The Art of Yogi: It’s Not Begging
Hanna-Barbera’s iconic cartoon character Yogi Bear lends his name to the verb “to yogi,” which is not an exact synonym for begging. Like Yogi Bear, long distance hikers develop a prodigious appetite as the body’s metabolism becomes highly efficient as the result of daily strenuous ambulatory exercise. Hikers really do get hungry as bears. Long distance hikers also grow smelly, skinny and visually conspicuous in relation to normal human beings. There are kind souls who, like the septuagenarian feeding squirrels in the city park, will feed hikers. Hikers, like wild animals, adapt themselves to food sources. The wonderful people who perform trail magic like hiker feeds will draw hikers for many miles. To yogi, however, one essentially attracts spontaneous trail magic.
Trail Magic may be thought of as any anything acquired via the kindness of strangers rather than carried in a hiker’s pack or acquired through a hiker’s planning. Calling a shuttle service to get off trail for resupply is not trail magic. Walking into town and a driver spontaneously stops to offer a free ride, a free supper and a free place to pitch a tent: that’s trail magic. These sort of interactions have been so common along the Appalachian Trail, seasoned hikers begin to anticipate the kindness of strangers. This is precisely the point at which the art of Yogi begins, as do serious considerations of ethics.
Successful begging and panhandling require some of the same social relations as the art of Yogi. The beggar and panhandler, as well as the yogi, require a person possessed of the qualities of empathy or sympathy, and if these be in short supply, there is always pity. The yogi, like the beggar or panhandler, receives a favor from a stranger. However, to yogi rather than beg, one must not directly solicit aid. The yogi hiker must be like the confident, independent beauty standing at the bar– sooner or later someone will offer to buy the beauty a drink. The yogi hiker has confidence and independence, but not often beauty. Someone will come along because the hiker looks half starved.
So confident passivity is the posture of the yogi. Extending the analogy of the beauty standing at the bar, it is possible to drop hints to a kind stranger. The stranger approaches, cocktail in hand, and the beauty says, “Wow, is that bourbon?” The stranger replies, “Knob Creek bourbon. May I buy you one?” The hungry hiker can yogi a chunk of Snickers bar from another hiker by dropping a hint like, “Wow, is that a Snickers bar?” Next thing the Yogi knows, the other hiker is breaking him off some sweet, sweet peanut, caramel and chocolate candy! It’s just that simple and easy. Long distance hikers are often amazed by how hunger drives them to yogi food; how rain drives them to yogi a free tent space. Yet there remains ethical considerations to this behavior.
Myself, I am tolerant of beggars. With both urban and rural poverty in close proximity to the Appalachian Trail, it is quite common for the homeless to take to the trail. Many of these people, if adequately equipped and skilled, simply blend into the hiker community. A homeless person living on a pittance from Social Security or an unemployment check or a severance check can live better along the Appalachian Trail than in a city. Some of these homeless persons are better resourced and/or skilled than others. A person with a high back country skill set, a sleeping bag and boots, a little bit of money and a willingness to eat the out-of-date food often found in hiker boxes, can live well enough as hiker trash and shed the social stigma of being “a homeless person.” The Appalachian Trail was envisioned, in part, as a social safety valve, a refuge for the urban industrial masses.
But a few come unprepared. And it is not okay for anyone to be begging for food or money or other resources to continue occupying the trail. A person with zero resources along the trail is a liability to their own life and will likely cost rescuers or body recovery crews already meager resources. The well resourced hiker with a home somewhere, or at least a parents’ proverbial basement to crash post-trail, is still someone on a budget. Finding a cache of good surplus food in a hiker box in consecutive trail towns is not uncommon. I have personally supplied myself for entire weeks out of hiker boxes. Such windfalls can help the bottom line of a long hike, but my point is that one should never count on them. Always come to the trail prepared.
A true beggar is too desperate to yogi. The art of Yogi requires patient indifference. It is not an art born of necessity but the desire of the hungry trickster. The yogi already has food in his or her pack, just not a snickers bar. The day hikers who camped and talked overnight with the Yogi have a car parked near the trail head and are heading home through the town the Yogi has a resupply. The Yogi can walk in or hitch hike, and if worse comes to worse, has cash to pay a shuttle. The Yogi says to the friendly day hikers, “Wow, you’re going to Snickersville too? I’m calling a shuttle when I get down to the road. Cell service has been better lately.” The day hikers interject, “Oh don’t call a shuttle! Save your money. We’ll give you a ride. You don’t smell that bad.”
Expecting something in return for nothing is ethically problematic for many reasons I hope the reader understands without explanation. Though I am someone who feels that an employer owes an employee a fair wage, that society has an obligation to the indigent, in a strictly biological sense, the world does not owe you or me or anyone a living. Experiencing the American long trails (I can only speak from experience about the Appalachian Trail) requires a strong measure of what some still call rugged individualism. However, I think it is important to note that the mythology of the American rugged individual seems to draw, in part, from trickster figures like Br’er Rabbit or Coyote, and even Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Jim. There must be some way out of here, said the Joker to the Thief. In this Dylanesque sense, “to live outside the law you must be honest.”
The true Yogi is motivated by the trick more than the treat, though who can turn down a snickers bar after a long walk? The pleasure of a well played yogi comes in realizing that the yogied party is unaware that it has been yogied. In 2011, I entered Great Smoky Mountains National Park heading northbound on the Appalachian Trail. I was worried if the resupply box I’d picked up at Fontana Dam Post Office would get me to Hot Springs, a hundred or so miles away. It was March so there was snow and cold, but also, many spring break hikers and other weekenders. I ran into several weekend backpacking groups and all of them offered me their surplus food– many expensive backpacker meals I would never buy myself. Through initially unconscious, but eventually intentional yogiing, I ended up leaving the Smokies with more food than I entered with. Of course, I had to carry all of that food, and fixing two suppers each night strained my stove fuel supply. But I also got to eat that food, and all those weekenders didn’t have to carry their oversupply. Or leave it behind as trash.
I leave the reader with the following guidelines. To yogi well means not undermining Leave No Trace Ethics (google it) and if possible, enhancing them. Every yogied morsel that ends up in your dwindling hiker trash body rather than as garbage in a shelter to spoil the diet of a bear is a good deed digested. Conversely, if your Yogi tricks are so awkward and forced as to be annoying to others, you are out of bounds. You have an ethical obligation to not disturb any other party’s trip. If you have never traveled further than fifty miles on foot out of a backpack but are planning a long hike, remember what you have read here today when the great and wonderful hiker hunger possesses your metabolically ravenous body. And remember that the Raven is a trickster too.
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I think of yogi’ing as an agreement like a traveling story teller. Most times a simple yogi request will lead to meeting new friends and sharing your stories of the Appalachian trail.
An old hiker explained it this way, “you are out here and you will get sick of everyone asking you about your hike, but take a minute tell your story because that person probably will never hike the AT and is living your adventure through you.”