • The Dogfather

    Hi Naomi,
    For me, just being on the AT is a risk…it’s hard (but getting easier). The backpacking experience makes me vulnerable to self-assessment. Am I strong enough? Do I have what it takes? Will I quit before I reach my goal for the day, week…? The solitude provides the time to explore some pretty frightful thoughts – Who am I?What is truly important to me? Am I a good person? Do I need help? Can I help someone else?
    Real conversation is also a risk – a risk that many are not willing to take with the folks in their everyday lives. It makes us vulnerable to the assessment of others. It is uncomfortable, even foreign territory. You know I’ve taken that risk – a baby step? It is a confusing process and not for the faint of heart. I’m not sure I’m ready for that kind of vulnerability in everyday (off the AT) ventures. I am enjoying the ATramily life.

    • Naomi

      You bring up a very good point Dogfather. You’re right – it’s a risk and sometimes we have the strength for it and sometimes we don’t. Thanks for taking a moment to beautifully convey a reality that we all face.


    The questions I guess I most often ask to trigger authenticity are :
    “If someone were to ask you, “who are you?” how would you respond?


    What breaks your heart and why?

    I have never hiked, except for 2 years of camp in North Carolina about 30 years ago:) Spending the day with you and reading your trail stories gave me such a beautiful glimpse of “tramily” through your eyes that I can’t wait to let you get me ready for my first “trail blazing” sometime this summer! I want a trail name too:)

    • Naomi

      Katie, I really love those 2 questions… especially “who are you and why?” Such a great conversation starter too. Let’s go hiking!

  • Norman

    Naomi you are such a talented writer! Thanks for sharing your experiences. I think the single greatest word for opening up conversations is “why?”. “Why do you think that?”, “Why do you love her?, “Why are you hiking the AT?”, Etc

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