8 Questions You SHOULD Ask a Thru-Hiker
Every year, about 500 people complete the Appalachian Trail (source: Appalachian Trail Conservancy). That’s smaller than the average US middle school (source: National Center for Education Statistics). So it is no surprise that people are curious about such a unique feat. Unfortunately, their questions are not unique. In fact, thru-hikers often complain about the questions they get asked (source: every hiker ever. Also the articles below.)
7 questions you will have to answer after your thru-hike
Ridiculous questions people ask (PCT)
Usually these questions fit into two categories:
Category #1 Questions that someone can google the answer to in five seconds.
Category #2 Open-ended questions for which only vague, general answers can be given.
Q “So… what was it like?”
A “Um. It was a six-month-long life-affirming experience with hundreds of distinct stories…”
Q “OK, summarize your thru-hike in three words.”
A “…’Poop’, ‘Nutella’, and ‘trees’? Oh wait… I forgot ‘walking’. Can I have four?”
While there are ‘no stupid questions’, these type of questions will not ingratiate you to a hiker. Why? Because this is polite conversation. It does not convey deference or imply that you are remotely interested. I do understand how social decorum works; I can completely empathize with people who are truly uninterested in hiking and are simply making small talk to be polite.
But this article is not for them.
This article is for people who want to have a real conversation with a thru-hiker but have no idea where to begin.
So, from a previous thru-hiker to the rest of the world, here is a list of suggested questions for your hiker friends that should yield an interesting, engaging, thoughtful response at your next holiday party (instead of a glazed-over stare as they shovel fruitcake into their mouth):
1. What surprised you about the trail?
No one is fully prepared for the AT. You might be a master backpacker, but something is guaranteed to catch you off guard. Personally, I was surprised by AT culture, both because it wasn’t what I was expecting and also because it actually existed. It’s one thing to read posts on WhiteBlaze and another to get into the woods and realize there are established rules, shared tips, and even ‘lore’ that includes anecdotes about trail legends. I expected people sitting around a fire comparing camp stoves, but instead I discovered a whole new society. If you really want to know about the AT, you should ask a thru-hiker what they didn’t learn in their pre-trail research that they did learn on trail.
2. What were your hiking partners like?
Any traveler knows that the people you meet along the way often leave an even bigger impression than the places you go or the things that you witness. This is especially true while thru-hiking, when people create close knit groups based on their hiking speed and proceed to spend months leap frogging back and forth with them. Thru-hikers are thrown together with unlikely individuals from all over the world who often share nothing in common besides the ground they walk on. It sounds like the tagline from a movie, and will open up a lot of funny stories.
3. Have you read Grandma Gatewood’s Walk*?
No, I haven’t read ‘Wild’ yet but I hear good…. Wait, did you just ask me about one of the dozens of trail books that aren’t ‘A Walk in the Woods’ or ‘Wild’? Did you ask me about a story that is about hiking and not just utilizing hiking as a vehicle for comedy or drama? Do you have more than the simplest surface knowledge of trail literature? I’m going to need a moment to compose myself, but then I would love to hear your opinion on this book. (Don’t get me wrong: I’ll also discuss Cheryl Strayed or Bill Bryson with you, but I might be a little tired from having had the exact same conversation with every other person I’ve talked to since getting off the AT.)
*Note: Other book options include Earl Schaffer’s Walking with Spring, Gene Espy’s The Trail of My Life, David Miller’s AWOL on the Appalachian Trail, Jenn Pharr Davis’ Becoming Odessa, anything by John Muir, and of course Zach Davis’ Appalachian Trials (warning: blatant buzz marketing).
And so many more…
4. How did the country change as you hiked through it?
This is a question that I often wish people would ask me in a group setting because it inspires great discussions. Thru-hikers, just like anyone else, don’t want to be on display for a group, answering questions that no one can else can relate to. We would much rather participate in a dialogue, and the fact that our country is huge and incredibly different from the South to the North, both in terms of its literal landscape and its cultural landscape, inspires much better conversation than “How did you cook food?” (A. With a camp stove. Surprise.)
Although, on the subject of eating:
5. Before you got sick of them, what was your favorite Clif bar flavor?
This is best to ask when there are two or more hikers in the same room in order to spur a debate. Just be warned that it could get ugly and you might have to mollify them by changing the topic to All You Can Eat Buffets.
6. So what are you doing now?
THANK YOU for recognizing my life has a present and a future as well as a past. It didn’t end on Katahdin, and answering a long string of questions that contribute to that feeling is not great for staving off my post-trail depression.
Now, where was I? Oh, I’m unemployed and living on my parent’s couch. So what were you saying about Clif bars?
(Maybe wait until a year after the AT to ask this one.)
7. Do you want to hear about my experience with (blank)?
Don’t even ask this question. Just tell me. I have spent half a year in the company of my own thoughts and I’m tired of hearing myself talk about the Appalachian Trail. Tell me about your past and future hiking plans. Tell me about your dog. Tell me your grocery list for the week (sorry about the drooling).
And lastly, the best question you can ask a thru-hiker is:
8. What’s your next adventure?
If someone has undertaken a 2200 mile journey by foot, they probably enjoy adventures. Which means they are most likely planning another one. Maybe it’s a two day hike in the mountains near you, or a picnic on a cliff. Maybe it’s something that you might not even consider to be an adventure (for a while this year, my answer was ‘getting married’ – a logistical feat that rivaled my thru-hike in difficulty). Or maybe they’re planning a unicycle across the Grand Canyon, a two month bike trip, a three month canoe trip, or another 2,000 mile thru-hike. Maybe their next adventure is something you have always wanted to do yourself. And maybe they’re looking for a travel partner.
So this holiday season, go ahead and get drunk, break ornaments, burn the turkey, short circuit your house while hanging lights, and ask all manner of offensive questions of your friends and loved ones over the dinner table. But please, whatever you do, be original.
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