The Trail Community: Friends and Solitude
Where to begin? These past few weeks have been some of the best I’ve ever had. There is so much more to the trail experience than I ever expected. It comes from meeting incredible people, witnessing awe inspiring scenery, stopping in trail towns, and undergoing both physical and psychological trials. I could say so much about each of those, but I’d rather talk about one at a time. So I’ll start with what surprised me most, the social side of things.
Coming out here, I expected to meet people and likely form some friendships, but I assumed that the majority of my time would be spent alone. This has not been the case at all. Most people come out on the trail by themselves and are far more social than I envisioned.
This past month has felt reminiscent of freshman year in college. In both situations, it is generally an entirely new experience for the participants. Most people know next to nobody and everyone is eager to make friends. We come in socially vulnerable and quickly make friends and form strong bonds based on shared experience. Heading through uncharted territory, the experiences are novel and enchanting. Also, an occasional group activity may turn into an alcohol fueled ruckus that sometimes only a breakfast buffet at the dining hall can cure. Much like freshmen, indiscriminating groups of hikers hang out together and decisions on what to do and where to go are more or less unanimous. After completing the Smokies and a month on the trail, my group is at that point. For various reasons, freshmen flocks broke into smaller ones and people started doing their own thing after the first month or so of school. This hasn’t happened on the trail yet but I predict that something similar will happen in the near future.
My group calls ourselves the Hootin’ Hoodlums and you don’t want to mess with us…Just kidding, we’re all chill and friendly. Most of us started between April 10th and the 20th but our paces have aligned, especially for the last week and a half of hiking. We had one casualty a couple weeks ago due to a serious knee problem, but fortunately everyone else seems to be holding up. Knee issues are alarmingly prevalent out here and several of the gang have regular pain. But hey, commiserating creates stronger bonds. The average age of the Hootin’ Hoodlums is 25 years old with most between 20 and 30 years. I was actually surprised when I realized that, considering the wide age range of thru-hikers. While we all have differing reasons for hiking the AT, it seems like most of us are at a similar stage in life with many common interests. Not really surprising when you think about it. Any time we meet up with each other, we yell out the phrase “HOO AHH” (like an owl) to each other in a cry of solidarity. All this, however, isn’t to say that our group is formal, exclusive, or even serious. We all still meet and befriend new people regularly and delight in reacquainting with those we haven’t seen in a while. The name is largely just a token of camaraderie and jest.
There are several downsides to being in a group out here and they become more obvious as the days go on. While I often enjoy the company of the friends I’ve made out here, I find it necessary to step away from them and hike on my own. There’s a group mentality that formed in which members feel inclined to do almost everything together. From hiking at the same pace, to staying at the same shelters, to doing every activity in towns together, they in effect are not hiking their own hike. Social roles have arisen that are similar to what you commonly see in a high school clique, although not quite as immature and pronounced. Members seem to invest more energy into social relations than experiencing the trail in a personal, individualistic way that allows you to learn about yourself and truly connect with nature.
I have caught myself falling into this trap on a few occasions. I felt compelled to do what everyone else was doing and guilty for doing my own thing. Fortunately, having realized this, I could reflect on the reasons for these feelings. I discovered that staying in a group helps stave off loneliness and creates a comfort zone that acts as a shield from your inner world. It can be disquieting to feel like you are truly on your own and there’s a certain security that is missing. Though it is uncomfortable at times, i think allowing myself to experience these tough emotions is necessary in order to grow spiritually. I need to detach in order to learn.
Of course, some more extroverted people may thrive within a social hike and I wish them all the best. I will look forward to meeting up with my friends in the near future, but for now, it’s time to experience the trail on my own. I spent this last weekend at the Trail Days festival in Damascus where there were thousands of hikers, past and present. The collective energy was incredible and the sense of community was strong. I had my fill and feel happy to start a more personal hike. Having shuttled back to Standing Bear Farm last night just outside the Smokies at mile 240, I am about to head onwards and start the next chapter on the journey!
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Hi Alex. I finally remembered to chk out this page. So happy for you things are still going great on your hike. Happy hiking. Marcy and Aaron. (Met you on rocky top in smokies)