About the Author: Hi there, my name is “Z”, I am a queer solo female hiker from California. I run around the local ER as a nurse a few days a week. I love rock-climbing, bouldering, nerding out on DuoLingo, and being a crazy cat lady of one. I believe outside is for everyone, and I am passionate about making the wild an inclusive place for all. You can see what I’m up to on Instagram @The_Wandering_Z.

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Hey there, my name is “Z” and I am a new storyteller here. I’ll be sharing my experience of hiking Southbound (or SoBo) on the Appalachian Trail in 2019. You can follow my on Instagram @The_Wandering_Z. I completed my first thru-hike last spring. I traveled to Spain and hiked the Camino Frances which was life changing.

The decision to choose a trail in the U.S. was difficult.  I love to travel internationally, speak a different language, see places far from my own home.  I knew I wanted a different challenge, a longer trail than 500 miles, I knew summer would be the start of my timeline, and that I didn’t want to be hiking among a herd of people, and I wanted to be in an environment that was different than the Pacific Northwest that I’m used to. Thus, going SoBo on the AT became a clear choice.

Naturally and subsequently I dove head first into the backpacker rabbit hole and went rabid for all the knowledge I could find.  

The proverbial “YouTube Phase”,  followed by the “20 tabs open all the time phase”, which lead seamlessly into my local REI knowing me by name and my welcome mat becoming a place where my mailman could practice his free-throws with my multiple Amazon boxes. Then a phase of calm; I started taking my gear out and enjoying it, finding and listening to podcasts.

I started listening to a backpacking podcast called Trust the Trail. It was a sweet way to enjoy my morning commute to work, before going into the war zone that is the Emergency Room.

On a few different episodes the hosts, Ariane and Scott, talk about experiences of being on the Appalachian Trail.  They spoke about how hikers interact with other hikers as they come across each other on the trail. What they describe is something like a loop-recording of 4 questions, day in and day out. I call these The Backpacker Four. Hikers ask these, they get the info, they size you up, they make a determination about themselves in comparison to you, decide if they need to alter their pace or change their destination for the day, and then the signal is lost, they pass you, onto the next hiker.

I don’t like this…
This feels weird…
I don’t remember anyone asking me these questions on the Camino…
This doesn’t feel genuine…
This sounds competitive…
This sounds shallow…
Like weird backpacker voyeurism
What do you mean “what else are you supposed to talk about?” There’s SO MUCH!
No…I’m not doing that.

I’m not. I know this is counter culture. Some people may think “Geez what’s the big deal”, but I’m not interested in having conversations that aren’t genuine.  I don’t want to hike every day being categorized and filed by the people around me. I don’t want to say the same 4 answers over and over like a pull-string doll. I am not a walking waymark of your progress and you are not one to me. Please Dear Ones.  Let’s create connections. Let’s be open with one another. Let’s be curious and thoughtful. Let’s be open to being surprised, and let the trail speak to us.

There are so many stories of people walking on the trail, another hiker comes alongside them and asks one of the four questions, “Are you thru-hiking?”. Often times when the person replies “No”, it’s the end of the conversation.  It’s the end of the connection. Bye. Next hiker.

What is that?

We can only hike with people in the same category as us? A thru-hiker can’t make a lifelong friend with a day hiker? A section hiker?  A LASH? Or whatever other names we’ve given to people on trail to make them different from “us”.

Some of my best friends are people I met and hiked with for a week or two.
One of my most cherished memories is of a day on the Camino when I hiked with a woman more than twice my age for just the morning. A simple conversation that became deeper, filled with vulnerability and kindness.  It was a gift for both of us. I never saw her on the trail again but we still talk today.

The trail is not a competition or a race.  The trail is not some exclusive club. The trail is not for you and not “them”. The people around you aren’t opponents or obstacles, they are people.

People with hearts and souls, people with knowledge and stories, people with hopes and fears.

Let do more than notice one another.  Let’s be something more than The Backpacker Four.