Lessons for embarking on your first thru-hike from an ’80s rock band (???)
Author’s note: This blog post builds off of some wacky thoughts I had in southern Vermont on Day 44 of my 2022 AT Flip-Flop hike. At the time I made some notes but found I couldn’t fit it into my regular 4 day AT blog pieces on The Trek — so I’ve resurrected some of the material for this post-hike reflection. I hope you all enjoy it!
Reflecting on a “Glastenbury” Sign
My spirits were high as I departed Vermont’s Route 9 on an absolutely beautiful early June day. I’d just been dropped off at the trailhead by an old friend who had graciously chauffeured me that morning to a grocery resupply and a delicious breakfast in Bennington. I’d been over this trail route previously on my weeklong 2021 AT shakedown hike, so my relaxed mind drifted free and far in the crisp Green Mountain air.
A few miles from my shelter destination I encountered a Forest Service sign announcing my entrance into the “Glastenbury Wilderness”. Hmmm, a couple of thoughts hit me immediately:
- “Glastonbury” is the name of a celebrated long-running English music festival. I’d seen many a video clip of live outdoor rock performances going back dozens of years from epic bands.
- And the surname “Astbury”, like that of lead singer Ian Astbury of The Cult, is buried right within that word.
That got me thinking — “Did Ian Astbury and The Cult ever perform at the Glastonbury Festival?” Although the main stage is reserved for true superstars, the festival has had loads of up and coming acts perform, especially at the secondary stages around the venue. A quick check with Professor Google told me that the answer was “No” – not as an early 80’s “up and comer” nor as a more well-known band in the late 80’s and 90s. I wasn’t surprised, since Ian the boys hadn’t been the recipients of heaps of critical acclaim — but they did have commercial success back in the day.
Now how exactly do all of these mental trail musings relate to taking your first thru-hike? Well, to draw that connection we first need to go in the wayback machine to 1981 across the pond.
The Cult’s beginnings
As the 19 year old son of a career naval officer, Ian Astbury formed a post-punk/goth-rock band called “Southern Death Cult” in 1981 in Yorkshire, England. By 1984 the band was signed to a record label, and now going by the shortened moniker “The Cult”, they released their debut album Dreamtime. The Cult featured vocalist Astbury, guitarist Billy Duffy, and what would become a revolving door of drummers and bassists. Just one year later, the band’s popularity soared in the UK and abroad with release of the album Love, featuring the single “She Sells Sanctuary” – which would become a favorite on alternative and university radio stations in the US. That’s how I’d first learn of the band and start to follow them closely.
The band received critical acclaim at this time for its dark, psychedelic, alternative sound – but singer Ian Astbury had a different vision for The Cult. I vividly recall an MTV interview in which he described the music from the Love album as “experimental”. He felt that the band had yet to produce their signature sound – but importantly, he had a vision of what that would be.
The next step in The Cult’s evolution would not be a straightforward one: they’d record an entire album of songs under the draft title Peace – but being unhappy with the end result, would ultimately bury that sample recording. They’d re-write and re-record all of the songs for their 1987 release Electric.
The album featured much heavier guitar and bass, propelling The Cult to the edge of heavy metal. Critics hated it, as the sonic shift indicated that the band would not be taking the route of UK alternative darlings such as Robert Smith’s band The Cure — but the masses (including me) loved it. I believe that my original cassette tape version of Electric simply turned into dust because I played it so much in my car stereo!
Electric would ultimately outsell the Love album and sell over 2.5 million copies worldwide, propelling The Cult to worldwide rock stardom.
Enroute to this success, The Cult would overcome a number of obstacles which may have seemed insurmountable when viewed from the their 1981 beginnings. First and foremost, as previously mentioned, the band had never been able to land permanent members to play bass and drums – instead, these roles saw chaotic turnover almost year to year. Secondly, Astbury himself was a challenging obstacle.
In comparison to other writers in the rock world, Ian Astbury is a bad lyricist. Take the first few lines of the band’s hit single “Love Removal Machine”, for example:
Fell to the red room
Because she was there (uh huh huh)
A scarlet woman
She got me in fear (yeah yeah yeah)
You see? It’s not exactly “Imagine” by John Lennon! But as bad a lyricist as Ian is, he may be a worse vocalist. On the Electric album, The Cult cut a cover of Steppenwolf’s classic “Born to Be Wild”. Ian Astbury’s vocal performance on that track (especially at the end) can only be described as “stunning” – and I’m not using that term in a postive way!
And yet, despite those potential stumbling blocks, The Cult made their vision happen! They’d created their own sound and found success.
So – what are the lessons for your thru-hike?
I see four key lessons that we can take from this rock journey to that thru-hike that you are contemplating:
- Start moving towards your thru-hike vision … now!
Ian Astbury had a vision for his band, and got started on it. Nothing else happens on your future thru-hike unless you start moving forward now to make that trail vision a reality. That might mean taking 2-3 day overnight backpacking excursions with a full thru-hike pack, or digging into thru-hiker equipment lists, or starting an exercise routine that prepares you. Whatever it is, start it today and work towards your thru-hike vision!
- Don’t fret about “everything needing to be perfect” before you start.
Ian and The Cult moved through experimental stages as they progressed to their ultimate vision. You should do the same for your thru-hike. Early on you should open the funnel wide and look at wide-ranging possibilities: Tent or hammock? Low cut boots or traditional hikers? For smaller stuff you can perfect it on the trail. Midway through my thru-hike I discovered a way to stage my hammock tarp on a cloudy night so I could put it up in 60 seconds in case of rain, a vast improvement.
- The biggest components of your thru-hike deserve the most attention.
For The Cult, it was Ian the vocalist, Billy the axe-man, and whoever showed up to play bass and drums. For you, future thru-hiker, it should be your boots, your pack, and your shelter. Scrutinize whether these will work for you – if not, try another option.
- Iterate until you’re achieving success.
Like Ian Astbury after the Love album, you’ll likely know when you’ve not yet achieved your vision (despite what others may think). Keep testing and improving, testing and improving. Doing so will allow you to hit the trail with as much confidence as possible.
Good luck future thru-hikers! I hope you’ll all become trail rock stars!
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Great stuff High Road. I’m just a lowly section hiker with lesser trail “needs” but I’m still always trying to perfect the footwear, pack, and shelter (among other things).
Props for combining new wave/rock/goth/pop/80s whateverYouWannaCallThem with backpacking! Huge The Cure guy myself and always listen on trail. I need to go back and give The Cult another try.