by Andrew Downs, ATC regional director

Self-reliance and the Appalachian Trail experience

February 24, 2016

Andrew DownsI turned 22 during my thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). After charging past an army of day-hikers struggling up Mount Lafayette in New Hampshire, I reunited with “Lazy Mike,” “Renegade,” and “Papa Squat” on the summit and celebrated by polishing off a fifth of Jack Daniels. The last time the boys and I were all together was back in Maryland on a hot day when some Trail Angels scooped me up, feverish from strep throat, and nursed me back to health. I spent a week at their campsite before I could get back hiking, then 100 miles behind my buddies.

It’s experiences like these, in part, that made me fall in love with the A.T. and led me to work with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to preserve experiences like these for everyone. Now I look at those memories and realize while I remember them fondly, they weakened the A.T. for everyone.

After polishing off that bottle, we found a nice campsite just above tree line complete with a roaring fire just off the Trail. In the morning we left the black scar of the fire ring quickly and never looked back. Now I know that in all likelihood, some Ridgerunner or club volunteer found it, dismantled it, spent the morning naturalizing the area and included it in their report to the Forest Service, meaning my birthday celebration became more reason for increased regulation and an increased law enforcement presence on the A.T.

After recovering from my fever, the night before I left my medical savior’s campsite, a pickup truck came screaming up the road blaring “Welcome to the Jungle.” Out jumped four of my fellow thru-hikers, fresh off of a trip to town. Every camper within earshot was shocked out of bed and my friends got into a loud argument with the Trail Angels. Embarrassed by the behavior of my fellow hikers, I hit the road at dawn after thanking the Trail Angels and expressing my disbelief in the behavior of my friends.

Looking back on that night in the context of my entire thru-hike and the actions of hikers I see each year, the behavior is totally believable, and I see clearly how the attitude connects to the very Trail Angels I felt so bad for. We were kids on the vacation of a lifetime and a journey that has come to define adventure. It was often made easier by very well intentioned people going out of their way to make something difficult into less of a personal challenge. With people traveling hundreds of miles and spending thousands to give us beer, cook us burgers and cater to our blisters, how could we not have developed the sense of entitlement that cranked Axel Rose up to 11 or lit a raging fire in a place with a campfire ban?

Part of what makes the A.T. special is the community and the spirit of individuals experiencing the Trail as a means of sojourning among these lands, such that visitors may experience them by their own unaided efforts.

But a thru-hiker today might literally encounter trail magic at every road crossing in Georgia, effectively removing the opportunity for self-reliance and replacing it with something distinctly different. What is gained is obvious: the comfort and encouraging kindness of strangers. What is lost is harder to see, but it is the very core of the A.T. experience: the opportunity for self-reliance and fellowship with the Trail’s wilderness spirit.