Hiking Across America Means Hiking Through a Divided Nation

Last summer I embarked on a hike that led me over the hallowed grounds of the Civil War. Stone tablets marking significant sites along my route had themselves become historical artifacts, their words worn down by their slow march into the the shadows of the past. But the political divisiveness that roiled our country in the 1860s is not simply a historian’s problem; that those memorials and battlefields make for relevant symbols of the rhetoric and events surrounding our nation’s current schism is both fascinating and disconcerting. The larger phenomenon of hiking through 14 states in today’s political climate provided some uncomfortable experiences, as well as unexpected insight.

In the woods, alliances are easy and unencumbered, the terms simple: Mutual respect for the trail and the people who walk it. The prerequisites we might normally seek out in considering someone of our ilk are stripped down to the basic and immediate. The difficult and all-consuming goal of a thru-hike instills the kind of camaraderie we often lack in our off-trail lives. The irony is that we potentially find ourselves building meaningful relationships with the very people whose ideological differences would, back home, make them “unsuitable” for friendship.

Politics, for that reason, tends not to be the first topic brought up around the campfire. There’s this mutual understanding that the day’s challenges takes precedent over our differences of opinion. Burdens are shared, as well as joys, and everything is reduced to the conveniently uncontroversial aspects of hiking, eating, and sleeping. This might be one of the main attractions of something like a thru-hike—in a country rife with inequitable suffering, mammoth conflicts of interest, and media-frenzied politicians, escaping into the mountains for a few months offers a sense of relief. It could also be why thru-hikers are often reticent to engage in politics on trail. It’s the sort of conversation many of us are out here to avoid.

Via Ben White

Of course, there are exceptions.

Earlier this year two women completed the first reported thru-hike of the U.S./Mexico border. Tenny Ostrem and Claire Wernstedt-Lynch met while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail and went on to crush the PCT. They chose their border hike over the CDT and a claim at the Triple Crown, says an Aug. 14 article by Outside Online, because they felt it was the wrong time to disappear into the wild. The country was changing over to the Trump administration and Ostrem and Wernstedt-Lynch wanted to participate in the debate.

As quoted in the Outside Online article: “Their goal was to cut through the heated rhetoric and fearmongering associated with the southern border… walking seemed a perfect method for achieving those ends. ‘Long-distance hiking has always been a really motivating force in my life,’ Wernstedt-Lynch says, ‘and it has always felt internally focused. We wanted to see if there was a way to have more of an outward focus to our hiking. So, rather than trying to withdraw from society, we wanted to encounter communities that we maybe didn’t know much about beforehand.’”

My Appalachian Trail thru-hike was not as socially motivated as that. My focus was internal, my goals set on personal growth. Yet as I hiked from Maine to Georgia I heard from many Americans in towns across the country on both sides of the red/blue divide express their opinions regarding the current state of things.

Sometimes the circumstances were uncomfortable, like when I found myself staying on the couch of a trail angel who, later in the evening, revealed some political ideology that differed dramatically from mine. When I attempted to inch my way into disagreement with one of his ideas I was quickly and forcefully rebutted. Not wanting to stoke the ire of my host (and lacking the wherewithal to argue my point) I shut my mouth.

The sentiments I encountered in cities and towns across the country whirled from one pole to the other like an arrow on a mad compass. What remained fairly consistent was the tone of fear, spite, and disbelief that the subject of politics engendered in people. Hiking through the disconnect put it in stark relief for me, especially when I considered the culture of solidarity surrounding the Appalachian Trail. The same people who would dissolve into bitter argument if they sat down to dinner with one another were united under a banner of support for my endeavor.

During my trek I considered myself transient and ephemeral, my footprints washing away as soon as I moved on. In retrospect, I see the thru-hiker’s journey as being more solid than that. Ideally, it’s something reliable for a divided nation to grab a hold of, or at the very least, a sinuous token of common ground.

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Comments 4

  • Anne : Dec 13th

    Beautifully written and rang very true. I am section hiking but have encountered the same divided politics from Georgia to New Hampshire. I remember section hiking Pennsylvania in the fall and winter of 2016-17 and watching the Trump signs grow larger and larger.

    Reply
  • BILL KITTRELL : Dec 14th

    America has always had divisions dating back to Tories and Patriots. It is part of who we are, embrace other opinions and views and enjoy the trails and our common interests we share out there!

    Reply
  • Fred Jones : Dec 16th

    I certainly appreciate “Bloodhound’s” essay. Yes, we are a divided country and to some extent there has always been a divide. However, as he points out, the rift is now so deep that it precludes discussion. Therein lies a grave danger.

    On my thru hike of the LT in 2018 I encountered several people from other countries: Australia, the UK, Germany, Switzerland and Canada to name a few. They were all curious about the politics of our country and talked freely about the situation in their respective countries. It was quite refreshing to talk about something of such importance without fear of bullying and angry outbursts.

    One common question involved the electoral college. They wanted to know why Americans can accept an election that puts a person in office who does not win the popular vote. I had to tell them it is something many of us don’t accept. It certainly tarnishes our supposed reputation as a model of democracy.

    Looking forward to 2019 and thru hiking the AT. I’m not out to seek political discourse.

    Reply
    • Mike : Jan 18th

      Fred,

      We don’t live in a democracy – it is a representative republic – a huge difference. The electoral college was designed to prevent a few states with massive populations from deciding the Presidential election every time. The same reason New York or California has the same number of Senators as Rhode Island – to give each state equal footing in the Senate.

      Frankly we don’t want a democracy because we don’t want mob rule – no matter what side of the political spectrum you reside. Considering the United States has the oldest constitution in the world – they must have foreseen issues like this.

      Agree to disagree but if you are reading pages from this site then everyone has something in common and that is the love of the trail. Personally I don’t talk politics on the trail – spoils the mood…..

      Reply

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