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Opinion Hikers hit AT for reasons known only to them

One of my favorite message t-shirts reads “I hiked the entire width of the Appalachian Trail.” This is the underachiever’s answer to the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tsu who said that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

The 2011 Appalachian Trail season has begun and hikers can be seen locally making their first trail stop along this 2,175 mile passage. The thru-hikers goal is to complete the entire trail while section hikers intend to travel (you guessed it) only a section with the possibility of combining sections over a period of years to compose the entire trail. There are other hikers who straddle the ridge line without making a commitment either way.

In addition to the hikers are a kind and generous group of people who serve as “trail angels” offering a support system for the difficult journey that the men and women of the AT undertake. Trail angels can provide food, shelter, transportation and other means of assistance, known as trail magic. To counterbalance this encouraging spirit, I have played the role of Trail Devil’s Advocate with the many trekkers I’ve encountered.

My good-natured inquiry usually starts with the question of pain. I state we instinctively move away from pain toward pleasure so what’s up with the medieval practice of self-inflicted torment? “No pain, no gain” best describes the composite response to that question. After all, there are countless examples in life where sacrifices are made to achieve something greater than what is being given up (like bathing).

Fair enough, but what about the time involved and the break for one’s schedule? Thru-hiking ranges from five to six months in duration. Well, in recent times many of these hikers haven’t had to worry about giving up jobs since the economy had already taken care of that. And needless to say, sleeping outside becomes a viable option when you’re homeless.

So far, my probing emphasis is personal in nature, debating the pros and cons of what the individual hikers get out of the whole process. Instead of spending months on the trail, “How about giving something back to your community?” I say. Checkmate again. The “community” it seems is not static but moves like a river. It is a community of fellow hikers and sure enough it is ripe with friendship, support, cooperation and other “community” enriching behavior. When the hikers come off the trail they also touch the local communities they visit and their monetary infusion is greatly appreciated as well.

My final tactic to weaken the hiker’s resolve is to appeal to their sense of individuality and get them to at least think of alternative trails to traverse other than uber-arduous AT. The shoreline of Florida for instance, is approximately the same distance as the AT and a heck of a lot flatter. Other than a possible rogue manatee, wildlife is not very threatening and the weather (except for hurricanes and lightning strikes) is usually accommodating. A catchy name like the Margaritaville Trail would entice hikers as well as a lawsuit from Jimmy Buffet’s lawyers.

On a serious note. The concept of hiking the “Trail of Tears” has been well-received. This is not an original idea and is already done, albeit to a lesser extent than the AT. The “Trail of Tears” is a series of trails that begin in various southern states, ending in eastern Oklahoma. Thousands of Cherokee and other Native Americans died during the forced removal from tribal lands in the 1830s. Combining a physical challenge with a commemoration of this tragic episode in our nation’s history has a genuine appeal and its participation may grow in time.

Hikers don’t seem to be put off by inquiry of their sanity. Perhaps, the trail has worn them down or built them up so they are impervious to pain. Or, maybe it’s true that they have become one with nature and found a sense of inner peace that can’t be capsulized like a funny phrase printed on a t-shirt.


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