Refugee vs. Celebrity

nature's privy

Julie using nature’s privy for one of the first times on the PCT. She got used to it

There was a moment in Ethiopia when our good friend Matt Ahlert made an observation that has stuck with me since. Optimist and I lived a bit differently in Ethiopia than other foreigners. We rode the public transportation, we bought bread and vegetables from the local stands, and lived in the neighborhoods where we were pretty much the only foreigners. We walked wherever we needed to go that was within a few miles, so we were often seen by a lot of Ethiopians. Since we were such an oddity, in our skin color, the way we dressed, our hair…people just stared at us or came up and shook our hands. After a while we began to feel like celebrities since we were always being watched, and everyone seemed to gather around us wherever we were. It was flattering to a point, but then a bit overwhelming. Our friend Matt Ahlert observed this strange feeling of celebrity status too when he came to live with us for a month in Ethiopia.

One of the things we did while in Ethiopia was take a week long backpacking trip with our friends through the Simien Mountains in Northern Ethiopia. We hiked 50 miles to the highest point in Ethiopia, Ras Dashen, at 15,200 feet, respectively. The day after we reached the peak was the last day of our hiking trip, and we were heading back to the town of Debark so we could then catch a bus back to Addis Ababa, which at that point seemed like New York City compared to the countryside “towns”. We caught a ride with a lorry truck that was traversing the dirt road back through the mountains into Debark. There were six of us total, including our Ethiopian scout that we’d hired to lead us through the park, and if you’ve ever tried to get in the back of a lorry truck, you’d know that it’s pretty damn high up. The tires went up to my face level, and we all had to heave our packs up and over into the bed of the truck, and then scramble our way up on the tires into the truck. I’m sure it was quite a sight for the other Ethiopians that were already in the truck.

To add to the excitement, it started raining, so they put a huge tarp over all of us that were sitting in the back of the truck. The coat of dirt lining the truck bed turned to mud, and there was a strong smell of gasoline. So there we were, five Americans and about five Ethiopians all huddled under a tarp, in the back of a lorry, sitting in a mixture of rain, mud and gasoline. It was definitely one of the strangest situations I’ve ever been in. It felt like we were part of some covert operation to sneak us all into somewhere. Looking around at all of us, our friend Matt commented that he’s never been in a place where he could feel like a refugee and a celebrity, all in the same day. I’ve never found a better way to describe the swing in emotions and even status while being on an adventure, such as living in a 3rd world country or thru-hiking the PCT.

While hiking the PCT, I felt this swing in status often. When we’d be near or in towns, people that knew about the PCT would lather us in praise for attempting the thru-hike. Many of them offered up their own water, food, and even maps. Several of them took our pictures with them (no autographs requested though; I guess that’d be a bit much), and just overall treated us like we were doing the coolest thing in the world. I’ve never felt so much admiration; nor have I ever been so inspired by the willingness to help us (read more about that in the Trail Magic journal entry). But then reality would always hit, and we’d remember that we still have to put in lots of miles to actually become a thru-hiker, and I’d mentally step down from my throne and start walking again. I still had to face the miles, the food cravings, the dirty, smelly clothes, and the tent as my shelter each day. It was always a humbling experience.

On the last day of the hike, we were on the mental throne all day, knowing that we’d reached the end and accomplished our PCT thru-hike. We met about six people on the trail that day, and all of them were equally happy as us, as they knew what a huge deal it was to walk from Mexico to Canada. It was praise and admiration that I was glad to accept, as I was feeling pretty darn good about myself at that point. The trail actually ends on the border the US and Canada, but in order to get to a road that took us off the trail and back to town, we had to hike 8 more miles after the actual finish so that we could catch a bus from Manning Park (Canada) to Vancouver (also Canada). I actually didn’t mind the 8 miles, as they were well maintained, we had plenty of time, it was a sunny day, and it was our last day, so I really savored the time with Optimist. Before I knew it, we popped out of the trail and onto a road where we saw cars, people and buildings. Optimist turned to me and said, “Well, that’s it. We’re finished.” It was such an overwhelming feeling to actually be finished, when for the last three and a half months, I never really thought about what it would feel like to be done, and here we were, completely finished with no more miles to walk. I started crying and gave Optimist a big hug.

Once we recovered from the shock of being finished, we thought about what was next on the agenda, which was to figure out the way to food, shelter, and possibly a shower. We finished early enough in the day to catch a bus to Vancouver, BC. Unfortunately we got to Vancouver at 9:30 at night, on their (and the US’s) Labor Day weekend, so every local hostel and hotel was booked, and the first bus to Seattle wasn’t until the next morning. On top of that, the bus station closed its doors from 1am to 5am, so we couldn’t stay in there all night (though I pleaded with them to let us since we’d just finished the PCT, though they had no idea what that was nor why it should make me important). The guard at the bus station assured us that it was perfectly legal to sleep on the sidewalk of the bus station, and that there were security cameras in case anything should happen (great, now I feel safe!).

Rather than the welcoming party of balloons, pizza, and ice cream that I’d dreamed would meet us at the finish, we were sleeping outside the bus station, and suddenly losing our status of star thru-hikers to homeless, dirty bums. It was the ultimate reality check and such a quick change in emotion from being held in such high regard on the trail earlier that day, and then being looked at like we were homeless because we were dirty, smelly and sitting on the ground in our sleeping bags. I just wanted to stick a sign on my, telling people what I’d just accomplished, and that I wasn’t homeless, but just had a set of bad circumstances getting into town so late. But that would have been silly, so I swallowed my pride, tried to ignore the real homeless people sleeping outside of the bus station, and looked forward to heading home the next day. I knew I’d have ice cream soon. As Matt Ahlert said, we were a refugee and a celebrity, all in the same day.

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