By Leilah Grace
Every step on the trail brings something different. You may find yourself navigating a soft, loamy step, a shifting underbed of sand, a paved path, or the rocks and roots ever present on some trails. While some hikers may find themselves squishing through the muck and mud, an actual footbed invisible, yet all these different paths share the commonality of being a trail. As hikers, adventurers, and explorers we navigate each of the trails differently, not only because of differences in terrain, but because of our uniqueness within our bodies. We may hike and explore with our feet, our arms, wheels, or through the strength of someone else’s body. Though we may navigate the exact same trail, each exploration and experience is inherently different and beautiful in its own right.
A year ago I was backpacking with a small group. We made an itinerary for the weekend based on our known abilities, timeframe, and terrain. Our plan was to at a minimum camp together at night, and backpack together during the day as much as our varying paces allowed for two nights. Shortly into our backpacking trip the group waved me ahead, noting that I was having an easier time navigating the rocky, root covered hillside that we had to climb for another 2 miles. I was sad to leave the group, enjoying the company and the banter, but I did appreciate the acknowledgement of my struggle to maintain a rhythm at their pace. We agreed to meet at the shelter as planned. As I settled into my pace and completed my ascent I found peace and contentment as I frequently do when backpacking. There were views of the river, and the rocks and roots decreased as the trail leveled out having reached the peak of the hill. Another mile or so and I was at the shelter where I found a spot for my tent, filtered fresh water, and chatted with another 2 backpackers that were there as well. Later my group arrived, tired, but happy to have reached the shelter.
As we sat at the picnic table enjoying our dinners one of the members looked at me and said, “You’re a real hiker.” I stared at them not quite understanding the meaning of the statement, which they followed up with some comments about how quickly, nimbly, and easily I navigated the terrain of the trail; how small my pack was in comparison; and the extra mileage I would be tacking on at the end of our planned trip. I found myself fumbling for words as the people speaking to me, calling me a real hiker, I knew had logged more backpacking miles than I had. They had more experience than I had, and yet I was the “real hiker.” In calling me a “real hiker” they indicated that they were not. In the moment I was at least able to speak to their experience and their greater logged miles and time on trail than me. I spoke briefly to the differences in our personal needs as to pack size and yet I left the picnic table that night unsettled. How could these amazing, accomplished individuals not consider themselves real hikers?
As I hiked the next day, sent on by group with a plan to tentatively meet at a different location than our original itinerary, I could not help but reflect on their words. It circled and swirled in my head. What made me different from them? It couldn’t simply be physical ability could it? All of us in the group hiked the same terrain, all of us made it to our planned destination that first night, all of us carried packs with our gear; in my head we were all hikers, we were all backpackers. Yet it was obvious we were not viewing the world with the same lens. It did not settle well with me then, nor does it now.
As I reflect now on the experience I am still saddened by the comparison. I was never able to connect with these hikers after that night. I continued the trip solo as the rest of the trip they never responded to my texts or calls. I cannot help but wonder how the differences in our abilities impacted their experience, and if they think on it as I do.
Were we different sizes? Yes.
Were we different genders? Yes.
Were we different ages? Yes.
Were we of different heritages? Yes.
Yet we all covered the same terrain.
We all belonged there that day; we all belong outside. Our experiences on trail and adventuring are unique to us, yet we are all adventurers, hikers, backpackers; and our differences should be celebrated not compared. We are all real hikers.