Love In The Time Of Long Trails
What is it about a long trail that inspires romance?
I’ve been connected to the Appalachian Trail for three years. My first attempt was northbound, and it ended at Harper’s Ferry. The following year, I completed the trail southbound.
Two attempts, two trail relationships.
The first was an AT classic, heinously mismatched and short-lived off trail. The second is rarer: hiking partners who became fast friends, then best friends, then life partners.
Through the following, I’ll draw on my own experiences and the general wisdom of trail lore to see what insight (if any) trail coupling offers into the broader culture of long distance hiking.
On The Trail
A relationship born of a long trail is weird from inception. This fledgling couple has the capacity to spend every conscious minute together, and many do. They might be from different cities or countries. Their future goals can be altogether unrelated. They’re also meeting at a moment of transition; their personalities (and clothes, and odor) may be unrecognizable to friends and family back home.
Although I haven’t polled other hikers, I don’t think many undertake a thru-hike to “meet someone.” I certainly didn’t, either time (attempt two actually had an anti-romance edge to it, in my case). Perhaps this makes people more comfortable, and therefore easier to know and love. Or, you know, it could be pheromones and isolation.
In both my experiences, I noticed a subtle iciness from other hikers. To the broader hiking community, a “trail couple” status seems to imply weakness or disconnect from reality. I grew up deeply entrenched in community theater, and I’ve seen this phenomenon before in the form of “showmances.” For the non-thespian, that’s a portmanteau of “show” and “romance.” A showmance is doomed to be short-lived, because once the production closes, the star-crossed couple will be split apart by fate, or, more likely, rival productions of Godspell and You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. The rest of the cast regards the showmancers with distaste, because they’re making a naive, short-sighted commitment that creates, at best, a bubble around the two (at worst, upsetting displays of backstage PDA).
All this to say, trail couples receive a similar tight-lipped tolerance by the wider backpacking community. Who can blame a suspicious bystander? Some pairs last beyond the trail, but most do not. Some only exist for a matter of inebriated hours.
Having been on the receiving end of the scorn, I would like to add: knowing the response is logical doesn’t take the sting out. No matter how naive the lovers may be or seem, they’re almost certainly not falling for each other to annoy you. It’s almost certainly out of their control. And if any two fabulous trolls hike an entire long trail just to create the most annoying trail couple possible, can you even be mad at them? That’s amazing. Hike on, monsters.
After The Trail
For me, both relationships bled over into my regular life.
Amalia’s Post-Nobo Trailmance
After my first attempt ended, I and my new beau (who was relocating to my home city separate from me) continued seeing each other. Within a matter of weeks, the outside world brought to light some laughably obvious flaws that hadn’t been apparent in the mountains. Our political, social, and religious beliefs were staunchly at opposite ends of the spectrum. We had almost nothing in common, and the magical spark that had drawn us together in the mountains was notably absent.
Apparently, this is true of many trail couples. Real-world relationship staples are quite easy to overlook while trekking. This may be because thru-hikers are jacked up with endorphins, making potential problems seem awesome and conquerable and beautiful. Also not to be overlooked — the fact that trail talk largely revolves around the trail universe. Logistics, like daily mileage and breaks, as well as fantasies about town food, have a strong foothold on conversation. But there also seems to be some secret connection that pairs the most unlikely people. It’s explained in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as warring fairy tribes, leading one to believe even William Shakespeare himself was familiar with this baffling wilderness-coupling phenomenon.
I’m sure bad chemistry is avoidable on trail, but if it does happen to you, try not to get jaded. Remember that there were still worthwhile moments. Personally, I’m choosing not to let a miserably failed trail relationship negate the great memories I have from my first attempt.
Amalia’s Post-Sobo Trailmance (or is it?)
As my beloved comrades-in-arms and I touched down on Springer Mountain, a concern bubbled under the bittersweet summit euphoria. During the hike, I had made four new best friends, and one of them had become someone I didn’t want to leave behind. That concern led to the realization that a trail relationship can be a real relationship, too. The old-world style grandeur of long trail romance is not necessarily indicative of an immature relationship. Two years later, the concern is gone, and a sillier experience has replaced it.
Unlike the slight teasing we got from other thru-hikers, non-hikers are enchanted by our story. Somehow, when we tell it, it’s received like a fairy tale. Since it was slow and boring, this feels unmerited.
As others here have skillfully noted, relationships are easier on trail. There’s less to worry about, problems get resolved faster, and camaraderie is at an all-time high. It’s the real world that’s hard.
At it’s core, finding romance on the trail isn’t much stranger than finding friendship. There is a known mutual interest, and conversation is as easy as falling off a log (bah-dum-BUM). Perhaps trail couples experience a shared sense of purpose and wonder. Perhaps the novelty of the chance encounter factors in. Who knows? Maybe it really is forest spirits.
It’s pheromones. Take a shower.
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