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When fair April with his showers sweet,
Has pierced the drought of March to the root’s feet
And bathed each vein in liquid of such power,
Its strength creates the newly springing flower;

Then nature stirs them up to such a pitch
That folk all long to go on pilgrimage

-Chaucer

The two thousand or so hikers who come to Springer mountain every year don’t wait for great weather. In the north Georgia mountains it will be pleasantly warm with flowers in full bloom about two months later. But in March and April when they arrive, no leaves have bud, there’s plenty of rain, and it’s still cold enough for snow to be a constant possibility. But the hikers have to start now to have enough time to walk to Maine before winter starts again. They aren’t just here to enjoy the scenery. They are trying to get somewhere.

Chaucer’s pilgrims were going to Canterbury’s cathedral. The Mayflower’s pilgrims were going to a new world free of persecution. The Appalachian Trail pilgrims are going to a rocky, isolated mountain in the middle of a lonely, isolated state. And why, exactly? Okay, so maybe it’s more about the journey than the destination. But as they climb muddy trails in the cold March rain with a giant pack pulling down their backs, the Appalachian pilgrims raise some serious questions. Who are you anyway? And what are you doing out here?

The characters on this trail come from many places. Many are young, but there are plenty in middle age as well. Most are in good shape, but not all. Usually they have spent some of their lives enjoying the outdoors, but a few have never hiked before. What unites all these people, bringing them out of warm dry homes with hot meals for the cold wet Georgia mountains? A love of long walks? A taste for granola? A yearning to find peace in the wilderness?

Actually, the only thing these people have in common is a lot of time on their hands. When you ask them why they are hiking, they say “I retired,” or “My business went under with the economy,” or “I finished school.” They give reasons for having six months of free time, but never think to explain why they are here instead of, say, golfing, or learning French, or traveling to every major league baseball park. For some reason, it just seems natural to some people.

Many of them are a lot like me. Twenty-something men who quit their jobs or just finished college, they figured that they wouldn’t have many other opportunities to live in the woods for six months. But some also have wives staying at home, or jobs they are hoping to return to, or mortgages, or other real-world reasons it might be a hard trip to make. Some seem well-off, with all the latest high tech gear, and some have scrapped together some cheap equipment and see the trip as a economical way to pass a summer. Some come in pairs, and some come alone. Some hike far and fast, and some enjoy one step at a time. Some of the older hikers are retired, or on a leave of absence from their careers, and are experiencing something that they dreamed of and planned for for years. Other seem to more or less live in the woods, with no discernible life off of the trail. In the real world, these people would be businessmen and hippies, yuppies and rednecks, college kids and parents. But in the mountains, when it’s raining and they are sharing a few square feet in a rustic mountain shelter, they are just fellow hikers.

Part of their distinction from the real-world happens with the use of trail names. Every thru-hiker has one. There’s Damascus, Firefly, Western, Ramble On, Houdini, Hopscotch. Some choose their own trail names, and some have trail names thrust upon them. I hardly know anyone’s real name, and it doesn’t really matter. To me, they’re just other thru-hikers, people to share some time with as we go on our way.

Virtually all of them share two characteristics. They are independent, and they are friendly. People who come out here know how to take care of themselves. They cook their own food, they know where they’re going, and of course, they carry their own packs. You can’t be a follow-the-leader type and suddenly find yourself out here. But far from being loners, or cutthroat competitors, they are also very friendly. It makes sense, since the trial is basically just a small town stretched out over a long line, that people show some of that small-town friendliness. At shelters and campsites every night is an instant community. No one passes on the trail without saying hello or stopping to chat. And help from a fellow hiker is never far away. Even though it’s an individual pursuit, there’s a sense that we’re all in this together.

Why exactly we’re all out here, I can’t really say. We’re all trying to go north, to see where this trail ends. But I think just as importantly, we’re all here to see each other, to live in a sort of parallel world while we tell each other our stories. One nice thing about their world is that we’re all here by choice. Everyone is happy to be here, and that positive attitude rubs off. So even when it’s cold and raining and spring eels like it’s late, we pilgrims still have the company of strangers, and the promise of a big rocky mountain at the end of the trail.

– April 5, Natahala National Forest

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