Going from Trail to the Big City

Washington DC: Wild Hikers Running Loose in the Nation’s Capital

 I reached Harpers Ferry on June 24th and I was the one thousandth 2016 northbound thru hiker to register at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. That called for a celebration. Six of us decided to go into Washington DC to see the sights and catch a Blink 182 concert. It was quite a culture shock for all of us.


Social Norms

To say that Washington DC was an overwhelming experience would be the understatement of the century. Going from trail life, seeing only a handful of people a day in the woods to seeing thousands of people in a city setting was surreal. All of the sudden we had to adhere to the social expectations that we had left behind about three months before.

There are just some things that are socially acceptable on trail that could possibly lead to arrest (or at least some dirty looks) in the “real world.”

  • Picking up trash
    • When someone picks up trash they see on trail, they are usually viewed as a nice person helping keep LNT practices. On the other hand, picking up litter in a big city is abnormal but definitely not illegal. This one really is more of a habit at this point for me: I see trash, I pick it up and dispose of it.
  • Urinating in public
    • Almost immediately upon our arrival in Washington DC we found ourselves on a street corner waiting for a Lyft to pick us up. A fellow thru hiker had to relieve himself so naturally he found a tree that would normally suffice. We all quickly stopped him after we realized that urinating on a busy street corner with thousands of people around probably wouldn’t end well. It was a weird reality to be faced with. We had not held our bladder in over 12 weeks.
  •  Water
    • After drinking some of the most refreshing and cleanest water in the world for the past couple of months city water just tastes…icky. It is also baffling to me that people have to pay for water. After walking around The Mall in the DC heat all day, we were thirsty but the idea of paying $4.00 for a bottle of water seemed crazy. Can we Sawyer Squeeze the water out of the reflection pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial? Probably not a great idea for multiple obvious reasons.
  • Dinner conversations
    • We really decided to treat ourselves in DC so we went to a couple swanky restaurants and indulge in the meals that we missed from our former lives. Even though were were in a ritzy place compared to our normal picnic table, the conversation topics remained the same. The typical subject matter we discussed on trail, such as bowel movements, were not as widespread in the posh establishments we dined at in DC. We decided to tone down conversations that pertained to bodily functions and stuck to more socially acceptable topics.

    Bathing in public restrooms

    • We had showered but all thru hikers know that showers only benefit for a short period of time. After walking around in 90 degree heat with dirty hiking clothes, no deodorant, and smelly packs, we were back to square one. If I wanted to go to any establishment that had any shred of class, I needed to do something about my stench. We went to brunch at a pretty swanky restaurant, where I was honestly surprised they sat us. I decided to “freshen up” in the bathroom after receiving multiple looks of disgust. I was almost done patting myself dry when a waitress walked in and laughed, then rolled her eyes. It was embarrassing, but at least I smelled a little bit better.

        Couch Surfing

        After two days in DC two people in our group went back to Harpers Ferry. We had all planned to go back that day as well, but after a meal in Chinatown we got the crazy idea to sleep in a public park, you know, “for the story.” We are technically homeless at the moment and we figured hundreds of people slept in parks every night in the city. The only train back to Harpers Ferry had left for the day and there was no turning back now, we were staying in DC. We couldn’t afford a hotel and I think we all were slightly kidding when we said we would sleep in a public park, but now it seemed it was becoming a reality. I decided to download an app called “Couch Surfing” I had heard of just to give us some options.

        Within an hour of messaging someone on the app we were in a stranger’s house watching Netflix and drinking a beer. I had sent a message to a man on Couch Surfing explaining our situation. He messaged me back telling me where to meet him. We met briefly at his place of work where he handed me the keys to his house and told me to make ourselves at home. We couldn’t believe that a perfect stranger had given us full access to his beautiful home filled with expensive items while he wasn’t even home. We had all gotten trail magic on the AT, but we were nearly 100 miles from the trail.

        We stayed in a great place for free and the host asked nothing in return.

        This experience showed us that trail angels exist off trail too, that people are generally and genuinely good. 


        On our last night in DC we decided to go out to one last dinner. We just so happened to go to the same restaurant as Paulette Leaphart. She was also celebrating a 1,000 mile hike. This amazing woman is a breast cancer survivor and she walked, topless, from Mississippi to Washington DC to raise awareness.

        It was just a neat experience to meet someone who had walked the same distance and ended up in the same place us, but did it on a whole other trail for very different reasons.

        Back to Trail

        I think I speak for all of us when I say we were ready to get back on trail after three days in DC. We all had a wonderful time and a well deserved break, but we missed our “normal” life. I left this experience appreciating both off trail and on trail life better.

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