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[at-l] What is a "thruhiker"?
At one time during our CDT trek, the question was raised - What kind of
person does this kind of thing (meaning thruhiking - spending 6 months or
so in the mountains)? So I thought about it for a while - and I thought
about all the people I know who have or are or want to thruhike one long
trail or another. I thought about who and what they are. Not about their
occupation or their ancestry or their political orientation or where they
live. Those things are externals. Rather, I thought about the
personalities and the characteristics that could be used to describe
those people. And then I wrote what I thought. I've hesitated about
putting this out - I'm still not sure it's a good thing to do. But we'll
find out, won't we? :-)
The basic definition of a "thruhiker" is someone who walks from one end
of a "long trail" to the other. For present purposes, I'll define "long
trail" as one of the three major hiking trails in the United States - the
Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide
Trail. With that in mind, I'll suggest a few basic "thruhiker"
characteristics and then expand on them:
· sometimes - stupidity
· problem solving
· independence of thought and action
It takes courage to live, for the most part, outdoors with your
possessions consisting entirely of what you can carry in your pack. It
takes courage to face 4 to 6 months of snow, rain, hail, heat, cold,
insects, hunger - and sunshine. It takes courage to plan to walk 15 to 20
miles per day (or more) for 4 to 6 months. It takes courage to want to
walk 2 or 3 thousand miles. It takes courage to put aside a career, to
give up a house or apartment, to commit 4 to 6 months of your life and
thousands of dollars to what some people think of as "just a walk in the
woods". Not everyone has the courage to attempt a thruhike.
Intrepidity (i.e. - being intrepid) is what keeps you going when things
get tough. Mostly it's just plain stubbornness. It's why some
thruhikers will walk for 8 hours in a driving rain - or break trail all
day through 2 feet of snow - or ascend a 12000 ft peak in whiteout
conditions - or keep hiking in 100+ degree and 100% humidity conditions
in July in New Jersey. Sometimes it's related to the problem-solving
part of thruhiking. And sometimes it's more closely related to
stupidity. But it's always related to stubbornness. "I set out to do
this (whatever) - so I'm gonna do it - period". As Ginny defines it -
Intrepid means "too stupid to quit".
Stupidity - is usually seen that way in hindsight. "We actually
traversed that 70 degree snow chute and worked our way around that rock
with the 10 foot deep moat - Boy, was that stupid!!". "We really went
over Parkview (12000+ ft) in whiteout - Boy, was that stupid!!". "We
really walked Chestnut Ridge in that thunderstorm - did you see all that
lightning?? Boy, was that stupid!!". Those who thruhike really do those
things and more - sooner or later - during one thruhike or another. And
they think about them later - because while they're actually doing those
things the attitude is "this is a problem - how can I solve it?" It's
not until you've done something and reflect on the dangers that you
didn't see before starting that it becomes stupid. But then, most of us
would do those things again if the situation occurred again - knowing
that they're possible makes it a lot easier the second time around. And
occasionally we get smart and don't walk the ridge during the
thunderstorm, or cross the raging stream - and we live to finish our
Problem solving is a constant process for a thruhiker. Water filters
clog, stoves malfunction, packs break in ways never dreamed of by the
manufacturer, boots fall apart. These are generally simple problems -
unless you're alone or so far in the backcountry that they put you at
serious risk. But thruhikers find solutions - many of them unusual,
unconventional - radical. They also find solutions to such problems as
crossing snow-fed waist-deep streams or traversing miles of steep
snow-pack or treating blisters or torn ligaments or wrenched knees - or
the mental/emotional roller-coaster that many experience - and that sends
many people home. Thruhikers are problem-solvers.
Thruhiking requires independence of thought and action - in part because
while the thruhiker may listen to the advice and opinions of others -
they make their own decisions. Most thruhikers are told that what they
propose to do is insane, a waste of time and money and energy, ridiculous
- even stupid. Many thruhikers would never even start if they believed
and acted on that kind of input. Thruhikers make their own decisions -
about thruhiking, about equipment and techniques, schedules, hiking
speed, money, time, companions and the thousand and ten other things that
comprise a thruhike.
Thruhiking is also subject to change - sometimes because of injury,
sometimes because of circumstances. There are thruhikers who have
experienced floods, hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes and/or tornados
while on the trail. Those things, among others, tend to upset schedules
- and it requires a great deal of flexibility to complete a long hike in
the face of such adversity. Even the ordinary day-to-day problems of a
thruhike require flexibility of thought and action to resolve.
Flexibility is one of the key characteristics of those who thruhike.
To a larger degree than almost any other activity in life, thruhiking is
- freedom. A thruhiker has the freedom to set their own pace/schedule,
to stop for a day (or a week), to do 10 mile days (or 30's), to be a
"purist" - or not, to make their own decisions --- and to live with the
consequences of those decisions, to laugh, to cry, to be human - or to
change any or all of their previous decisions. As Americans, many
(most?) of us think we're "free". But one of the biggest factors in
incomplete thruhikes is that many people discover for the first time what
"real" freedom is - and many of them can't handle it - so they go home.
Some actually finish the trail - and still don't understand. And some (a
few) learn about freedom and how to live with it - and how to live it.
And how to allow others the freedom to learn and grow and live.
In general, those who have thruhiked multiple times tend to be more
"mellow" than the average bear. They've generally learned to not sweat
the small stuff. And that it's all small stuff. They've learned a
little about what's really important in life. As I was once taught -
don't let the urgent interfere with what's really important. It took a
thruhike for me to really learn what that meant.
None of this, of course, means that thruhikers are necessarily "nice" in
any sense of the word. Most of them are, but as a group, thruhikers
still embody all the characteristics of the human race in general. That
means some of them can be nasty, or dumb, or cruel, or venal, or
alcoholics or even dishonest. Those people are a minority - a very small
minority. But they do exist. Every family tree (including mine) has its
share of pirates, drunks, con men and horsethieves. Why should the
thruhiking family be different? :-))
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