Let me tell you what a trail family means. Vanilla, my hiking partner and pretty much best friend for life now, hiked the Appalachian Trail last year. He had physical and mental goals that he focused on more so than on building friendships with other like-minded hikers. He still made friends along the way, but he spent a lot of time alone. The time alone was beneficial to him, but he could have done with much less of it. This year, the people he meets along the way on the PCT are more important to him than the trail itself.
When Vanilla and I first set foot on the PCT, the two of us hiked and camped together. Less than a week into our hike, we crossed a campsite full of hikers setting up camp. He and I intended to continue hiking into the night that day, but we couldn’t find the trail in the dark. Being a guy, he insisted on reading maps, while I left him staring at his phone and approached a group of hikers huddled by a fire and asked them where to go.
That is where it all began. We stayed around the fire for a little while talking, then moved on, but the next time that we saw them, they were our people. I don’t know why, but we instantly clicked. We are from all walks of life, range from age 23 to mid-60s, have very different paces and goals and reasons and abilities, but we somehow formed a bond, and as a result, a family. We began to check in with each other, to take care of each other, to watch out for each other. We encouraged each other, we lifted each other’s spirits, we genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. It was beautiful.
(This is some of us, with a few extras.)
For about a week, we hiked separately or in small groups, some of us taking no breaks and rushing ahead easily while others hiked slowly, took plenty of breaks, a crawled into camp hours later. Nevertheless, we all camped together, ate dinner together, and sat around the fire catching up until late into the night. It was so comforting at the end of the day to reunite and spend time with each other.
There were about a dozen of us. Now, there are two. Vanilla and I are hiking together again while the rest of the family has either scattered or is about 100 miles behind. When I got off the trail for four days to heal, most of them, for some reason, split apart and went their own ways. When I came back, the very first day, while eating at Paradise Cafe, I heard, “Free Spirit?” with disbelief in someone’s voice, and turned around to see three of my family members!
(My friend, Shane, AKA Cap-Cap, was with us since he was the one who dropped me back off on the trail and he is the non-hiker-trash-looking one in the photo.)
We happily ate lunch together, then they went to Idyllwild to wait on a package (one of them needed a new backpack yet again; being too thin isn’t fun!) and see a dentist (one of them was having severe tooth pain). They stayed behind, and I continued on. Somehow, amidst more backpack issues and my now mostly-healed foot and, therefore, faster hiking pace, there ended up being a 100 mile gap between us. We will one day meet again, I’m sure, especially because I plan to take a few more relaxing days off in northern CA and Oregon, but right now, knowing that I had that wonderful week with them is enough.
Yes, it was only a week, but time out here is different. An hour is equivalent to a day, a day to a week, a week to a month, and a month to a year. And sometimes, even that is warped. A hiker told me how he hiked with another guy for eight days and felt like he’d known him for at least half a year. Last year, I hiked with RockStar for two weeks, and felt like I’d known him for two years. That is why friendships that form out here are so close and intimate by the end, why relationships that happen out here move so fast and feel like you’ve known the other person for forever, and people you’ve spent one day with can feel like best friends for life.
I think the reason this happens is because, out here, there is no hiding your worst. Back home, if you have a bad day, you can hole yourself up at home with Netflix. Here, if you have a day full of self-doubt or criticism, if you feel homesick and want to quit, if you’re battling negative memories and a storm of emotions, there is nowhere to go. There are hikers everywhere. If you sit down to cry, someone will see you and try to be there for you. If your usual chipper self is gone and you’re moody, your hiker friends will notice and ask what’s wrong. You can’t cancel and stay at home until you’re no longer in a mood. You go out there and face people with whatever you’re battling with written all across your face, and they see and know and accept you anyways, because they’ve got their own truths to face, and that is what builds these beautifully intimately bonded relationships between hikers better than out there amongst people in the normal world.
I have seen my trail family struggle and overcome, I have seen them grow and change and mature and get to know themselves, and I will continue to do so as we bump into each other from time to time. I’ve seen a handful of them since, and each person is so different since the last time I’ve seen them! Their appearance changes, as does their demeanor. Sometimes, their goals change, and their outlooks on life. By the end of this trip, we will all be new people! Better and improved! How exciting is that?!
By the way, the burgers at Paradise Cafe were amazing! Just had to put that out there. 🙂 Here’s proof!