Why Are People Scared of Hikers?
As I stood in line at a store checkout in Lincoln, New Hampshire, I caught from the side of my eye a woman staring at me. I looked at her and she was giving me an ugly look as she scanned me up and down. Not surprising really, with my beard, unkempt hair, dirty hiker clothes, and no doubt a bad smell. But what struck me more than anything was her look of disgust – the total distaste that I was in “her” store and the feeling that her obvious desire was that I leave.
I paid for my few food items which consisted of typical hiker fare: Ramen, a few candy bars, peanut butter, Nutella and some tuna pouches. As I walked out, I turned to see the woman talking to the cashier and clearly aiming her comments at me as she motioned her head in my direction. The cashier looked embarrassed as I watched but the woman continued to give me the same look of distaste.
This one incident probably gave me more feelings of anger and frustration than any other on the trail. More than the time I woke with mice in my tent having eaten through the brand new Cuban beauty I had purchased; more than brushing my teeth with Lamisil anti-itch cream instead of toothpaste; more than the pain I felt in my knee when it exploded like a soccer ball. What got me so angry was the realization she was judging me. Judging me without knowing a thing about me. Judging me based on my appearance. Judging me instead of knowing a single thing about me.
I won’t go into any details, but my life has been an adventure. I have been gifted with a talent that has saved many lives and I have served my country and am proud of what I have achieved. Yet, I was being judged on my appearance, which was, in fact, a result of hiking along the Appalachian Trail for several months with my son while raising funds for Wounded Warriors. But that didn’t matter. In her eyes, I was less than perfect and shouldn’t even be in a public store.
What frustrates me more than anything is how homeless people are treated with the same distaste and judgment. The opinion that they shouldn’t eat in the fast food restaurant, go into a store and buy a beer, or sit in the park with other people to while away the days……but doesn’t that sound like a hiker? Isn’t it fair to say we, as long distance hikers, are a group of homeless people? The main difference is that we had a choice; we chose to live the lifestyle and, in the majority of cases, can choose to stop it anytime we want. We can return to a comfortable home and, in a lot of cases, we have the opportunity to work and have a source of regular meals.
So why is this relevant to a trail experience? Those that have hiked the trail know the changes we go through (especially post trail) are strong. We change as people. I certainly did. In fact, I know I did! I am very much more sympathetic to people not as advantaged as I. I get very frustrated with inconsiderate people to the point I will verbally intervene when someone is acting unfairly. I have a strong desire to do charity work and give back much more now. And I believe more than anything that my experience in that Lincoln store had more effect than any other. I have given homeless people rides – something I would not have done pre-trail. I take them meals when I see them, I have given them money, and I’ve just said hello at times when I had nothing else to offer. I get very upset when I see a homeless person and the way we treat the homeless frustrates me. What the trail did was teach me a level of compassion I didn’t know before and I actually like the new me.
Now, the acts of kindness have not always gone the way I imagined. On one occasion, I was driving to work and I see a guy stood outside a gas station. He was eating a pot noodle for breakfast, which he must have bought in the gas station and cooked in their microwave. His clothes were torn and dirty and he had an old holdall bag by his side. His hair was unkempt and he had a stubbly beard. Looking at him, I felt I wanted to help so I went over and I offered him some money. He looked at me puzzled and didn’t take it and I told him he was welcome to it. It was at that point he told me “I am not homeless man, I am waiting on my ride to work!”
Why is it we will cross the road when we see a homeless person? Or walk around the park instead of through it? Or never go to the arches where the homeless live? Why is it that some people look at hikers the same way and feel they are to be weary of?
Firstly, they cannot understand them, and not being able to understand someone must be scary. After all, society expects us to conform; to get a nice job, marry, have kids, buy a house and two cars, and retire. Hikers don’t fit that model. They give up everything to spend months in the woods, they don’t work, and they don’t settle into a mundane lifestyle; they hike! I wrote in a previous blog about a coworker that flipped out when I told him I was leaving work to hike the Appalachian Trail. He could not understand why anyone would not want to work and fit into the “normal” expectations of society. Some people question why hikers are even on the trail, thinking that we must be running from the law. Movies stereotype that people who live in the woods are scary and more likely to attack you. Of course we know that we are just ordinary people who decided to hike a trail.
We tried hitching a ride a few times and we often found we were not successful. But thinking about it, I can understand. My son is over 6ft and built with a beard and hiker clothes he looked intimidating. Then there is me, stood next to him, a 5’ 8” grey-bearded old guy…..no wonder people thought we was a risk to pick up! In the end, we realized the best way to get a ride was to find a female hiker and stand by her when we hitched.
Hikers are usually dirty and wearing stained, sometimes even torn, clothing. People do not generally like to be around dirty, and especially smelly, people. A friend collected us after a month on the trail so we could spend a zero day with friends in a cabin near the Smokies. We thought we were pretty presentable; however, she informed me we smelled so bad she was trying not to gag. This was pretty bad, seeing as how we had taken a shower three days before!
There is also a worry that a hiker may rob you and try to take your belongings. Because hikers don’t have much, it’s easy to assume they want to steal material things. Little does the public know that, as a hiker, you want to shed weight; the desire to own and carry materials items, especially those that don’t have multiple uses, are very low indeed. This is not to say that there have not been incidents of theft on the trail, just as there are incidents of theft off the trail. But as a rule, hikers are trustworthy; after all, we will drop our backpacks on the trail and run into the woods when Mother Nature calls and expect it our belongings to be there when we get back.
Being looked upon like I wasn’t fit to be in the store in Lincoln taught me a very important lesson. One I am grateful for and another positive trait of hiking the Appalachian Trail.
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