Not “Just” Section-Hikers

My wife and I are section-hikers of the Appalachian Trail. We are committed to hiking the entire trail, but—due to various circumstances and responsibilities—are unable to escape for six months to hike the trail from end to end without interruption. Throughout the year, we get to meet other section hikers, weekend hikers, and day hikers, and almost always enjoy the company we find on the trail. We often feel a common bond that unites us to the AT. Even so, we especially look forward to the time of year when the mass of thru-hikers pass through the sections of trail that we happen then to be hiking. We enjoy hearing their stories and envy their sense of camaraderie with one another and the privilege they share of experiencing all that makes a thru-hike unique. Occasionally, we may feel somewhat excluded from their society, but we understand the sense of unity that binds thru-hikers to one another and that sets them apart as a class among themselves.

Yet, there is an unattractive attitude and sentiment that we occasionally encounter. It is an attitude of superiority, exclusivity, or self-righteousness that tends to denigrate not only the qualitative value of the experience of non thru-hikers but even puts down section-hikers as a class. It is expressed in the thought that, as a thru-hiker, one enjoys a communion with the trail or an ownership of it that could not possibly be experienced by the section-hiker. It is expressed in the thought that, as a thru-hiker, one has earned his or her experience much more so than any section-hiker on the trail. Perhaps such thoughts as these are more evident in attitudes than they are expressed in statements, but that is not to say that they have never made their way into print. Read, for example, the following excerpt from a young writer recalling her feelings on the top of Franconia Ridge, in New Hampshire:

There were several day- and section-hikers on top of the mountain as well. They seemed to be enjoying the view too, but something about coming all the way from Georgia gave me a sense of ownership. I felt connected to these mountains in a way that the other tourists could not understand. They were looking out over the same vista that I was, but I was certain that it struck me with a beauty and significance that they were unable to appreciate. I had worked really hard for these views, and the feeling of accomplishment I had on top of Franconia Ridge was more stunning than the scenery.1

These day- and section-hikers are mere “tourists.” Several pages later, they are referred to as “these hikers, as they liked to call themselves.”2 Clearly, not only is the value of the experience of section-hikers imagined as qualitatively lower, but, as a class, section-hikers do not even merit the label of “hikers,” when compared to the thru-hiker.

In fact, section-hikers are not only as capable of enjoying a communion with the trail and its surroundings as any other hiker, but their devotion to the AT is often proved to be of a particularly steadfast nature. They are not done with the trail after six months; more often than not, they are not done with the trail after six years. A few section-hikers even volunteer their time to building and maintaining the trail. Compared to this devotion, who is to say who the true “tourist” is?

Justifiably, the sense of accomplishment is not less among section-hikers. The median age of section-hikers is probably much higher than that among thru-hikers. Not only are they typically older, but their muscles have to get used to hiking every time they get back on the trail. Every section hiked is a physical accomplishment to be proud of.

What is it like to be a section-hiker? I can only answer from my own experience. When I am not physically on the trail, to some extent I am mentally. My thoughts are never far from the AT. I enjoy the logistics of section-hiking: planning beginning and end-points of the hike partly based upon parking locations, then planning where and when to drop off our vehicle, and scheduling a ride with a shuttle driver to our trailhead. My wife and I have to drive long distances and, frequently, we have to arrange lodging for the night before we begin our hike. Of course, we need to have the same days off from work, and that takes some planning as well.

It’s true that, as section-hikers, we don’t undergo some of the physical hardships that thru-hikers have to deal with. We typically have sufficient food for our journey, and we usually don’t have to hike in the rain. When we do hike in the rain, it is because we feel the need to get back on the trail and aren’t willing to let a little wetness keep us any longer from enjoying the experience that we have planned and waited for. We also can bring clothing that is appropriate for the current weather conditions.

“Maple” and I are AT purists. We don’t blue-blaze or yellow blaze, and we won’t allow ourselves to bypass any section because of its inherent difficulties or its temporary challenges, such as flooding, drought, or aggressive bears. When we complete the AT, we will proudly know that we have earned the right to be counted among the 2,000-milers.

1. Jennifer Pharr Davis, Becoming Odyssa: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail (New York: Beaufort Books, 2010), p. 250.
2. Ibid., p. 255.