Crowds, companions, and solitude

To me, long distance hiking is a solo endeavor, a chance to get in touch with myself, and enjoy the solitude and wonder of nature as an active spectator. There are many who enjoy travelling in a Trail Family; some hikers hike all day with others, while others (like me) tend to congregate around the same sites at the same pace as others. I believe in nature this parallels the Bachelor Herd, or what I also term a Confederacy – people you see over and over, but where each maintains a degree of independence. That said, as much as hiking is to me a solitary adventure, I do enjoy running into people along the way. The contrast of their solo experience with mine draws everything into focus.


The Gam

I came across this passage in Moby Dick the other day, and thought of what, in my mind, strongly parallels the experience when two long-distance hikers meet, typically when going in opposite directions.

“If two strangers crossing the Pine Barrens in New York State, or the equally desolate Salisbury Plain in England; if casually encountering each other in such inhospitable wilds, these twain, for the life of them, cannot well avoid a mutual salutation; and stopping for a moment to interchange the news; and, perhaps, sitting down for a while and resting in concert : then, how much more natural that upon the illimitable Pine Barrens and Salisbury Plains of the sea, two whaling-vessels descrying each other at the ends of the earth off lone Fanning ‘s Island, or the far away King’s Mills; how much more natural, I say, that under such circumstances these ships should not only interchange hails, but come into still closer, more friendly and sociable contact.

And especially would this seem to be a matter of course, in the case of vessels owned in one seaport, and whose captains, officers, and not a few of the men are personally known to each other; and consequently, have all sorts of dear domestic things to talk about. For the long absent ship, the outward-bounder, perhaps, has letters on board; at any rate, she will be sure to let her have some papers of a date a year or two later than the last one on her blurred and thumb-worn files. And in return for that courtesy, the outward-bound ship would receive the latest whaling intelligence from the cruising-ground to which she may be destined, a thing of the utmost importance to her. And in degree, all this will hold true concerning whaling-vessels crossing each other’s track on the cruising-ground itself, even though they are equally long absent from home. For one of them may have received a transfer of letters from some third, and now far remote vessel; and some of those letters may be for the people of the ship she now meets. Besides, they would exchange the whaling news, and have an agreeable chat. For not only would they meet with all the sympathies of sailors, but likewise with all the peculiar congenialities arising from a common pursuit and mutually shared privations and perils.”

This struck me most recently on my Long Trail thruhike. Most of the trip, probably over 95% of it, was spent hiking alone. The farther north I got, the more empty the trail became. It was good, then, to run into southbounders, in general a curious breed, but also to swap news of trail, water sources, dangers (such as nests of bees near the trail), and general information about upcoming views, campsites, and animal sightings.

Just north of Bromley Mountain, I ran into Badger, who runs The Trek online magazine, where I sometimes write. Completely random, neither of us had planned or knew the other was on trail, and in fact had never met in person. But like in Melville’s epic, despite how big the world is, sometimes you run into people you know, and sit down and have a gam.

It was also nice just to talk to someone else so deeply involved in the same pursuit.

Demographics don’t matter

I remember fondly the day out of Johnson, when I got to Codding Hollow. I ran into Zoey, a SOBO hiker. It was good to meet a new friendly face, and to stop and enjoy the temporary halt in the rain, and catch up on news about sightings of moose and eagles and discuss the bees which had taken up residence along the trail.  It was also nice to have a conversation where you didn’t have to do all the work talking to yourself.

Doing a long-distance hike requires such a singular focus that it burns away a lot of the traditional differences.  In the case of Zoey, if we had met on the street, or at work, or at a party, there’d be no connection.   I was just some old guy with a beard, she was a merry youngblood – nothing in common.   But when you’re deeply involved 24×7 in a pursuit that taxes you to close to physical limits, forces you to keep an eye on your environment, and surrounds you with the need to simply survive by your wits and the gear on your back, you don’t have time to care about demographics.   All that matters is the craft.


Even after many nights around the dinner circle, there’s often no expectation of anything other than genuine good will.  Since you’re responsible for your self and your own success, there aren’t many social obligations that evolve.   You can hike with someone for 100’s of miles, and when your paths diverge it’s ok to be disappointed or sad, but there’s no expectation of sticking together.  Nobody owes anyone anything, and nobody feels guilty when it happens.  If you hike faster than someone else, that’s not a thing you can change, it simply IS – and the phrase Hike Your Own Hike never rings more true.

As I mentioned in my post listing music and movies about hiking, Jeremiah Johnson is a favorite.   Here two men, who have lived through many perils and triumphs, saved one another’s lives, and travelled together for a long time finally part ways.   This is a lot like when two hikers meet and then part, or when your hiking group breaks up.  No tears, no needless travel for the sake of companionship, just two people whose time has come to part.

It’s true on trail and it’s true in life.   Hike Your Own Hike.

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