Do I Look Like a Hiker to You?
Two years ago this week, I boarded a one-way plane to the Arctic Circle, filled with excitement, drowning in the Unknown.
Over the next 20 months, I would acquire more valuable knowledge than six years of college and a decade of real world employment combined. I would not learn complicated math equations or rare scientific facts or how to win friends and influence people. I would learn how to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, how to become familiar with a strange world as a stranger. How to coexist. How to understand and accept difference.
They say your life flashes before your eyes during a life-threatening situation because your brain is desperately trying find a life-saving solution. Operating in hyper speed, your mind instinctively rewinds every single moment of all of your days, shuffling through each experience like an old jukebox scanning for a song, searching for a similar I’m-about-to-die situation from your past, one in which you were somehow able to successfully MacGyver yourself from death’s embrace.
I feel like our subconscious goes through a similar rewind process each time we encounter any Unknown for the first time, especially Human Unknowns.
At first sight, the Historians working from cluttered desks deep in the corner of our minds, quickly gather the surface facts, plug them into our often outdated memory machines, and calculate a Preliminary Bucket Placement for the Unknown. Each Bucket’s foundation is constructed from data gathered over a lifetime of Unknowns; unscientific, somewhat emotional, personal data collected from previous understandings, lessons learned, stereotypes. Before even engaging in conversation with the Unknown, we’ve already dropped them into a Bucket, which directly influences our attitude and demeanor in any future interactions with this person. We think we already know what they’re all about. We conclude.
Because though we may try incredibly hard not to, all of us (maybe not maliciously, maybe not intentionally) judge the Human Book by its cover. We see color, we see class, we see gender. We see. Or perhaps snippets of information, gossip with key bucket-placing words reaches us before the Unknown does. And naturally, somewhat automatically, we place each Unknown into the Buckets we’ve carefully constructed in our heads, based on prior knowledge, personal life experiences and our own definitions of The People. Which makes sense. We need these buckets. If you think about it, our survival sort of depends on it. It’s how we judge the Goodies from the Baddies, the validity of Stranger Danger, the Douchebags from the Real Men.
It’s the root of Intuition.
But while our immediate judgement/assessment of our fellow Humans makes sense, it also sort of sucks. I mean, haven’t we all been victims of this silent crime? Carelessly dropped into a Bucket which we don’t belong? I like to believe I’m this accepting, equal opportunist of all people, but my Historians often trick me into thinking I already know All There is to Know about the Unknowns. And too often, my Preliminary Bucket Placement determines whether or not I choose to explore a relationship further, to even allow a person to get a fair say in their own bucket placement.
We tend to swim around in Buckets filled with people similar to us, because it’s easy and we’re lazy. We like to be understood. We like to be validated. And the kind of understanding, the kind of appreciation people deserve, takes time. If you never take the time to explore those understandings or build that appreciation of people outside of your circle, you’re gonna end up with a hell of a lot of Buckets filled with half-truths and assumptions. You’ll never learn a thing about people who live outside your box. You’ll never understand that different isn’t bad, it isn’t wrong, it’s just different. You’ll never realize that not everyone is like you; not everyone grew up like you, made the same choices, made the same mistakes, had the same opportunities, lived the same life. Instead, you’ll surround yourself with people who think like you and make you feel comfortable, and the Unknown will live trapped in the Preliminary Buckets in which you’ve placed them. Never to be known.
The Appalachian Trail is incredible for more reasons than words exist, but the Unicorn of all reasons is everyone starts off in the same Bucket. The trail opens her slender green arms to people from all different backgrounds, from all forks of every road, dresses them in outdoorsy costumes and tosses them on top of Springer Mountain. Everyone begins as a hopeful hiker, making their way to Katahdin. They all wear packs on their backs, clinging desperately onto the poles in their hands, if for nothing else, because it’s the only thing left to cling onto. Yes, we all start out at the bottom of the infamous Thru-Hiker Bucket.
Externally, to the Others, to the Locals, the Non Thru-Hikers, we all look the same: Gross. Dirty. Smelly. Hungry. Thirsty. To those with a positive view of hikers, we are all Carefree Dreamers, on an incredible journey. To those with a negative view, we are Homeless Hooligans, lost in life. But those of us actually in that Thru-Hiker Bucket can see right through the external shell. Because as the miles accumulate, slowly, we start to climb out of that highly generalized bucket and step into our reality. We separate ourselves from our Bucket-Mates through actions, reactions, interactions with others. We communicate. We share. We listen. Some learn they can be whoever they want to be: their best self, a total different self, any self. Others like me, don’t know how to be anything but themselves. We might all look like Thru-Hikers to the outside world, but Time gives us the ability to see through the window, into our individual inside worlds.
We met Todd (forever known as RCA, aka, the Real Captain America) somewhere in North Carolina, helping Living Proof up the side of the trail. Living Proof had somehow tumbled off the edge of the mountain, breaking his scapula (we later discovered) rendering him unable to carry his pack the five miles down to Stecoah Gap, where he could get help. We joined the effort and divvied up his pack; Emily took as much weight as she could handle, while I took Living Proof’s injured arm hiking pole. Don’t judge, it was literally all my early-on-the-AT-self could handle. RCA ended up with the rest.
A built-like-a-tank retired Marine, engrained with a leave no man behind mentality, RCA hoists Living Proof’s pack onto his chest and gives us this, “Those five miles ain’t gonna walk themselves” look.
And then he beat us down to the gap.
Later as we ate lunch and entertained ourselves by watching Living Proof try to get a hitch into town with his bum shoulder, Emily and I made the mistake of attempting to give RCA a trail name – Captain America. As an actual badass retired Marine, Todd declined sarcastically, “Yeeeeeah, like I’m really going to go around introducing myself as Captain America.” Fair enough. We called him RCA anyway.
We were fortunate enough to hike with RCA for a week or so until he basically said, “Well ladies, it’s been great, thanks for slowing me down, but this Maine Train has no breaks!” He summited Katahdin one month and nine days ahead of us, if that tells you anything. But our journey together was a big, and one moment sticks out particularly far. We were crossing some random road where a random van of elderly tourists were taking photos by an AT sign, some twenty feet up the trail.
After the same small talk that comes standard with every Non-Thru-Hiker conversation, one gentleman commented on RCA’s ridiculously muscular legs and asked him if he got those from hiking. RCA laughed, as if he had just been asked if he was in the Army.
“These old things? These were built from 20 years in the Marine Corp, Sir. I didn’t get these from a few measly miles (uh, more like a couple hundred) in the woods.”
As we hiked on, RCA laughed again as he shook his head, “I mean, come on, do I look like a hiker to you?”
After careful observation: Trainers? Check. Backpack? Check. Trekking poles? Check. Hiker-Like Clothing? Check. Plus that bonus sun-protecting floppy hat? Definite check.
Errr,ummm, yes? You look exactly like a hiker.
And from the outside, he did. But we knew very little of his life outside the Hiker Bucket; in fact at that point, his hiker status was nearly the only thing we knew about his life. While he was theoretically on the same journey as everyone else walking north, RCA saw himself as a man hiking a trail, but not necessarily as a Hiker. We saw him as a badass who carried two 35+ lb thru-hiker packs five miles down to Stecoah Gap.
Over the next few months, I would hear that same phrase again, from various hikers: “Do I look like a hiker to you?” I met teenage drug addicts, 60 year old aspiring authors, wives surviving the loss of a husband, fathers coping with the loss of a child. The Professor hiked the trail for his son who died in a plane crash the previous year. It had been a dream of his, so the Professor carried it out. RCA is a retired Marine who had sold everything that tied him down, choosing instead to travel around in an RV. He had time on his hands while his wife finished a new degree, so he hiked. Living Proof is battling brain cancer, hiking the trail because time is fickle. Dapper Dan is a 20-something heroine addict, with a life straight out of a movie that hurts to watch, but you can’t look away. Cakes, a self-proclaimed city boy, had hit rock-bottom in the meth soaked streets of hell, and took to the trail find the life he was meant to live. They all climbed out from the same Bucket, the one filled with a sea of indistinguishable humans wearing Hiker covers, taking off their book jackets as they stepped out onto the trail, revealing individuals with unique stories to tell.
When all of the Covers look the same, it’s harder to judge the Human Book so immediately. Aside from their general direction and purpose, I knew nothing more about the people I walked with, until I opened their book and read a few pages. Admittedly, not every book was for me. I appreciated some genres more than others, identified with some stories and not so much with others. But the point is, I read. I read, and I read some more. A lot of different books, from all genres. I met and came to respect so many on the trail, people I might have never had the opportunity to meet without those 2,189.2 miles. Because in my off-trail life, I don’t know many drug addicts or people with lives and pasts so drastically different from my own. Not because I actively avoid these people, but because in the Venn Diagram of Life, our circles simply don’t intersect.
And that right there, is the magic of the Appalachian Trail. It brings the most unlikely people together. It strips us of our covers and forces us to read books we might never pick up otherwise. It opens the Doors to the Unknown.
And that door remains wide open, long after descending Katahdin.
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