Finding Your People on a Thru-Hike
A month ago I saw this sign in a trail town café:
It’s a church inviting people to a Sunday school class for those who want to be among their own generation.
But something about the question struck me:
What does it mean to “look for your people”? Those born the same decade? Who believe like you? Who look like you? Who do what you do for a living?
I’m not sure I even like the idea of looking for your people. It’s like sorting out the red jelly beans because those are the cherry ones and those are “your flavor.” Saying “your people” implies there are those who are “not your people.”
And on a planet this small, a journey this short- aren’t we all each other’s people?
I didn’t know if I’d make it this far
This morning I wake up somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania. The air feels muggy and I blink at the map on my phone.
I rub my eyes and can’t believe we’re not in the South anymore. I stretch my legs and circle one of my ankles.
How did these two legs and these two feet move forward, step by step, day after day, 1200 miles- to get me here?
When I started this trail, I half expected to never make it out of the land of biscuits and gravy and grits.
And now at last we are walking into places familiar to me. I know how to pronounce the word “Schuylkill” as we near that river. I’ve been to the Delaware Water Gap.
Soon we will be in New Jersey, a place I lived for 4 years. And after that, New York, where I lived for 12. It feels surreal to be entering lands I’ve hiked before, albeit without a 20-pound pack, calloused feet, and my fellow thru-hikers.
I can’t imagine making it here without them.
If you want to go farther
I’ve heard it said, “If you want to go faster, go alone. If you want to go farther, go together.”
Together is how we got here: with hikers, hostel owners, trail angels, and friendly drivers:
And then there are trail families: groups of hikers that shift and morph and overlap. Friends who keep you on track and help get you through.
These are my people.
We are “kind of outdoorsy.” (See top photo)
We are taking our time. We don’t mind the mud but mosquitoes are mean. We can hang with the rain but wet tents make us tense. We love a good sunset… but also a shower.
I know there are people who blast through the AT in 100 days, preferring a solitary sprint up the eastern seaboard.
But I am not one of them.
Love the ones you’re with
You know the phrase “Birds of a feather flock together.”
Numerous studies have tried to explain how and why people gravitate to those similar to them.
But one of the surprising joys of the Appalachian Trail is how quickly you can form deep connections with people who might at first make you think, “We have nothing in common.”
Like these wildflowers above, all coexisting together in their differences, it’s the not-in-common-ness that creates the beauty. The fact that we’re all growing here together toward a common sky.
While panting up the mountains of Georgia through Virginia, I’ve had thoughtful conversations with military veterans, homeschooled teens, and a slew of welders, teachers, nurses, and statisticians.
On the trail “my people” are whomever I’m around when we share something – a laugh, a bandaid, a bunk bed, or a bright full moon.
Sometimes they leave
Today one of my people had to leave trail because she tore her MCL (part of her knee) and has to have surgery. “This is the end of my journey,” she texted as she coordinated her flight home.
But just this morning at breakfast she was telling us how glad she was to be back on trail. How important it had been to both love her trail family and speak up for her own needs- which included slowing down. I get that.
I ache that she has to leave. She has long been a part of what I consider my extended trail family. She’s made me smile on sad days, is a fierce truth-teller, and has an accent that makes me feel like I’m stepping right into into the mountains of rural North Carolina.
This friend did not flinch the night a group of us- a group I suspect would never have met “in real life”- sat around a campfire and took turns sharing stories of real pain. She was a part of our circle that hugged each other when no words could be said.
And now when she suffers, we all suffer. Because this friend was part of “our people,” and she was not afraid to name what we’re all thinking:
That we are so incredibly lucky to be here, that it cost us something to get here, and that some days it’s also just so damn hard.
She is tough. I will miss her. I didn’t picture us getting to Maine without her. And when a friend leaves the trail, we all know this:
Each day on trail = an unearned gift.
May there also be a gift in the ending.
As my AT mentor says, “The trail will always be there.” I believe my friends who’ve gotten off trail will be back. When the time is right and after things heal and their feet yearn for the dirt again.
My friend sent me an article from this week’s Outside Online on the fleeting nature of friendships formed during outdoor ventures:
And I wonder how much this applies to thru-hikes. It’s a finite and limited time, yes, but it’s not a short-term trip. Five to seven months, all day every day, is a long time to forge friendship.
We rely on each other for survival, as dramatic as that sounds. Survival both physical and emotional. We share first aid supplies, food, and help each other get to urgent care when needed. We lend an ear and a word of encouragement when someone feels like they can’t keep going.
When we have no cell service, we even leave signs in the dirt to show where the group is tenting that night- as my friends did for me this week:
Will my AT friendships turn out to be “fireflies” that burn bright and then quickly flicker out?
I don’t know.
But that doesn’t make it any less of a real and good thing.
All of this is to say…
The band’s back together
So many of you have asked, “Are you back with your group? How is it? Are you glad you skipped ahead?” (I will make up the miles later).
The answers are “Yes!” “Good!” And “Definitely.” This group makes me laugh, think, focus, and learn better ways of doing things.
Though I have loved hiking with people of all ages, my group of the past month or so are all 39-49 in age. As the trail goes on, having a group relatively within your decade can be a practical way of “finding your people,” after all.
We are a minority population in a world of thru-hikers who are mostly under 35 or over 55.
In our group we are young enough to be fit and energetic, but old enough to need more recovery time and care for our middle-aging bodies. We are young enough to dance hard when the occasion requires, but old enough to know losses, humility, and hard-won wisdom.
In short, the group has been great and I am glad to be back.
But I wouldn’t trade that time of being on my own. It forced me to soul-search in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise. It made me reckon with things inside that I might’ve easily ignored amid the familiar socializing.
It pushed me into the discomfort of what lies beyond solitude and silence- to go deeper into the center of unsettled questions and fears.
And on the lighter side, that solitary time invited me to ask, “What would it be like to count the tulip poplars my companions, the chipmunks and spiders my friends?”
But once you’re done talking to spiders…
It is time to rejoin the land of the humans, and here is what I realized about trail families:
Every crew has its quirks. I cannot expect any family- trail or blood or spiritual- to always be on the same page, always show up in the ways I need, or always be fun.
Time away allowed me to more fully appreciate the different gifts we each bring to the table, and to feel neither inferior nor superior for the ways I choose to hike or eat or set up camp.
The rhythm of together and separate
The thing I’m learning about this long trail is that I need the rhythm of together and separate. I need the long hours during the day to hike at my own pace, breathe in the air, stop for snacks, and take pictures of Pennsylvania farmland:
But I can’t imagine making it these 1200 miles without people to wake up and make oatmeal with, people to tease me and keep me humble, people to set the pace for the week and chart our mileage.
Sometimes I need to veer from the group and do my own thing for a day or two. Other times a couple of us decide to venture to a hostel because our tolerance for days-with-no-shower has expired and we like really good breakfasts.
So if you’re looking for your people…
Start by loving the ones you’re with.
Who’s around you? What’s their story?
How can you make their day with a kind word, fun game, or generous offering?
This is what I try to remember when I’m not with my group, and it’s what I try to practice when we are together but getting on each other’s nerves.
Another thing that helps in a group is what I call the “Take nothing for granted” game. Whenever anyone goes out of their way for me, however small, I try to remember to thank them or text them later and tell them how much it meant.
It takes almost no time, and it makes me soak in the gratitude a second time.
Every single human wants to be seen and appreciated for who they are at their best.
To every one of you who reads what I write, comments on it, and tells me to keep going-
I see you.
I wish I could buy each of you an aqua-blue mini-camper.
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