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Wiser Encounters: Life Lessons from the Older Generation on Trail

Wiser Encounters: Life Lessons from the Older Generation on Trail

By Megan “Rascal” Wilmarth

One of the most beautiful things about the hobby of long distance backpacking, or the obsession that it becomes for some people, is that it draws folks from every generation. To begin with, the art of walking is not a very intimidating activity, no matter how young or old you are. Now, the distance of a good long walk will vary for everyone, but many of us out there find out rather quickly that when we start to push our limits, we end up going a lot further than we ever felt was possible.

Throughout my hikes along different trail corridors, I have become very good friends with folks who are both younger than myself as well as those who are very much my seniors. The young ones inspire me to be present in the little moments because taking my youth for granted is something I have been trying to avoid as time moves faster and faster! Older people can impart their wisdom on me and sometimes bluntly tell me how it is, which for me is refreshing because I do not want people to sugarcoat their advice or life experience! A prime example was when a hiker named Sailor once looked me in the eyes very seriously and said, “Rascal, if you ever want a boat; marry a man with a boat and then divorce his ass and keep the boat!”

I am so enthralled by the older generation when I take the time to talk and get to know them along my travels, and I am learning to slow down to take in all they have to say. Sometimes I will cut my interactions short and run on due to my high energy and desire for bigger miles, but even the 5-10 minute interactions I have are worth a pause because they often end in, “Ok kid, you run along now and enjoy it while you're young!” I continuously use this instruction to explain to people who ask me why I am always taking off to go live in the woods for months on end. I simply say that everyone over the age of 50 has told me to do so! One of the first older hikers I ever met on the first day of my first thru hike, who named himself Scout because he did not want to be called Grandpa, told me, “If it makes your heart happy, even if it doesn't make sense, keep pursuing it.”

Among the countless conversations with my elders that I have been a part of, two very special encounters have been etched into my memory files since they occurred and I feel I will forever remember the tidbits of inspiration that they gave me.

Mountain Sage wasn’t the first older man with expensive-looking but well used gear that I had met while deep within the second summer of my hiker trash life. But upon first glance, I was wildly curious about what his story was as I watched his hand shake fiercely trying to pour cereal into a bowl and then proceed to ding the spoon on the table a few times while trying to pick it up to use.

“Who is taking care of this frail man? Should I ask him if he needs help?” I thought as I looked up from the book I was reading on the couch of Woods Hole hostel in the rural Virginia backwoods. I don't quite remember the initial start of our conversation but within our first few sentences, I learned that the THRU HIKER in front of me was both over the age of 60 and suffering from the physically disabling disease of Parkinson's. 

“I learned that the THRU HIKER in front of me was both over the age of 60 and suffering from the physically disabling disease of Parkinson's. I couldn’t believe that this man was out here alone and had already walked 600-plus miles to get here.”

I couldn’t believe that this man was out here alone and had already walked 600-plus miles to get here. I listened intently as he told me about his life in New Hampshire as an adaptive ski instructor in the winters and then his thru hiking in the summers. “Wait, you do this every summer?!” I blurted out without hiding my shock or furrowed brow. Turns out, that summer was not his first time completing the Appalachian Trail and it was not to be his last.

Warren Doyle, Neville, Rascal, and Brew Davis

Warren Doyle, Neville, Rascal, and Brew Davis

The hostel was full of other noteworthy humans that night, which drew me in to stay as they talked about life and where they found the most meaning throughout it. Warren Doyle, who has hiked the AT 18 times, was over for dinner. Brew Davis, an ultra runner himself and husband to Jennifer Pharr Davis, who holds the women's southbound speed record on the Appalachian Trail, had just arrived after a 40 mile day on the trail to celebrate his birthday. My mind was buzzing as I tried to contain my excitement about all the like-minded people around me. After an evening of listening to everyone around me talk about the ups and downs of life and their pursuit of simple pleasures, I happily fell asleep in a hammock on the porch with a new sense of hope during a very confusing season of life. It was our world's first Covid summer and I was both jobless and slightly homeless.

I left later the next morning and quickly caught up to Mountain Sage within a few hours. I wanted to hike with him for just a little while before taking off to the next town, where I had a resupply box waiting for me at the post office. Those slow miles were so enjoyable as I listened to Sage talk about how he didn’t give up when the doctors gave him the bad news. He simply dove into all the research he could find and began to move. Not only did consistent movement drastically slow down his physical deterioration, but it also wildly increased his mental fortitude. “Rascal, movement is key. Life requires us to keep moving through it so we can be strong confident beings, and the moment we stop, we get stuck and stiff, allowing darkness to creep in.”

Mountain Sage, Rascal, and Walmart

Mountain Sage, Rascal, and Walmart

Then there is Pa’at, which I thought was pronounced Pot when he first introduced himself but he laughed and informed me that he was not named after the devil’s lettuce! I had just come down a stretch of switchbacks in northern Washington where the trail was still recovering from a burn when I saw a very elderly man hiking toward me. He looked like he was about to take off running but I had to stop him and see what his mission was! The only information I was able to get out of him was that he had hiked the Washington section of the PCT multiple times and that he knew he was old but that didn’t matter much to him. He gave me his short answers and began moving again as I held my tongue to ask just how old he was.

I quickly hiked to the bottom of the switchback where my buddy Roo and three other hikers were sitting next to a little water pipe filling their bottles. Upon seeing one of the hikers I did not yet know, who was also on the older side, I joked that Washington must be the state where all the cool older hikers flock to! This older man looking at me wasn’t as old as the mission-focused man I had just passed by but he was, at 71 years old, hiking the entire distance from Mexico to Canada just like the rest of us. His wife had been with him for 1800 miles before they made it to Oregon, where she hopped into their car and began following Pa’at up the trail so he could finish out the miles within the best season's weather window. After Pa’at talked to Roo and me a bit about his love for the simple way of life with his wife and children, we packed up to hike our last few miles of the day.

My next encounter with Pa’at was an early morning on a wooded ridge just a few days north of where we had first met. The wee hours of the morning are one of my favorite times of the day to be hiking because I am usually completely alone and get the chance to see the world around me waking up. On this particular morning, I had been playing a numbers game with myself as I ascended to the ridge. Thru hikers come up with many odd ways to pass the time as our bodies move on autopilot along the trail and I am one of the ones you will catch singing, dancing, telling stories, calculating mileage-related math, talking to the trees, and creating silly games to play all by myself at any given time. Sometimes, my trail friends will quietly hike behind me for miles and not say a word until I notice them just to enjoy the show I put on as I am lost inside of my mind having a grand old time. I used to get embarrassed and be a little self-conscious about it, but over the years I have come to embrace the strangest parts of who I am when I am free of societal constraints. So if you ever find yourself hiking behind a little Rascal, be ready for some prime hiker entertainment!

As I came to the top of the slight uphill that I was climbing, I saw Pa’at’s large green backpack sitting by a log next to what smelled like his morning cup of coffee boiling up. We greeted each other and he seemed impressed that I was already up hiking with a few miles under my belt for the day. He noted that most younger hikers he knew slept in each morning before a slow start to the day. I smiled and told him that I am not like most of the hikers my age. “Pa’at, I think I am an old soul. My age may be on the lower side but my mindset has aged multiple decades in some regards since I fell in love with hiking long distance trails. My morning miles are the ones that I crave because I am usually alone, a little chilly, and very contemplative as I experience the world waking up. It is easier for me to breathe when I can feel my surroundings without distractions and feel the push to keep moving. And without fail, I run into interesting folks to talk to or I take a break so my friends can catch up and let the comfort of people fill the rest of my day's miles.”

“He looked deep into my eyes and nodded before uttering the classic line that I hope to hear for years to come: “Good for you, keep doing it while you’re young.”

He looked deep into my eyes and nodded before uttering the classic line that I hope to hear for years to come: “Good for you, keep doing it while you’re young.” I could tell that he understood how meaningful it is to me to have the chance to keep returning to trail life.

Pa’at after finishing his ballad

Pa’at after finishing his ballad

The day before I touched the Canadian border after 122 days of hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail, Pa’at appeared walking towards my Tramily and me. A huge smile ran across my face because I knew he had more wisdom to share with us that would give the end of our journey a little more meaning. We had heard that he had a song to share with folks if they were lucky enough to cross his path one more time and I had asked the trail gods if I could be so lucky to hear it before I finished my grandest adventure!

Just as I was about to inquire about the special song, Pa’at began to ask us if we had a few moments to spare before beginning to sing. “Hike a trail and see where it leads to, newfound places will welcome you. Like a mother, it is glad you came home. And the ravens will soar with their shadows passing over you, so you’ll know this is where you belong.”

The lyrics still dance through my memory from time to time and I like to think of Pa’at and his wife somewhere on the west coast amazingly content with their grand adventures and the knowledge that they touched so many of us in really profound ways.

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