L et’s get this straight: I am not a “joiner.” I never went to summer camp, I’m not a superfan of outdoor activity groupthink, and even wearing a matching kit on a fund raising bike ride makes me cringe.
But, I tried to put my uber-enthusiast aversion aside for the recent 2013 Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker kickoff party. Because I’m hiking alone, I wanted to take every opportunity to create camaraderie at the start of my trek, campy atmosphere be damned. So I smiled through a big group picture. I attended a seminar about DIY gear. And I shared campfire-side real estate with trail legends named “Old Goat” and “Yogi.”
I felt a little bit like an imposter. I’m no stranger to the outdoors but, compared to these uberhikers, I was Cheryl Strayed-like in my naiveté: I wore too-clean synthetic duds and my pack was unnecessarily weighted with luxuries like — gasp! — a stove, a pair of cushy camp shoes and a full-sized tube of sunscreen.
These real thru-hikers, in contrast, had on shirts with holes worn through by their pack straps, went barefoot in camp and were browned from head to toe by months of exposure to both dirt and sun.
By toiling over 2,600-plus miles of trail, these people had earned entry into a subculture that’s part “Man vs. Wild” and part “The Amazing Race,” with a little bit of “Alaska: The Last Frontier” thrown in for good measure. I had yet to acquire the most basic prerequisite to entry — I had no trail name — so even introducing myself was a confession that my worthiness was yet untested.
That was almost two weeks ago. Since those first days of hiking, I’ve told enough of my life story to become known among this year’s pack as “Captain” –an homage to my years as a boat driver. I’ve also gotten to know a handful of hikers with even sillier monikers: a guitar-carrying goof named Shark Rider, an ex-military guy called Sargent Snores and — my favorite — a poncho-wearing 21-year-old who earned the nickname Fire Hazard from drunkenly swaying above a jubilant flame.
With my own trail name decided, on-trail introductions go more smoothly, and the layer of dirt I’ve gathered makes me look the part of a community pillar. I’ve earned enough credibility with two weeks of trekking to fit right in, and it turns out that joining the thru-hiker brotherhood isn’t as painful as I thought, either.
In just a short time, I’ve become part of a loose-knit community that welcomes me at every campsite. Though my first few trail days centered around the weirdly exclusive kickoff party, every day since then has been more independent, personal and intimate. I may log a few miles with another hearty hiker, or not. I may make camp near another dog-tired trekker, or not. There aren’t any dues except my daily sweat, and there’s no pressure to attend meetings except those around a fire, before we all climb into our sleeping bags.
While I haven’t yet fully embraced the thru-hiking culture yet, it has embraced me. I’m mastering the vocabulary, the ability to create instant casual acquaintances, and, most importantly, the hiking.
Columnist Kristy “Captain” Holland is documenting her Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike (current mileage: 154) via twice-monthly columns in the Colorado Daily. Follow her adventure more at kristyholland.wordpress.com.