Where have all the hikers gone?

New Jersey

Julie walking through the swampy parts of New Jersey. Lots of bugs and very few thru-hikers in this section.

Optimist and I have found ourselves at the front of the pack. We knew it would happen eventually as we passed individuals and groups in our first weeks on the trail. Today marks 8 weeks out on the trail, with about 830 miles to go, and we are quite alone. While we were meeting at least a handful of thru-hikers a day up until about a week ago, we now meet maybe one every other day. Most people are simply going slower than us, and we expected to find ourselves alone at some point, but either way, it is strange.

Though we don’t see many thru-hikers, we see a lot more section hikers, weekenders and day hikers. These are certainly fine hikers to see, but they are in a different lifestyle from a thru-hike, so the interaction is inevitably different. The conversations are usually more Q&A with us answering gear and hiking questions, we don’t share as many stories as we would with thru-hikers, and they tend to enviably have higher a quality and quantity of food than us. It creates quite a different social dynamic.

Being at the front of the pack, it’s also as if the towns aren’t ready for us yet. We don’t get the same feeling from business owners as we did in the first few weeks. It’s not as if they are unwelcoming, but it’s more like we are unexpected guests that they haven’t cleaned house for yet. They just don’t feel ready for the rush of thru-hikers that’s about to blow through towns in the upcoming weeks. Since we know what size of a pack is behind us, I usually want to tell them, “You’d better be ready for the pack that’s coming, because you haven’t seen anything yet!”

Not only are the business owners not ready for us, but some of the townspeople also seem to not completely be aware of the trail. This isn’t necessarily because we are at the front of the pack, but I take it since not many hikers have gone through yet, that they aren’t fully aware of the yearly batch of smelly people that pass through their towns. My favorite part about meeting people who don’t know about the trail is to hear the first question they ask. On the PCT, my favorite question from one man in Oregon was, “What do you do with your garbage?” I never asked him what he did for a living, but I’d like to think he had some sort of connection to garbage, or else how would that have been at the front of his mind? My next favorite is, “How do you get food?” which is usually being asked as we stand there talking in a grocery store, so it’s always a bit awkward to answer this question. Today I had a fun question that I actually felt guilty in answering because it was such a disappointment to him, but a man in the grocery store asked me, “Do you take a souvenir from each state?” I explained that I didn’t since it meant extra pack weight, but man did I feel awful in crushing the smile he had on his face as me probably imagined the souvenirs he’d collect from each state had he been hiking. It really did break my heart.

Lastly, partially because we are at the front of the pack, and partially because Optimist shaved his beard, but people do not think we are thru-hikers. Because Optimist looks so clean cut with a recent shave and haircut, they take us for weekenders or sectioners, which is simply an odd feeling. We no longer get the question, “Are you thru-hiking?”, but rather we get, “What section are you doing?”, or “Where are you headed?” I know I shouldn’t be offended to look so clean and well-kept, but I admit a little piece of me is sad inside that we no longer give the image of thru-hikers.

So here we are, at the front of the pack. It makes for a different experience from being in the thick of the pack, but at the end of the day, if all I get is Optimist’s company, that’s just fine with me.

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