By Devin “Bushwhack” Gallagher
Thru-hiking is a very intense personal experience. Most people who tag the starting terminus of their long trail will do so alone. Having left their homes, jobs, and loved ones behind, the prospective pilgrim has made the choice to rely on themselves. Armed with only their pack and their poles, accompanied by only their thoughts and well wishes from home, they begin to walk. It is a freeing experience, to put your life in your own hands.
You realize quickly though, that while you began this journey solo, you are not alone on trail. The first few nights, your campsites are filled with the chatter of tired hikers and the hiss of gas stoves. You'll hear discussions about trail food hacks, the latest blisters, or what new climbs tomorrow will bring. No one really knows each other, but everyone knows what the other went through that day. Because everyone is hiking the same trail. The brutal ascents, the long miles, and the scorching sun affect everyone. Which simply means everyone, no matter where they come from, has something in common: their feet hurt.
Left to right; Slice, Songbird, Bushwhack
“No one really knows each other, but everyone knows what the other went through that day.”
As the days turn into weeks, you begin to see some of the same faces showing up at your chosen campsite night after night. Turns out they hike the same pace as you do. By now you'll have some shared stories, and maybe even some friends. You may have earned yourself a trail name, or bestowed one upon someone else. Now you have people you look forward to seeing in towns. Despite not having a house, these people have become your neighbors. Sooner or later, they become roommates as the cost of hotels adds up. In classic thru-hiker fashion, nothing facilitates bonding like cramming five people into a one-bed motel room. Now, what started as a solo journey starts to feel like a communal experience. On my hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, though I started solo, by week three I had a six-person trail family (which was on the small side compared to “The Horde,” a family of about twenty-five). Planning the next day from our respective tents, shouting back and forth about elevation and water management, made the daunting task ahead seem a bit more manageable.
Left to right; Sorority Steve, Slice, Mango, Redline, Songbird
The people who make up your trail family will most likely have come from all over the country, if not the world. Stories from home or tales of prior life-defining adventures fill the otherwise quiet hours. Bad jokes, songs made up on the fly, and 'would you rather' questions become ways to distract each other from the soreness in each step. The evening routine group stretch and discussing plans for the next day's miles remind you that you've been accepted into this life, and are a crucial part of it. A trail family is there to boost morale when you are low, or give it to you straight if you need to make a tough choice. These people who wandered into your life, just as you wandered into theirs, can end up knowing you better than even your childhood friends. When you are constantly pushing yourself to your limits, mentally and physically, you are forced to drop all of your masks. Your trail family will be there, sharing the breathtaking peaks at sunrise and the mosquito-clouded wet forests. As you experience the pain of a seven-day food carry or the wonder of a mountain lake, your trail family is right there, walking in the same footprints, carrying the same weight. As Christopher “Supertramp” McCandless famously wrote, “Happiness is only real when shared.” While that “only” is a strong word, I think that in the majority of circumstances, it does hold true.
Left to right; Sorority Steve, Redline, Mango, Slice, Bushwhack, SunSpot, Spamuel Adams, Meals on Wheels
“Bad jokes, songs made up on the fly, and 'would you rather' questions become ways to distract each other from the soreness in each step.”
However, thru-hikes are unpredictable. While you may be speeding up or slowing down your pace to keep your crew together, there are no guarantees. Differing resupply strategies, hotel funds, injuries, challenging weather events, or deadlines can cause even a strong and supportive trail family to split up. This is one of the hardest parts of a thru-hike. Separating from your brand new support system by choice or by circumstance beyond your control can put a real dent in your morale and willingness to finish. Personal experience had me hiking more or less solo for about 1000 miles through California and Oregon. My trail family from the desert got smaller in the Sierra as our paces adjusted differently to the new terrain and some casual hurricane-force winds. Then, later on when I needed an extra day in town for my feet to heal, I fell behind what was left of it. It was scary to continue alone. In a way it felt like I was back at the Mexican border, starting all over again. I knew the trail would feel very different without the familiar faces at lunch and at camp, but I still had the clear goal of the northern terminus in the front of my mind. I was able to jump around some other established trail families and each one made me feel like I would be welcome to hike with them forever. Thru-hikers tend to be very generous and kind people.
However, while I was still sharing campsites and meals with these other trail families, I wanted to use this time to hike solo. For all the great things you gain by having your trail family around, a huge part of thru-hiking is spending time with yourself. There are some people who will complete a thru-hike without ever camping alone, and vice versa. There is no right or wrong way to hike, as long as you aren't leaving a trace. But, I wanted to treat my time trekking alone as an opportunity for introspection. The main mantra for thru-hiking is 'Hike your own hike.' Not being tied to a group allows you to lean into this self-sufficient aspect of the trail. When all of the decisions about resupply, lodging, side trails and campsites are on you, you can become very in tune with your own needs and limitations. A nice side effect of this is room to be alone with your thoughts, and with that can come real personal growth, as long as you do the work.
After about two months of hiking solo, I got a message that some of my original trail family was only a couple days behind me. Overjoyed at the prospect of a reunion, I stayed an extra night at the hotel and watched them walk into town the next day. Reconnecting with hikers that I had such formative early experiences with was one of the best parts of my hike. It was like seeing old friends that had long since moved away. We shared stories of how our hikes had differed, where our other friends were, and plans for the final state. We got to tag the monument together, and I am so glad we did. While this trail had been an incredible personal experience, it had also been filled with amazing community. Touching the monument is a culmination of your entire trail experience, the most important part of which became the people you walked it with. That shared happiness was as real as it gets.
Reconnecting with hikers that I had such formative early experiences with was one of the best parts of my hike. It was like seeing old friends that had long since moved away.
Left to right; Mango, Slice, Bushwhack
Then we were done. The countless steps you took in sync with your partners got you here, but this is the end of the pilgrimage. The journey of a lifetime is over, and the people you spent it with may live halfway around the world. How do you transition back to a life where everyone has their own separate goals, and no one else's feet hurt? Well, you could move to Colorado, or get into rock climbing, or simply slide back into normal life but with a lot of good stories to tell. Or, you can keep in contact with your old trail family and start fantasizing about the next trail. Then, maybe, those fantasies become options, then plans, and soon you'll be buying your next plane ticket and starting the process all over again. That's what I'm doing anyway. See you on trail!