The Thruhiking Papers

Love and Lust on the Trail

This is a "special" for those who are going to thruhike with their wives, girlfriends, SO's, etc. It was written by Dan White and published in the San Jose Mercury-News in 1996 after his PCT hike. A friend sent it to me in 1996 and it's been buried in my files because I wouldn't publish it without prior permission from the author. But I recently managed to contact Dan after reading his book about his PCT hike, The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind-and Almost Found Myself-on the Pacific Crest Trail (P.S.). So now the story can be told.

As I said - I didn't write this. But it's an interesting story and contains lot of good advice. And the point has nothing to do with which trail they were hiking - it's about human relations and some of the hard realities of hiking with a partner. It applies on ANY trail. So... on with our story.....

Friar Tuck Friar Tuck

Lovers on the Trail Shoulder a Heavy Load

Venture Section, Nov 21, 1996
San Jose Mercury-News

When Melissa suggested we hike a major trail together, I thought of great dinners, fresh air and endless lust in the woods. I imagined Christopher Atkins and Brooke Shields, eating guavas and shacking up with abandon in "The Blue Lagoon".

Well, it didn't happen that way.

All those great dinners turned out to be macaroni and cheese. I tried to spike them with oysters, but Melissa thought bivalves were "gnarly". As for passion, it was there, but it was frequently tempered by the fact that a huge root or rock was jamming up into the tent, it was too hot or cold outside, and we both smelled like livestock.

Who ever would have thought this could happen? Melissa used to exist on some higher plane. I used to stutter in her presence and break into sweat. Before we dated, I'd jog on the highway leading to her workplace, hoping she'd drive past and think it was a big coincidence.

Now she leaned under a Joshua tree and scowled. Sweat made paisley curliques down the dirt all over her legs. She was still sexy in a scruffy, Haight-Ashbury sort of way. But we were grouches now. She was hiking too slowly. I lost her favorite compass. I wanted to kiss her but she said I smelled like a rhinoceros.

Before we left on the trip, our relationship met all my ideals of hedonism and abandon, lost weekends spent downing magnums of volpolicella and snarfing calzones. Now Melissa and I were on opposite sides of a trough designed for longhorn, she blackening the water with her filthy feet, while I filtered the same water for our drinking supply.

Welcome to love and lust on the Pacific Crest Trail.

If you do it right, hiking a major trail can turn a platonic relationship into animalistic love, turn a romantic relationship into something even deeper, and cement bonds that will last forever.

The problem is we did it wrong. We didn't discuss the differences in our hiking styles and pace before we left. We didn't make sure we were spiritually and philosophically compatible, that we were doing the same style of trip. We didn't even take into consideration the things that might dampen our ardor for each other, such as dust, no-see-um bugs, sweat, bear attacks and exhaustion.

In other words, we blew it. The following are words of advice, warnings and cautionary tales.

One side of the story

This was supposed to be a kind of a his-and-hers column, with Melissa giving her side of the story, too. I phoned her two weeks ago and pitched the idea to her answering machine. I was stunned when she didn't call back, until the creeping realization came: By sheer coincidence, I'd called on her 29th birthday, and on the two-year anniversary of our operatic break-up. Unwittingly, I'd validated her idea of my trail personna, "insensitive, forgetful and fascist."

So here's my half of the advice, based on things I did wrong, and a few I did right:

All hiking partners must face up to physical differences and pace variations. Don't do what I did, which was to view the trail as a test drive for your romantic partner's back, shoulders and legs. Don't end up with the idea that you'll be hiking 25 miles a day when your partner only wants to do 10. Negotiate and compromise. Otherwise, you'll end up like me, calling out cadences and barking orders to the woman you used to call "sweetheart." She'll start barking things back, such as "control freak."

On a related note, don't stick to a sacred schedule. Nature will screw it up time and time again. Personal responsibilities or injuries may force you off the trail. Allow yourself to bend with the changes or you'll end up taking it out on each other.

And one more word on timetables: Donít start off at a frenzied "let's conquer the world" pace. Ease into your walk the way you'd ease into a freezing cold swimming pool - slowly, toe by toe.

Divide your pack weight solely on how much you both can carry comfortably.

Give your partner some slack in the personal hygiene department, but still make some effort to spruce yourself up after a hiking day. Michele Morris, in Backpacker magazine, recommends packing baby wipes and premoistened towelettes because "who wants to snuggle with someone who's covered with four days sweat, suntan lotion and bug spray?"

Don't buy sleeping bags that don't "mate' or zip together. The straitjacket of love has ruined many budding trail relationships.

Lighten the mood in any way you can. Melissa and I did this with terms of endearment. I called her "ratface" and she called me "Fish Body."

To ease the effort and boredom of long uphill hikes, make up stories that are so funny, scary or gory that you forget the climb. Melissa invented this technique and her stories really gave me sustenance, until she started making unspeakable things happen to all the male characters. Take turns being the storyteller and the polite listener. Reserve questions or comments until after the presentation.

Surprise each other with little treats. We heard of couples who brought Knorr Swiss dried chocolate mousse in plastic baggies, with non-fat dried milk and just a touch of espresso powder -- almost unbearably delicious. For a guaranteed night of sleepless romance, deliberately overspike one of those bags with dried coffee and leave it unlabeled, a variation hikers call "chocolate mousse Russian roulette."

Calling it quits

Discuss the extent of your togetherness. Do you intend to hike every foot of the thing together? If one of you quits, would the other feel comfortable finishing it alone? Would the off-trail partner send supplies, and support, if this should happen? It's a painful subject, but work it out in advance. (We didn't, and when I ended up hiking the thing alone, I instinctively held Melissa's supply packages to my ear to see if they were ticking.)

Hiking partnerships can dissolve into co-dependency. Melissa at one point tired of our bickering and constant togetherness. She tried to ditch me forever in the desert, only to realize that I had the water and tent poles. To stop this kind of pressure from building, work out ways to conserve personal space, such as hiking separately but always within visual or at least screaming distance.

Just remember that hiking alone, even for a short while, can be a risk. If one of you wrenches an ankle, or gets mauled by a black bear, the other should be there to help. If you go your separate ways even briefly, make sure you both have water, food and all other essentials.

To balance out power struggles, alternate hiking leadership and decision-making responsibilities day by day. Don't do as I did and attempt a coup díetat in the middle of your partner's leadership day.

My spiel is over. If you want to hike with your partner, I'd be the last person to discourage you. Go out there and enjoy the scenery. Plan complicated and romantic freeze-dried dinners. Take it as leisurely, or as hard, as you both would like. Enjoy the mountains and our dwindling American wilderness.

And don't say you haven't been warned.

Created: Nov 2007
Revised: 30 Sept 2016
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