Whether thruhiker, section hiker or day hiker, most of those who hike the Appalachian Trail try to practice the philosophy that we call "Hike your own hike". And most of us think we know what it means. But do we really?
I think we all understand that the basis of "Hike your own hike" is freedom - the freedom to walk your own walk and to do your own thing. But like a lot of things in life (politics, religion, philosophy, human relations, etc.) the complications come in the application to real life. "Hike your own hike" applies to people and their divergent perceptions, opinions and ideas - and people are never simple.
So -- what is "Hike your own hike"?
From my viewpoint there are at least three parts to it. The first part is that I walk my own trail and live my own life and take responsibility for my own actions. The second part is that I don't hike someone else's hike - or allow them to influence mine except by my choice. The third part is to allow others to hike their hike, their way - whether I agree with them or not, as long as what they're doing isn't interfering with my hike or damaging the AT or the Trail community.
That probably sounds a lot more complicated than some people think it ought to be, doesn't it? But, as I said, people are never simple. So -- while I wouldn't presume to define anyone else's hike, what follows is the way I see it -- and practice it.
What is YOUR hike?
When I was in "engineer school" I was taught that if I couldn't define something mathematically then I didn't really know what I was talking about. Likewise, if I can't specifically define my hike, then how will I know when or if I'm hiking my own hike? For me, "Hike your own hike" means knowing my own ground rules. It means writing my own contract and then living it. If you don't know what "your" hike is, how are you gonna know if you're hiking it? Or if you're not?
So what's this contract stuff? Before I left for Springer I made a contract with myself. It defined what I wanted out of the hike, how I'd hike, what I was willing to do and what I wouldn't do. In other words, the conditions and parameters that I used to define MY hike.
When you start your thruhike you'll have some things in mind that you want or expect or need out of it. There'll be some things that you'll want to do - and some that you won't want to do. All of us operate much the same way and yet no two people write exactly the same contract for themselves. The differences are in our divergent hopes and expectations.
It's a new concept to some of you so let me give you a few examples of what some of my friends had in their contracts. It might give you a better handle on just what a thruhike is - and what it isn't. For me, there are names and faces that go with each of these -
- Some of them are purists (they pass every white blaze), and some are blue blazers (they'll take blue-blazed side trails).
- One group made a game of taking every possible blue blaze - and then got caught by taking some impossible ones.
- Some will yellow blaze (hitchhike or roadwalk around sections).
- Some won't sleep under a roof (what kind - house? barn? shelter?)
- Some won't take a ride (car? wagon? horse? train? bicycle?)
- One refused to take baths and another refused to wash his hiking T-shirt (These are not popular options with other thruhikers !!)
- Some go as part of expeditions, some in relays. some solo, others go with partners.
- Some want the fastest hike and others want the slowest (One ran the Trail and one took over a year)
- Some want the earliest start or to be first to Katahdin (January starters - cold and lonely)
- One started in October (he said he likes steak & it keeps well in winter)
- One group made a ceremony of after dinner cigars (they camped away from the shelters - far away) One took his cat (the shelter mice didn't like that) Some took dogs (the cat didn't like that)
- Some hike for a cause, or as a memorial to a friend or relative.
- Some will stay only as long as they're enjoying the hike and some will quit only for death or dismemberment.
- Some wrote their contract on paper and signed it - others never even knew they had one.
- Some are out there to find themselves and others to test themselves.
- A few are out there to be found And a few are out there to find the ones who are out there to be found
- A few occasionally hike naked - or nearly so.
- Some want a 6 month hike, others may be time constrained to a 3, 4 or 5 month hike.
- Some explore all the side trails, others won't walk 100 feet off-Trail for a view.
- Some carry full packs all the way, others carry packs all the way (there is a difference)
- Most will slackpack (one group slacked all but 6 days between Waynesboro and Katahdin)
- Some flip-flop, some yoyo. Some do it piecemeal. Some come back year after year - after year......after year ....
- Some do 20 mile days, others hike the terrain.
- Some swear by hiking sticks and others swear at them. Some use one stick, some use two.
- Some carry teddy bears or Barbie dolls or feathers. Some carry radios, computers, cell phones or other electronic toys. Others carry coffeepots or hair dryers.
- Some carry a yellow rubber duckie through the Smokies.
- Some hike from dawn to dusk, others from noon to midnite.
- Some only stay in shelters and some won't stay in shelters
- Some stay at B&B's and call taxis to get them there.
- Some give up alcohol or smoking - and others spend their hike looking for beer.
- Some party from town to town and some go into town as seldom as possible.
Enuff - that doesn't even scratch the surface of the possibilities. There are an infinite number of variations that YOU can use to define YOUR hike. Which ones fit you? How good is your imagination?
Yeah - I can hear the screams - " I don't wanta be chained to some dumb agreement - that's not what I'm out here for!!" So -- who said you're chained to anything? You don't like the deal? Change it! That's your option too. It's YOUR contract, YOU define the conditions, YOU abide by them, YOU live with the results and YOU are the only one who can change them - anytime, any way YOU want. I changed mine in North Carolina, and then in Virginia and again in New York.
A lot of people don't even realize they have a contract until the first time they're tempted by an easy blue blaze or offered their first slackpack. Others set the ground rules before they leave. Most, but not all, change their contract along the way because they learn and grow and adapt.
It's about freedom - the freedom to walk your own trail, your way. But do you really know what "your way" is? If you don't know what "your hike" is, how are you gonna know if you're hiking it?
Walk your own walk
The second part of "Hike your own hike" is -- don't hike someone else's hike. I know -- you wouldn't do that.
But it happens every year to a lot of people who "wouldn't do that". Go read the thruhiker journals on Trailjournals.com - it happened this year, too.
How? Simple - you go into town with a group you really like, and when you're ready to leave, the group wants to stay another day. Do you leave or stay? The only legitimate question in this situation is - what do YOU want to do with YOUR hike?
Another situation - the group wants to do 20 mile days, and you're a 12 mile/day hiker. Do you go with them - or let them go? There's a long list of people who went with the group and got stronger as a result. There's an even longer list of people who went with the group and got shinsplints, blisters, tendonitis and stress fractures. Some people get away with it, some don't. Are you willing to gamble with your thruhike?
Or someone comes into a shelter after doing a 25 mile day. He's tired - and happy - and lets everyone know about it. And the next morning he says to you - "Come on, let's do another 25 today." Do you go with him - or do you hike your own hike?
It's not always an easy decision, but it's always YOUR choice. If you get into "groupthink" mode, whose hike are you hiking? If you want to go with a group that's not doing what you planned to do, that's cool - but think about the consequences first. If the group determines what you're doing, then it's not your hike anymore - it's theirs.
Another part of this is your attitude - if you're really gonna hike your own hike, you might have to adjust your attitude. Someone recently complained about the attitude of some thruhikers. He said:
"In actuality, the AT is one of the most competitive places I've ever seen. Everyone knows the pecking order at all times, and plenty of people remind them in many subtle ways. People cannot just leave others alone, but must remind others that they're purists, or hiked farther, or longer, or more 20 milers, more 30 milers, blah blah blah."
Yeah -- he was right -- and he was wrong.
He was right because most, if not all, thruhikers take pride in their first 20+ mile day - or in being purists - or in having spent a month or more on the Trail - or any number of other "accomplishments". And they might not be shy about letting others know about them. Or they just might not have the time or energy to think about your feelings. Or they might not care.
Yeah, I remember the looks on the faces of the college groups that we left in the dust in Maine - they really didn't like being passed by a woman and a greybeard. But we didn't have the time, energy or inclination to wait for them to get their act together either. Their attitude was that they should be faster than we were because they were younger, stronger, smarter, whatever. Our attitude was that "We have miles to go before we sleep - and we don't have time to wait for you".
So -- he was right.
And he was wrong -- because he assumed there was a personal put-down in the bragging (or in some cases, complaining) about those 20 or 25 - or 30 - mile days when there's rarely any such intent. Not that it doesn't happen - it does. But it's rare because most thruhikers don't have the time or energy to waste in putting someone else down - and the ones who do are generally not well liked by their fellow thruhikers either.
Who ever told you that all thruhikers are open, friendly, even-tempered, nice, humble, unassuming, etc.? They lied.
Nor are thruhikers likely to accept the idea of a "pecking order". There were plenty of thruhikers who could out-hike me on a daily basis, but none of them had any effect on MY hike because I wasn't out there to compete with them. I was out there to get to Katahdin - my way, in my own time, at my own speed. What others did or didn't do was their problem -- not mine.
If you want to hike your own hike - then suck it up and hike and stop worrying about what others are doing. If you feel put upon by the competitiveness on the AT then it's your own competitiveness that you're feeling and no one can deal with that but you. So deal with it - but don't blame others for it. That's one of the lessons the Trail teaches so well.
You do the things you want to do in life - if it's really your life. If you're not willing to pay the price, then it's not what you REALLY want to do, is it? How many thruhikers have run into tourists at Newfound Gap or in the Shenandoah or the Whites who said "I'd give ANYTHING to be able to do what you're doing"?
Right -- and pigs can sing too. If they REALLY wanted to thruhike, they'd be out there with you. But they're not, and for the most part they're not ever likely to be. But - be kind - leave them their illusions. It won't hurt you or them.
There are those who say "I want to do the Trail this year, but ..." It really doesn't matter what follows the "but", because those people are doing what they REALLY want to be doing. For example, some of them have small children - and doing the Trail this year is more of a price than they're willing to pay -- and that's precisely as it should be. Those people ARE "Hiking their own hike". It may not be on the Trail, but who ever said it had to be?
There are those who can't or won't hike until they've retired or until the kids are grown or they have enough money to do it comfortably. For those people, the fulfilment of those conditions are as much a part of their hike as the actual walking from Springer to Katahdin. It took me 36 years to take the first northbound steps of a thruhike. And that 36 years is just as much a part of my thruhike as the 6 months on the Trail.
"Hike your own hike" isn't just a Trail philosophy -- it's a LIFE philosophy.
Allow others the right to hike THEIR hike
Most thruhikers understand this - if not at first, then they learn quickly that interference in other people's hike is sometimes tolerated - but rarely appreciated. When Friar Tuck went through Gypsy's pack to help her lighten her load, it was interpreted by some people as interference in her hike and it generated a lot of heat. The same kind of heat occurs when someone criticizes blue-blazers, or slackpackers, or the kind of equipment someone's using, or their color or beliefs (political, religious or otherwise), or what they eat or wear, or the miles they walk (or run), or -- just about anything else. Even on the Trail a few people fail to learn that freedom is two-edged sword - it cuts both ways. If you want the freedom to do your own thing, then you have to allow others the freedom to do their thing - even when you don't like it or agree with it.
For example - one of the most heated, caustic and useless perennial arguments on the AT is the blue-blazing/white-blazing (purism) war. It happens every year and -- and it's utter nonsense because if you're that involved in how someone else is hiking their hike then you probably aren't hiking yours. Both sides have valid arguments and I can argue for or against both sides, but I'm just not interested. Whatever way you hike it - blue blazing, white blazing, running, walking, backpacking, slackpacking, crawling, whatever - if you walk (connect the footsteps) from Georgia to Maine (or vice versa) in one season, then you're a thruhiker. Personally, I draw the line at yellow blazing because then you're not walking it.
One of the lessons I learned on the AT was a greater tolerance for the way others live their lives - and that it wasn't my job to judge or classify or pigeonhole them. My purpose in life is to be the best that I can be - and where possible, to help others to grow and become what they're capable of becoming. That seems to happen to a lot of thruhikers - although not all of them. Five years after you've finished the AT it rarely, if ever, matters whether you did it as a purist or blue blazer or section hiker. That's an artificial and meaningless distinction.
Are there exceptions to allowing others their "freedom"? Absolutely. Why? Remember that qualifying phrase I used back there "as long as what they're doing isn't interfering with my hike or damaging the AT or the trail community"?
There are always a few "thruhikers" who think it's funny to write explicit, degrading sexual fantasies in the shelter registers. There are a few who think "freedom" means they can go into town and get drunk and rowdy and raise hell with the locals. There are a few who think they shouldn't have to pay their way at the hostels and campgrounds. And there are a few who don't like Jews or blacks or Hispanics - or Irish or Canadians or New Yorkers or Texans - or whatever. And they're generally loud and obnoxious about it. And none of the above are acceptable behavior because ALL of those actions and attitudes (among others) create bad feelings and ill will in both the thruhiker community and in the communities through which the AT passes. You maybe don't believe that? Go read some of the AT journal entries around Roan Mountain, or the "DMZ". Those people were out there - and they believe it.
Some years ago some thruhikers broke into Shea's Pine Tree Inn, stole some beer, got drunk and trashed a wedding cake. Shea's pavillion is closed to thruhikers now.
Then there was the "thruhiker" who got drunk and assaulted Levi Long. Levi was one of the best friends that thruhikers had in Virginia. He ran a free hostel, shuttled hikers, helped them when they were in trouble - but Levi's hostel is closed now.
In '88 there was a group that went through Maine - and thoroughly pissed off the owners of Pierce Pond Camp. Those people are still pissed off - and if you don't believe it, just ask them. How many thruhikers did that group negatively affect?
The bottom line -- is that what you do on the Trail will affect the generations of thruhikers who come after you. How many of US do you want to be pissed off at YOU?
The other side of this is - don't let others mind your business either. As long as you're not doing things that reflect negatively on the AT or the thruhiking community, the only one who has to be happy with your hike - is YOU. If someone else isn't happy about what you're doing - it's their problem. Allow them the freedom to have their problem - as long as it doesn't interfere with your hike. Remember that you'll get what you give, so allow them to hike their hike their way. As the words to an old country song go - "If you're mindin' your own business, then you won't be mindin' mine."
There are some who will disagree with my view of "Hike your own hike". That's their privilege. What does "Hike your own hike" mean to you?