Thru-Hiking in the Age of Trump

One of the nice parts about thru-hiking is that it’s incredibly easy to make friends. Everyone’s sharing such a wonderful experience, one that almost has to be talked about, shared, commiserated over. And behind the mask that comes with your trail name, you can be just about anybody. The blessing–and the curse–is that everyone else can, too.

On my thru-hike of the PCT, I met people who ran the gamut of political persuasions, from anarchists to socialists to Donald Trump voters. That was more surprising to me than it should’ve been; the wooded and hillocked places of this country have always boasted their fair share of small government conservatives. Still, my preconception of the trail was a sort of loose and roving hippie commune, where people were people and love ruled the day. (This honestly wasn’t far off the mark, save for a few towns along the way, where “Don’t Tread on Me” flags flew with pride.)

I tried not to talk politics a whole lot on trail, a real first for me. Sometimes you get along better with people the less you know about them. And after all, so many of us had broken bread together along this crazy ride–that’s its own kind of special ritual, one that brings people closer to each other, and I had no desire to spoil that little bubble of kindness.

But a few weeks after the end of thru-hiking season, the presidential election happened, and with it went many of those kind thoughts. PCT hikers are nothing if not a prolific bunch on Facebook, and despite my best efforts I found out a whole lot about the views of some other hikers that I’d’ve been better off never knowing. Two months removed from the end of my thru-hike, a wave of sadness crushed me. How could a handful of such nice people could so actively trumpet ideas that do little but inspire hatred and violence? How could they have gone all 2,650 miles of trail, meeting people of all stripes along the way, and still cling to views so antithetical to my own?

morainelake

So what?

This is our political reality now, and I suspect that in the years to come more and more thru-hikers will find themselves encountering others whose worldview is not just different from theirs, but totally incompatible with their own sense of humanity, of being. For me–a straight white guy with a beard, the ultimate thru-hiking stereotype–it is relatively easy to work around this. Disagreements or not, I am unlikely to be the victim of hate speech, violence, or other discrimination on trail or in the towns along the PCT. The extent to which someone like me can suffer from such bigotry is largely abstract.

But for many thru-hikers who don’t look or love or experience the world like me, the problems of our shared future are very real and very concrete. To my admittedly privileged perspective, three major questions come to mind:

  1. How can thru-hikers protect one another from hatred, bigotry, and violence on trail and in towns?
  2. How can we protect the trails themselves in the face of a government that wants to dismantle environmental oversight and regulation?
  3. How can those of us with the resources to fight back justify taking 5 or 6 months away from the world?

I don’t have all the answers; I suspect no one does. But here’s where I think we can start–particularly the many of us who benefit from various flavors of privilege.

Directly confront acts of ignorance, hatred, or discrimination.

On the “Sounds of the Trail” podcast this summer, an Asian-American hiker named Double Sprainbow shared her experience of being harassed in Independence, CA. She absolutely unloaded on the man who was targeting her; like any cockroach, he scuttled away from the light. Her actions were insanely courageous and inspiring. But expecting victims of oppression and intolerance to always be the drivers of their own liberation doubles their load while lightening your own. Get out of your comfort zone. Put some skin in the game, emotionally and literally. If you hear or see something unacceptable, step in.

Of course, this kind of action can only be reactive, not proactive, so thru-hikers also need to find some way to directly address these issues before they arise. That process will surely involve some uncomfortable self-reflection. It will involve being told things that you aren’t necessarily ready to hear. Mistakes will be made. But your discomfort as a privileged person must take a backseat to the legitimate concerns of others if we’re to make any kind of progress.

Don’t underestimate the power of your voice–or your wallet.

We live in a representative democracy, and as such, our elected officials are tasked with, you know, representing us. The Triple Crown thru-hiking trails pass through a total of 22 states, represented by 44 senators and 216 members of Congress. If you are a constituent of these representatives, it is your right to call their office and ask–to demand–that they take action to preserve the environment by whatever means available to them. Tell them to fight for the National Parks. Tell them to fight for the the EPA as a strong and functional government agency, rather than one that will kowtow to special interests. Tell them to block appointments of government officials who have a history of taking money from industries who want to demolish environmental oversight. Tell them…okay, you get the picture.

You can also put your own money to good use. The Pacific Crest Trail Association, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy can’t function without financial support. Without them, our trail system goes to hell, and with it this beautiful culture that they’ve helped to cultivate. Talk is cheap: pay them.

Do what you have to do to give yourself the strength to fight.

For me, this meant abandoning my job, my friends, and my partner to go on this beautiful and transcendent quest. Admittedly, all signs pointed to a Democratic presidential victory during my hike, so my political concerns had far less urgency about them than they do now. And it was blissful knowing that I was avoiding a good chunk of the vitriol that surrounded the election because I’d disappeared into the woods.

In the next few years, thru-hikers of strong conscience may find themselves presented with a more difficult choice than the one I faced. Thru-hiking is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor, and it’s mentally and physically exhausting. Between now and 2020, some would-be thru-hikers might decide that their energy, money, and time are better spent fighting to create a future that they want to live in rather than eschewing that fight to appreciate the real beauty that the present has to offer.

Both choices are valid; both choices are admirable. I think disappearing for 5 months really did give me the mental energy and the discipline to throw myself into grassroots political organizing, a world I’m newly entering. And for people who do face the consequences of oppression, disappearing into a community of loving and wonderful people on the trail might well be the most appealing option for self-care available. Do what works for you. And know that others are fighting in the ways they know best, too.

Fight fascism. It’s what Woody Guthrie would have wanted.

Woody Guthrie, no lover of fascists Woody Guthrie, no lover of fascists. (Wikipedia)

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Comments 44

  • Steve : Dec 31st

    Thru hiking in the age of Trump: exactly the same as it was last year, the year before that, etc.

    Reply
    • Ed : Dec 31st

      I’ll be glad when the hysteria from Trump’s nomination finally ends.

      “How could they…still cling to views so antithetical to my own?” Yep, lets keep pointing fingers at all those “bigots,” glass houses and such.

      Reply
      • Mark Stanavage : Dec 31st

        Amen Ed. Some of the most inflexible intolerant people of other people’s views are usually the same ones who claim they themselves are the very spirit of Universal Love and Tolerance. Kind of like Al Gore globetrotting in his jet to preach about carbon footprints.

        Reply
        • Hiker box : Dec 31st

          Tolerance for racism and bigotry is not tolerance, it’s complacency.

          Reply
          • Max : Jan 1st

            Could you cite some racism and bigotry?

            Reply
    • dwcoyote : Jan 2nd

      Exactly what I was thinking. Not sure the point of this article and what being a Trump supporter has to do with anything. Almost every act of violence attributed to Trump supporters lately has turned out to be a hoax. And in all honesty, the left has been way more full of hateful actions and rhetoric lately.

      Reply
    • T G Miller : Jan 6th

      Dead on Steve.. This article is senseless–especially in this forum…All these poor lost political souls–my advice-.” go sit under a tree until your whining passes and when your brain is clear–come on back and lets hit the trail together”..

      Reply
    • Steve : Jan 22nd

      Certainly true if you’re a white man who isn’t a DACA recipient.

      Reply
  • John Walker aka Swagman : Dec 31st

    Not to worry Stoic, the trails have survived all these years regardless of who occupies the front office. I think all of us on both sides can take a giant bong hit and just enjoy the hike without throwing gasoline on the campfire after dinner. Looking forward to a cancer free 2017 hiking season. Be well dude and most excellent to a complete stranger! Swagman

    Reply
  • Bill : Dec 31st

    Try supporting intellectual diversity and most of your fears will evaporate

    Reply
    • John : Jan 2nd

      Bill’s reply is perfect.

      Reply
  • David Stasiak : Dec 31st

    I always heard no politics on trail. Just don’t do it. Most people are out there to get away from stuff like this

    Reply
    • Steve : Jan 22nd

      Impossible. The trail itself is the product of political battles. Every step you take was fought for and many of them are currently being fought over.

      Reply
  • Brantley : Dec 31st

    This post is ridiculous

    Reply
    • Max : Jan 1st

      +1
      We don’t want to hear passive aggressive rants. Editors: take note

      Reply
      • Christian : Jan 2nd

        Absolutely.

        I, and I imagine I’m not alone, visit this site among others to escape the partisan drivel that’s plagued the US over the last year. Better for one to stay in their echo chamber(looking at you Chuck) and not drive away clicks than to push traffic to competing sites.

        Reply
    • dwcoyote : Jan 2nd

      Yep. Please don’t let this site turn into a Trump supporter bashing (or bashing any group) site. I am always amazed at people who speak out about stereotyping people or groups then do the same thing with Trump supporters. Hypocrisy?

      Reply
  • George : Dec 31st

    I was a day short of Neal’s Gap on Election Day. I woke up feeling like it was the end of the world and almost quit. I’ve been thinking of writing a blog post about what the Republican platform says about the environment and the national parks. Truth is half the people we’re going to feel like it was the end of the world no matter who won. We all deserved a better outcome

    Reply
    • Max : Jan 1st

      Why would you think it’s the “end of the world?” That doesn’t sound like a healthy way to look at life mate

      Reply
      • Steve : Jan 22nd

        Try being one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans relying on DACA,

        Reply
    • mtman100 : Jan 12th

      Speak for yourself George. Your feelings and beliefs yours and I feel the opposite of you and think this article is ridiculous in its bias.

      Reply
  • Vern : Dec 31st

    Surprising article, regardless of its accuracy or not. I’m hiking.

    Reply
  • Lynn Miller : Jan 1st

    The writer sounds like another crybaby loser who believes the outdoors is only for tofu eating, left leaning loons like himself. Spare me the white privilege references. Take your guilt somewhere else. I continue to be proud of my “whiteness”.

    Reply
    • Gina Fuller : Jan 1st

      Lynn, I’m sure you are proud of your whiteness. And the fact (FACT, as in proven) that your whiteness has not gotten your bag searched “randomly” while shopping, your application passed over because your name sounds “too ethnic,” or your car pulled over 49 times in 13 years (Philando Castile) – be proud of the fact that these privileges are yours through luck and luck alone. You were born white, not right.

      Reply
      • Max : Jan 1st

        BS. Spare us the tears and false accusations. No one cares that you don’t have the life you want so in your weakness you pass blaim on to others to make yourself feel better. You are guilty of racism by judging someone’s life struggles based on the amount of pigment in their skin. Sad

        Reply
  • Leah : Jan 1st

    Thank you for writing this. I am aspiring to be braver with my topic choices and I really wanted to discuss privilege as well. I almost backed out of my thru hike after the election results but was reminded that I would have 4 years to fight for what I believe in and maybe only one chance at a thru hike. I also am opting to raise money for a cause I believe in that I feel will be threatened under the new administration, that way I am being more useful to my values. I don’t want to engage in any angry political exchanges, everyone is free to believe whatever they want. This topic has been on my mind and I appreciate you stepping up and addressing it. Best.

    Reply
    • Chuck McKeever : Jan 6th

      Leah,

      Thanks for your kind and thoughtful reply. Knowing beforehand that an article like this was going to generate some backlash didn’t make any of it easier to read, so I appreciate the support.

      Stoic

      Reply
  • Haiku : Jan 3rd

    Hey,

    I really enjoyed your article. One of the reasons I chose to hike (the AT) last year was to get back in touch with American culture again. During most of my adult life I have been in cities (grew up in the woods) and if you can categorize it, doing leftish type careers in a leftish type lifestyle. I spent a year abroad right before doing the trail. I wanted to see if I really wanted to live in the US or not. While I’m still not sure the answer to that question (one of the reasons I’m working on a cruise ship right now), my faith was restored in the kindness and openness of individuals, in specific situations, in the US. Kind of bizarre how I could see someone make some sort of biased comment, but the actions spoke otherwise. You’d think it’d be the other way around, if anything.

    There are a LOT of problems I have with the politics in the US right now but I guess I saw if I focused on just the people around me, real local-level, I could be “in this world but not of it”.

    Anyway that was one of the best things I got out of my thru. I hope that things like diversity and tolerance and providing a clean environment for the next generation will continue to be an important part of government in the future. Like you, I’m definitely worried about what’s in store. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    • Chuck McKeever : Jan 6th

      Thanks Haiku! Glad to find kindred spirits out here in this world of internet commenting.

      Stoic

      Reply
  • Ruby Throat : Jan 8th

    I’ll raise my hand as another kindred spirit, Chuck.

    I’m sad to see this trolling you’re getting for this post (on a topic that the rest of us haven’t been brave enough to speak out about). Sad because the people trolling you broke bread with you, too. They shared stories and camaraderie and I bet they even had their suspicions about your leftist ways (Seattle is a dead giveaway!), and I bet they enjoyed your company just the same.

    What a missed opportunity to listen to and try to understand each other. To have a conversation free from the name-calling and prejudice (and anonymous internet trolling) that blinds us to the fact that, ultimately, we’re all in this together.

    I’m fucking freaked out about Trump and scared for the future of our country, indeed, our one precious planet. I’m hoping my thru-hike will illuminate what’s most important, allow me to let go of some fears around security and stuff, and leave me enamored of a simpler life where I can work less for money and more for the things that matter.

    Reply
    • Leah : Jan 10th

      Ruby, I hope we meet on the trail. Love your attitude. Although I want to let go of my anger, I also want to channel it for good in the face of this scary, new chapter. Trying to figure out the logistics of what that looks like.

      Reply
  • Jenny Bruso : Jan 22nd

    I’m really excited about this article! Thank you for writing it. I’m really bummed that so many of these comments are so terrible. I need to get over the shock and surprise I feel when people in the hiking “community” (I need to come up with a better descriptor because this is proof that word does not work) turn out to be so closed minded. Obviously, they represent the real world because we all come to nature for various reasons, so their comments should, too. I guess I just expect so much more compassion, kindness and real concern about injustice. Hiking and nature elevate me so much! The outdoors makes me want to be a better person and serve the highest good.

    Reply
  • Britton Boyd : Jan 22nd

    Just want to chime in and say that I loved this, Chuck. It’s very well timed for us future ’17ers who are thinking about these things and unsure of what to do. It’s sad to see the blind rage and hate cropping up in the comments. This was a brave thing to write and thank you for doing so!

    Reply
    • Steve : Jan 22nd

      Agreed. Don’t let a few anonymous haters give you the perception that their views are widespread. On the day Trump took office his approval rating was 32%. For comparison, Paul Blart: Mall Cop is rated 33% on Rotten Tomatoes.

      Reply
  • Emily : Jan 22nd

    This is a great article! Thank you. We need more of this in the thru-hiking community, the comments here just prove that.

    Reply
  • KC : Jan 22nd

    Wow! I’m surprised by all this: first Chuck’s article was a bit of a downer and then the comments just got mean. I’ve never read anything political in the hiking community; lucky or I haven’t read enough, but I assumed the reason was as David Stasiac mentioned.
    Chuck, I appreciate your thoughts about supporting our parks, as we should if we’re going to use them, but I am hoping that you are wrong about your assessment of behavior and attitudes on the trails. Who’s running the country vasilates every 2-4 years and there’s always unhappy people. We have more in common than not and I hope that’s the prevailing feeling when I’m on the AT.
    Congratulations on your hike – it’s a great role model for your students 🙂
    ~K

    Reply
  • Adam : Jan 23rd

    If you were to remove the name Trump from this article, I think most people would agree with it. Bigotry, Racism, Prejudice , and hate have always existed in our country. While people debate the reasons that these are on the rise, the fact remains that they are. I think most of the people in this forum wouldn’t tolerate that kind behavior against fellow hikers. Most of us have a deep and profound respect for each other. That’s the thing about thru hikers. You become family. Families respect each other regardless of political opinions. At least most do. I understand why you used the phrase “in the Trump era,” but also understand why it angers and upsets some. Not every Trump supporter subscribes to those ideals and many don’t believe it to be the case with Trump. While I didn’t vote for him, I can see how this post pisses a LOT of people off. At the same time, I look at what could be in store for National parks and trails, and I’m worried. So in all, I enjoyed this article but can completely understand the anger in the posts above. 🙂

    Reply
  • Chris C : Jan 29th

    Thank you

    Reply
  • Zucchini : Jan 30th

    Thank you for writing, Stoic. As much as the thru hiking world has come to feel like home, it can be so difficult on trail to realize that the views of many of the hikers so contrast with my own. As a solo female hiker, I have felt the effects of condescension and disregard exhibited by people in many realms of sport against women, and know that it must be much harder to be a person of color, or queer, or trans. It is comforting to remember that there are people out there fighting for and believing in the human rights that not everyone has access to. I am happy to see the National Parks Service resisting Trump’s ignorant, oppressive orders, and to read articles affirming the validity of our resistance from members of the thru hiking community.

    Happy trails,

    Zucchini

    Reply
    • Zucchini : Jan 30th

      Also, call your representatives! Yes! Do it!

      Reply
  • Laurie : Jan 30th

    The Trek is supposed to be about HIKING

    Reply
  • Laughing Fox : Jan 31st

    This site is about gathering knowledge and preparing for a great adventure, a sacred journey we are all in TOGETHER. Posting a garbage partisan rant leaning EITHER WAY, is sacrilegious on this site and truly offends me.

    Reply
  • Bard : Mar 15th

    Cheers, Stoic. I had a moral dilemma about leaving for the CDT last June. Like many hikers, I’m basically the epitome of heteronormativity and privilege, and felt guilty about pulling back from working toward a just and livable future. There are ways to leverage privilege with a thru hike, and I like your take that the journey is a valid way of recharging and refocusing. I expect you aren’t, but don’t let the negative comments affect you – they’re purely reactionary. People read a negative modifier next to the name “Trump” and go into rage mode. This is the same person who says, “you’re an environmentalist? but your cell phone is made of petroleum byproducts! hypocrite!” I can’t see why anyone, regardless of political affiliation, would be against the advice you prescribe: work to protect fellow hikers, work to protect our wildernesses and the trails themselves, donate money to the organizations that maintain the trails.

    Reply

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