This post is an update to my March 16 post, Flu and the Trail.
It turns out you can thru-hike during a pandemic, but if you’re not still asking yourself “should I?” and considering your impacts on other people, I hope you’ll keep reading and hear me out.
After volunteering several months of my life over several years to help thru-hikers on the PCT, I left with a bad taste in my mouth. I met several burned out trail angels who felt similarly, and noticed quite a few hikers themselves abandoning the trail shaking their heads. Why?
Because thru-hikers are generally privileged, and often self-involved and entitled. It’s not exactly “rewarding” work to help people who don’t really need help.
Bear with me when I explain how I got here. It is based in experience with hikers, and I have a lot. Aside from established trail angels on the West coast who receive donations, I have some of the most volunteered and unpaid face-to-face on-my-feet time with hikers of anyone else since 2013. Some people volunteer, but they usually only stay a day or two. I breathed it. In 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018 I worked sun up to sun down most days for up to 7 weeks at a time helping hikers at busy trail homes, with an average of 30-40 hikers a day. Even when not “angeling trail angels,” in 2014-2019 I helped hikers in my local Owens Valley area, which is plugged with hikers with puppy dog eyes in May-July. I have also met and spent time with most of the big-name West Coast hikers you’ve heard of. I was pretty much immersed in thru-hiking for five years.
When I volunteered to help trail angels, everything became about how to make hikers more comfortable, and how to help hikers finish their hike. To make matters worse, awe-struck strangers and wannabe trail angels constantly talked to thru-hikers as if they were “heroes.” Many hikers will hear: “You are a hero!”
Wait a second.
Hikers get treated like heroes because they can purchase thousands of dollars of gear, take 5 months off work, look and act like a vagrant and not get arrested? That’s something most people don’t get to do! So what are we saying there? Are they heroes because their privilege? Or are they heroes because they can tie on shoes every day and walk along a well-marked path with less threat of danger than most of us have at home? When was the last time YOU were walking along and found a chair put out for you next to a cooler full of beers and sodas with a sign that said, “WELCOME THRU HIKER! DRINK UP!”? When was the last time YOU wore holes through your socks and returned them dirty to a store, only to have a clerk offer to return them for you for a free brand new pair?*
Ultimately, hikers’ red carpet treatment can go their head. Some start to believe they are heroes. Some call non-thru-hikers “Muggles” and feel like everyone could also solve their problems by thru-hiking. They even look down on section hikers and hikers of shorter trails like the JMT, for not “toughing it out” as long! I’ve seen it, I myself struggled with those feelings and ideas in 2013. Thru-hikes are difficult and complicated, I get it. But why are they all-take-and-no-give?
So few hikers are stewards for any cause without turning it into a media spectacle for attention, or a Gofundme. So relative few gave back as trail builders, donors, or as example-setting ambassadors for less-privileged people who might also like to help. I have literally never heard of any hiker working with local authorities, businesses, or governments to bring backpacking to minorities or underprivileged people who might also like a chance, or working with trail towns to build ongoing relationships so trail towns don’t get fed up like they tend to do. I have heard of thru-hikers making huge deal out of doing something everyone should do every day: pick up trash. Every year, several hikers try to become the next Hemingway of the long trail, to the delight of exactly the number of hikers featured in their books. It really doesn’t take that much to be a hero on the long trails.
I say this because I have literally met several thousand hikers one-on-one, and helped hundreds of by going significantly out of my way. No joke: at times I’ve literally endangered my livelihood and my freedom to help hikers.
Yet, so few hikers stop to say thank you.
Many are just too busy thinking about their next thru-hike.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO RAISE A THRU-HIKE
Thru hikers just forget it takes a village to raise a thru hike. And that is pretty short-sighted.
My thoughts in March luckily didn’t pan out in any grave fashion, and didn’t seem to give people pause before writing me to ask for hiking advice. The thoughts were darn pessimistic (haha, but maybe the reason I do well as a solo female thru-hiker is I like to explore the worst possibilities as well as the best). So many people continue to write to me for 2020 and 2021 Hayduke advice. I realize that it seems like getting into the woods is the ultimate social distancing, and yes, we need to get into the woods. But a thru-hike? Really? A thru-hike takes the support of so many known and unknown wing-men, and to deny or ignore that is so unfair to so many people. Recently I put together a presentation on my Hayduke hikes for a small group. I struggled for days to write a list of all the people and organizations I had to thank for supporting me. From the woman who handed me an orange from her truck, to the many people who have accepted me for rides in their cars and on their boats, to the small favors of locals and big favors of friends… I COULDN’T STOP REMEMBERING NAMES, and all the names wouldn’t fit on one slide without the text being so small you couldn’t read it.
During a pandemic, wing-men ≈ exposures.
So many people also fail to consider the “potential” wing-men such as rangers, search and rescue, other folks we run into who need rescue, police, ambulance drivers, nurses, doctors, etc. etc. What if something goes wrong during a hike?
The 2020 PCT CABAL
So here’s what happened this year.
My “friend” Guino** helped keep the PCT open this year to a very small group of thru-hikers with this private PCT group:
This defiant group was appalling to most in the thru-hiking community, and especially tough to watch for those who decided to postpone their hikes. Ugh. But this wasn’t surprising. Why? Because I know about a large contingent on the long trails.
I’d venture to say a solid number of thru-hikers begin their hikes with profound personal issues, such as depression, anxiety, drug addiction, grief, and eating disorders. I’d venture to say at least half of them are hiking trying to “fix” something. That hikers needing fixing became little more pronounced or obvious in the mid-late 2010s while I was hanging around, maybe because it was “outed” and “okayed” by Cheryl Strayed and the general hero-welcome her book and film received.
Is that a surprise?
Frankly, before I started my PCT thru hike in 2013, I sometimes fantasized I would die alone in the woods. I was depressed. DURING my hike, I was happy. AFTER my hike I was again profoundly depressed. I missed the trail. I missed how it made me feel. I returned the next several years to volunteer helping understaffed trail angel homes in Southern California. It was mostly pleasing being around so many “happy” people, but then as I met more and more hikers I began to see the reality: so many of the people flocking to the trail have profound unresolved issues. I saw possibly more insanity on the PCT than I saw working a year as night shift nurse at Hooper Detox Center in Portland, Oregon. If you don’t know what Hooper is, use your imagination and lean towards gritty. Think: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
So many hikers are looking for answers in “the woods.” GREAT! The woods, and their silence, and their quiet noises, and the tiny movements, the animals and the plants, they have your answers. But looking for answers on a hyper-popular long trail? That might have actually worked >5 years ago, but now the popular trails are crowded. Thru-hikers are generally going to be surrounded by dozens of people every day, some of whom have very real issues. Myself and at least two other female friends of mine were literally STALKED by a well-known hiker in 2013. I hid from this man in the woods at least twice after asking him to leave me alone, once through a rainy night in Washington where I was convinced he planned to finally kill me, and was very scared! I’ve seen a handful of thru-hikers carrying firearms, and more are using drugs than not. I guess it didn’t shock me when I found out some are even using hard drugs on the trail. I’ve heard of several assaults and one sexual assault. I’ve seen hikers get arrested, and I’ve seen one get tasered. I’ve seen aggressive gang activity spring up on the trail between PCT and AT hikers, no joke! You can’t make this stuff up. I’ve seen the community get nasty and try to ruin several people’s lives after (perceived) transgressions. This drama IS NOT “the answers.” This drama is basically city life with a bedroll instead of a cushy bed. You might as well stay home and rest, meditate. Or — find your own trail.***
Thru-hiking is Hard
I get it, though. Thru-hiking is hard. Really hard. And even well-behaved people can’t be on their best behavior ALL the time. There are going to be times when hikers are pre-occupied with their planning and their own issues. The issues that make thru-hikers want to hike until it hurts, and beyond. The icky issues that can arise between thru-hikers while on trail aren’t fun, either. There has to be selfishness on the trail, selfish decisions that get a hiker forward. Heck, I credit the selfishness of my own PCT thru-hike with my recovery from crippling co-dependency. My hike. My miles, my food, my water, my camp, my walk, my sleep, my eat, my walk. Me, me me. I didn’t allow people to walk with me (except rarely) and I almost always camped alone. It was my time, focusing only on me. It was healing.
But selfishness during a pandemic is where I draw the line. Planning a hike during a pandemic involves a sort of “exceptionalista” it-won’t-happen-to-me and/or the-rules-apply-to-everyone-else thinking. It’s a sign you’re violating social mores (or ethics, or common sense) when you’ve got to close your Facebook group so you can hive mind. I don’t want to have anything to do with people who are planning thru-hikes during this time. Especially not dangerous thru-hikes like the Hayduke. And so I am not answering emails about that trail.
Despite what I learned trying to help other people on the trail, it is true that putting other people before yourself is most rewarding. They say the best antidote for anxiety and depression is to focus and put work into helping other people, and I find that true as well. I was happier and more wise for the time I spent working with PCT hikers over the year. And contrary to how it must seem, I like most of them! They actually remind me of my Hooper Detox patients – some of the brightest, funniest, most creative and playful souls you’ll ever meet.
My 2020 hikes
It’s not like I haven’t gotten out. I have hiked a tiny bit (compared to what I had in mind for 2020). I have minimized my impact by staying close to home and hiking well within my ability, carrying plenty of fall-back gear. I have gotten out for two longer (<50 mile) hikes in the Sierra, where I found most people wearing masks, if not because of the wildfire smoke, but not necessarily fewer people. I've had three much shorter and slower hikes in Nevada, where I've found some really cool Native artifacts and art (they're still there so you can find them someday, too), and a few shorter mountaintops with beautiful, albeit smokey, views. I explored near my home and found some cool interconnected game and miner trails, or miner and game trails (whichever came first), and more Native art, and some "prepper" or bushcraft-type camps. Those camps are sadly destructive and creepy, TBH, and found me more on alert than the huge cougar tracks I also found all around my home.
But mostly I have spent my time working to help keep my and my boyfriend’s businesses afloat during this time, helping build a house, making many dozens of face masks which I hand out in my local towns. I had the privilege of giving four washable masks to a gorgeous 81 year-old woman named Darleen for her and her 88 year-old sister and daughter and nephew in Nevada yesterday while in line to vote. They had on re-used paper masks, and were in the high-risk group for Covid-19, so hopefully I helped.
What else? Oh! And despite what Trevor Noah thinks, I’m still actually enjoying making sourdough bread (though sometimes I do hate it). I have to drive over 100 miles to buy a loaf, so this’ll do.
Take care! Stay safe!
* A reference to the Darn Tough sock warranty. Basically they put so much nylon in their socks they shouldn’t wear out for years. But thru-hikers can wear them out in months. I am forever loyal for two reasons: awesome management and a great product. The owner of Darn Tough called me and was a friend after a PCT hiker sponsored by Darn Tough picked me up hitch-hiking near Bend Oregon, then proceeded to get high and drunk while driving me and two other hikers to Trail Days in Cascade Locks. The hiker antagonized me for questioning his drinking while speeding along a windy road, closely passing a cyclist. It was terrifying and demeaning. Turns out the owner of Darn Tough is also a cyclist, and needless to say that hiker lost his PCT sponsorships (hiking sponsorships, really?). I like the socks, and I’m privileged enough to buy a new pair when my pair wears out, which hardly ever happens. Costs less than a couple beers in Mammoth. Please thru-hikers, stop being entitled assholes and abusing the Darn Tough warranty.
** The same Guino who stood wet and naked in front of me at Deep Creek hot springs and tried to humiliate me by swinging his dick in circles about a foot from my face in front of a large group of PCT hikers. The same Guino who two years prior tried after flirting to give me a very high dose of THC tincture once without my knowledge, while yet knowing I’m extremely sensitive to it. I have so many pretty-much-criminal-and-or-disgusting stories about this guy’s behavior. He is so widely despised on the PCT, especially when drunk. Each year he shows up, gets a batch of new friends and young girls who don’t know any better, and each year the cycle repeats. No apologies. He fights the cancel culture by working with blackmail. I mean, this guy LITERALLY collects wild secrets from PCT hikers they would never usually admit, and then posts them “anonymously” online. My wildest stories on the PCT usually somehow involve Guino.
*** I get several people a month suggesting they feel like they will have more solitude on a lesser-known trail like the Hayduke. Not the case. Sadly, trails you used to be able to use for solitude are also getting busy. It makes me giggle how people forget that if they have the idea, a lot of other people probably have the same idea! For what it’s worth, finding a local “forgotten” trail and beating it back in is very rewarding. Many historic trails, especially Native American trails, are overlooked and at risk of extinction. In my experience, they tend to be the most fun to find and walk.
**** I still haven’t talked about the less-obvious dangers of hiking the Hayduke trail, which I alluded to in Part 1. Which means at at some point, when the Pandemic is under control, there will be a part 3!