We have used the term "lesser known trails" quite frequently recently, in our blogs, in our interviews, in conversation. Yet, we begin to realize as we use the term more and more that it does not register to others the way it registers in our brains. To others they hear "lesser known" and picture a trail more remote, a trail more absent of hikers, and a trail that may only take a little more research to find. They are correct in a way, but there is so much more that we mean when we refer to a trail as "lesser known." We are not saying the trail itself is less in any type of way, because there is no comparison between two trails, two hikes, even two miles. It is the mentality of yourself in the moment and the adventure of a trail system, worlds of difference within the same activity. When we refer to lesser known trails, what we are referring to is the support and awareness in the communities, the maps being not completely accurate, being seen as dirty and smelly and the first thought that goes through people's minds is not the word, hiker. There is so much that is encompassed in the term "lesser known" trails and we want to help define what we mean when the hike becomes filled with questioning looks by locals and visitors of, "Who is the homeless and smelly person in our town?"
Dirty, smelly, ripped clothing, disheveled, but purely happy! Look deeper!
Again, not a bad thing and not a good thing, just an unaware thought. If we put ourselves in the same shoes as town locals and would see someone as ragged as us, walking down main street in a small town, ripped clothing, wild look in the eyes, and talking to themselves about all the food they are about to demolish, our first thoughts may not be the kindest either. This is the main category of lesser known trails that we want to tackle. The awareness when you arrive in a town to resupply, as well as the awareness with all the locals throughout the trail system that you run into.
The most prevalent trails that this occurred to us on were the OCT (Oregon Coast Trail), the IAT (Ice Age Trail), and the NTNST (Natchez Trace Trail). On each of these trail systems there were only handfuls of thru-hikers that had been before us. On the Oregon Coast Trail, when we hiked it in 2017, this was the first year that it really began to climb in popularity. This was the first year locals of sea-side towns started to see an influx of smelly and hungry hikers. They very well could have thought it was an invasion! In a way it was, albeit a peaceful invasion, where the invaders only want food and a shower, and will pay for it! An invasion that was completely unfair when you look back on it, the chemical weapon of hiker stink, sparing no one!
Awareness and Responsibility the two pillars of lesser known trails!
On the Oregon Coast Trail, a simple and sad fact of life for many of these towns is that there are massive drug problems. They are used to having "lost" souls migrate to their towns for the sea air and to set up camp around the fringes. So, this was a hurdle in itself, there was already a massively born bias around people coming into town with heavy packs, and deeper burdens. A hiker was not seen as a hiker until we showed them differently with our actions. The first interaction in towns for a hiker usually are food related. Yet, we would try our best to fight our deep impulse, and make this our second or third reaction. A diner on the Appalachian Trail is used to hiker stink, a diner in a little sea town on the Oregon Coast, is extremely not so! Thus, most of our first interactions became oriented around convincing a motel to let us check in. These interactions always followed a certain way.
When we would first walk into a motel lobby, the attendant would pick their head up excited and ready for a guest. Then you could physically see the reaction change in their face as they were met with the sight before them. There were 3-4 ragged, wild eyed, starving, hikers beyond ready for a shower and food. You could see a new hardness creep over many a motel owners face. We do not agree with the societal subconscious bias of being judged by appearance, but again it is a simple fact of life, that a vast majority of people in our world fall back to this. So, we do not judge others that have yet to break this bias, yet to see a soul for a soul, and not a beard for a smelly beard, it is simply the way of things. We will always do our best to be this change for others however. So, when we would walk up to the counter, usually you could see the motel owner was thinking of turning us away. Our business wasn't worth the liability that they had associated with people that looked like us, not hikers, but others. There was always about 5-10 minutes of idle chatter, about looking for a room, as they looked us over. Yet, within these 5-10 minutes the atmosphere in the room began to change. The owners began to see into our eyes, and feel the passion behind our words, and started to shake their bias and look as all should look into the soul of the person, to see who and not what.
Under a tattered coat, smelly socks, tangled hair, dirty nails....
This pattern would continue with almost every interaction in these trail towns to a varying degree. Out of the entire Oregon Coast Trail, there may have been 2-3 people, that were not hikers, that knew what we were doing, yet besides that it was not common knowledge. We would be judged in the eyes of the locals, as a problem, until we showed them differently. Until we chatted with the grocery store owner, until we laughed with the sheriff out front of the diner, until we shared a table with some workers as we all ate lunch. Granted there was always some that the bias was deeper, the bias was stronger, yet we had began to set a stage. The next hiker may be treated a little bit better, there may be a little more awareness around their goals, they may not have to be charged a $2 down-payment for remote batteries at a motel.
We have been stopped by sheriffs in many small towns on lesser known trails. Not for a bad reason, but purely they are curious. We love when this happens. It gives us the opportunity to talk, to open conversation, to change a stigma that has been reinforced in these towns for years, a stigma that will hopefully begin to change as more and more hikers travel through. That is what awareness brings, not a change of who the person is, because generally most people are good people, but it lets this goodness shine. It removes the stain of societal bias, and lets the happiness of the person and kindness that has always been there become extremely powerful. When someone is given the opportunity to be kind, 99.9% of the time, they will be, that is the power of being human.
Granted we do not want to paint everything in a gloomy light. We do not want to paint a picture as soon as you walk into town you are shunned. There is a different feel than that of a town on a known trail system, yes, but that feeling in the air is mostly confusion. It is not a foulness or a maliciousness thought in nature, it is just a mixture of feelings born through past experiences. It is the way this town and these locals have experienced life, and it is not your job to necessarily change it, but it is your job to be the most responsible hiker you can be.
Drastically different than a town such as Damascus where everyone knows why you are there.
There is a responsibility that comes along with being some of the first thru-hikers on a trail system. You are underneath the public microscope at all times. It should be felt and an internal realization without being stated, but if you find yourself in these situations be yourself, be kind, be compassionate, and go above and beyond with all things. Clean your motel room extra for the cleaning staff, leave a tip at local establishments, be open to long conversations with locals. We have sat in a diner for 5-6 hours before talking to the waitresses, owners, locals about the trail system that ran through their town. When they finally let us leave, we knew every intricate part of each of their lives, their kids, their families, their worries, their joys, their failures, their triumphs, we knew as much as if we had been with them in this town since they themselves were kids. In turn, they knew the same about us, they learned about our life, about our journey, about our happiness and our sadness. We saw and listened to each other, we opened conversation, and they were beyond hungry for it just as we were.
We remember an old gentleman on the PCT telling us over chili one day, a motto we have lived by ever since. This town, which we will not name, had just had an especially "rough" group of hikers come through the day before. They had been loud, rude, and frankly quite obnoxious the local told us. This prompted us to ask him though that not all hikers could possibly be this way, if so why was he always so happy to see us? We also felt deeply ashamed that his feelings toward our community was stained. He gave us a smile and told us that he had been in this town for 20-25 years and that 99.9% of the hikers he had met were the friendliest and happiest people, the most honest and true connections, friends he had made for life. Yet, he also said when meeting 1,000s of hikers the good blends together and you remember it, yet the bad sticks out, the (1) hiker that acted inappropriately he remembers forever. It shows the power of just (1) single interaction. A single bad interaction where 1,000s upon 1,000s of interactions have been happy. Yet, this one interaction remains a stain and a remembrance.
It is a gift to be out there but also a responsibility to yourself as much as others.
This is why there is such a big responsibility when being one of the first on a lesser known trail system. (1) interaction affects everything. These communities and locals do not have 1,000s of other interactions to base their thoughts and feelings off of. They have you. They will associate all other hikers the way that you have treated them. Until another comes by and treats them the same, treats them as well as their town with the same respect it deserves. And another, and another, and another. They will begin to welcome hikers into their lives and into their towns now with happiness. They will become excited to hear the stories of their local trails. They will actively want you in their town, instead of simply put up with hikers there. So, we guess where this blog ended up transitioning too, is the responsibility associated with lesser known trails. It is a beautiful journey being some of the first, but also a huge responsibility. One we personally are happy to have the opportunity to be a part of, yet we hope the others coming next, will see it the same. Be the best hiker, the best person you can be, not only for yourself, but for the locals, for the towns, for the other hikers behind you. You can make or break the association and support of a new trail system. Cradle this responsibility wisely and treat it gently, it is beautiful but is still fragile. Let others experience the joy you have found!
Be responsible, be happy, go forth!