Recently we had a thoughtful conversation with another hiker. Another hiker that revolves their life around the trail, because well to be on trail is to be home. Home is not defined by a fireplace, by a bed, by a specific structure, no home is defined by the feeling that you have inside. To be home, means to be comfortable, to be surrounded with love, to be surrounded with family and friends, to live a life that you get to create. So, it is not uncommon for people that have hiked year after year after year to feel more at home, on the trail, then off. It is commonly uncommon for a hiker to have these feelings. This thought and feeling revolves around inside of us always, so this is not what set the fuse to burn in our mind. Instead it was how he had answered a question, of what was his goal? Not an answer in the tangible achievement of miles nor trails but instead the achievement of a collective and communal thought. This is where the wheels really began to spin.
Let us enter into this uncomfortable conversation.
The tunnel ahead is dark, let us take these first steps.
If you have not listened yet to our new podcast called, Off Trail, go give it a listen. We may not be able to promise you that you will love every chat or guest that we have but we can promise you at least a few laughs and more importantly a few thoughts that will leave you questioning your own feelings around each. To be a hiker is to be unique. To be an outdoorsperson is to be diverse. To be living a life of freedom is different. Just like the many flavors of guest we have, the flavors of their answers are always special.
We have heard many answers around the question, what is your goal? Yet, this one sticks with us still. When we asked we never expect a formatted answer, yet we will still taken aback by this hikers response. He had chosen a goal that will require effort from hiker, backpacker, outdoorsperson, trail associations, trail communities, and even in a broader sense society itself. He wished "thru-hiking" to be seen as a sport. He wished for this activity we all do to be taken "seriously" again, comparable to an athlete that rock climbs, runs ultramarathons, he wished to be considered an athlete inside of hiking.
You may see this answer and think, well does that not take away from the essence of hiking? Or you may think, how can a sport revolve around simply walking? You may even have the thought, if you are tuned in enough, are we not already there? Just like the questions themselves the answers show how conflicted and various the thoughts can be.
Well there is a simple way to test this hypothesis. Go have a conversation with a friend, family member, or someone that is not familiar with the hiking world. Go talk to them about the Appalachian Trail and you will more likely than not you will get some standard of assumption. An assumption that it is "common", an assumption that it is a "party" trail, an assumption that to hike, is just to wander. Yet, it would be highly uncommon for you to get a response or assumption in which the person uses the term "athlete" to refer to the hiker.
Do athletes eat milkshakes and ice-cream? We believe so.
If you take a moment and unpack hiking, you will begin to see how broad a term this can be. Just like the wonderful diversity of people in this world, "to hike" contains just as much diverse meanings. It all depends on what you are going out there to accomplish. There is no right way nor wrong way. If you are going out there and finding happiness and being socially responsible, that is the right way, because it is what gives you joy. We wanted to come out and directly state this before we dive deeper into what it means to hike. Unfortunately in our niche world of hiking, there remains a judgment, bias, and stigma when a hiker wants to define themselves as an athlete. There is a judgment when a hiker is a "Yellow Blazer." There is a judgment for a section hiker, a day hiker, there are subconscious judgments that we all make for every type of hiking. There is a judgment on how someone else is hiking, which in itself is the complete opposite of the essence of who we are as hikers. For how much our society preaches, non-judgment, it in fact can be quite convoluted when it still judges types of hiking. Ironically unfortunate.
We hope to become a part of the growth that strips away this judgment and all judgments. Again, however you hike and define yourself within this hiking world is beautiful. No way is the right way or wrong way. There is no way that is better nor worse. There is no way that has to be done. The way is completely individual.
A hiker can chose to party their way down the Appalachian Trail, if responsibly done, great for them. A hiker can chose to "Yellow Blaze" and cherry pick the best parts of a trail, great for them. A hiker can chose to connect every single footstep from Point A to Point B, great for them. A hiker can mix and match, touch every blaze, tip toe across the mountain tops, hop upon one foot, walk backwards, float upon a hoverboard, if they are out there doing what makes them happy, wonderful.
There needs be no judgment between varying choices of how to hike. Yet, if you chose to test yourself physically and mentally against hard miles, because that is what makes you happy, should that not be defined as an athlete? An athlete is one that pushes the boundaries and skills of their specific sport. When someone choses to hike as a sport, should we not acknowledge it as thus? Should we not use our pre-conceived "classifications" of hiker, but strip away the judgments and bias? Our community already has built these niches within this niche community, can we not take away the judgment? We know we may never be able to take away the definition but maybe one day we can all at least be free of judgment.
Some hikers take their shoes off when crossing rivers, some don't.
There is no judgment, stigma, or bias in these simple differences.
Why can't we apply the same mentality to hiking itself?
Yes, in an absolutely perfect world, there would not even be a need to define this. We would all be harmonious and free of judgment. Being human is what gives us this curse, but also being human is what gives us the ability to grow. To be conscious of your judgment and transcend it, well that is where humanity is special. We have the thought, we have the power to implement change, we have the intellectual capacity to realize where we fail as a community and where we need to grow.
This is where we need to grow. We need to recognize that hiking can be anything you want it to be. We need to recognize that it is but an impetus for the personal journey of the individual involved. We need to recognize that there are different goals people are searching and reaching for. We need to recognize there is no better nor worse. We need to recognize the individual inside of the community. We need to recognize the community inside of the individual. We need to recognize when a hiker just wants to hike. We need to recognize when a hiker just wants to be free on a journey. We need to recognize when a hiker choses to be an athlete. We need to recognize without bias, without judgment, without stigma. We need to recognize because recognition in itself is not conflicted, oppositional, nor harmful, it is when we try and "classify" that recognition where the conflict lies.
So, is "thru-hiking" a sport? Simply, yes, and complexly no. It is a sport if you wish it to be. If you wish to hike harder, hike faster, hike further, it has all the classic qualifications of a sport. Where we fail is when we lump the common assumption and blanket cover the entirety of hikers with a specific term or assumption. Thru-hiking can be taken seriously, can be a sport, if that is what you wish it to be. We once again say, there is no better nor worse, there simply is difference. Difference is not polarizing unless we make it so. Difference is just another synonym for diversity, and for how much we praise and preach diversity in our community, we should be praising the same for difference.
There is a stark difference in a hiker that does consistent 50 mile days, and a hiker that does 10 mile days. There is a difference in a trail taking you 100 days, or 50. There is a difference in sleeping a few hours each night, and getting to camp at 5pm and having a relaxing night. There is a difference in crushing through miles, and sitting back into a pace to enjoy every single step. There is a difference in the mentality of "last one to Katahdin wins" and the mentality of "how fast and hard can I get there." There is difference in this simple term of hiking. Everyone of these scenarios and the infinite differences that lay between each, is to hike. To hike is to find joy. To hike the way you chose is to hike the "right" way. That is an unbreakable truth. As long as we chose to understand this truth and remove the stigma of associations of difference, and just recognize the difference itself, that is where we can begin to grow.
Honestly, there are so many great quotes around "judgment" just Google quotes and take a dive into some thought provoking quotes.
To be different is to be diverse. To be different is to be unique. To be different is to "thru-hike." We all are different and that is what makes this community beautiful. We are all wonderfully different within this community. Why can we not chose to be different in definition of how we chose to hike? We can we not be different in where we find our joy? Why does there have to be judgment in our difference? Why can we not recognize difference for leisure, choice, and sport? How do we get there?
We begin by even talking about this subject. Clarifying that there is this stigma and bias around types of hiking. To remove the judgment associated with each. To realize we are all going out there for different reasons. No matter the reason, if it brings happiness, is the right reason. To recognize the differences and to be confident and secure in no matter the difference, we are all hikers.