Three years before the recent attacks that killed Ronald Sanchez and injured another hiker, I attempted a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I went by myself because my boyfriend didn’t like hiking and I couldn’t rope anyone else into joining me. Setting out from the trail’s southern end at Springer Mountain, Georgia, I encountered mostly solo hikers. It’s hard enough to decide for yourself to leave behind everything familiar and live in the woods for months; it’s even harder to talk someone else into doing it with you.
I walked 675 miles before an injury ended my trek. During that time, I was afraid of plenty of things—loneliness, cold, rain, and bears—but not once did I fear another human.
This month’s attacks should have changed that. They should have proved my fearlessness was naive, and that the trail is not the harmonious space I felt it to be. To be sure, I’m shaken and saddened. But I’m going to keep hiking alone.
The trail’s hodgepodge of kindred souls provides solace and fellowship. Many thru-hikers are as I was, searching—we propel ourselves along the path in order to sort ourselves out. For some it’s a straightforward adventure, but for others it’s more urgent. For me it was ripping off the Band-Aid of middle-class complacency and seeking deeper meaning. For Sanchez, an Iraq War veteran, it was coping with PTSD.
Hiking alone makes me like people more. Not because I’m taking a break from them, but because I connect more deeply with the ones I encounter. Backpackers might be eccentric and in many ways diverse—various walks of life, various reasons for hiking—but we mostly share a stance of openness, trust, and generosity.
It doesn’t take long for the trail’s curative solitude to twist into triggering isolation, so I typically rejoice at the sight of another person. My trail friends did the same. This “Yay, humans!” attitude is an effect of the strain of backpacking. A close-to-the-bone, transformative experience, it sands away the guard we wear in civilization, rendering our interactions more immediate and authentic. Because merely surviving requires so much effort, there’s nothing left over to maintain a wall between yourself and others.
I cried a lot while I was on the trail: tears of joy at a vista after days of rain, tears of despair at the prospect of another frigid night wedged between snorers at a shelter.
One long, lonely afternoon, I had been sniffling off and on for hours when another backpacker—a stranger—came along, heading south. He gave his trail name as Mountain Man. He noticed my distress, offered encouragement, and stepped closer. His bushy beard contained bits of duff. Like me, he was sweaty and stinky.
“Can I give you a hug?” he asked.
Imagine this on a city street! Rather than recoiling, I felt my whole body relax, realizing the welcome truth that other humans existed and cared. I nodded and stumbled toward Mountain Man and we held each other—not the standard North American A-frame hug, but a real embrace, long enough to ignite some feel-good hormones. Everything was going to be okay.
The trail has no screening protocol or security checkpoints, so bad guys can—and probably will—get on again. As a community, we’re mourning and lamenting the violation of the trail as a haven; we like to think of the AT as made of magic and angels, not violence. Online, backpackers have expressed fear and dismay, some have argued the merits of carrying weapons against such a threat, they’ve grasped at blame. But mostly they’ve vowed not to give the murderer additional power by altering their itineraries.
Sarah Ruth Bates, a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, explained her decision to go ahead with solo hiking the 430-mile Oregon section of the Pacific Crest Trail this summer by referencing two recent assaults on street corners in her ostensibly safe neighborhood. “Gun violence is so common in America right now,” she told me. “I actually feel safer on the trail.”
Statistics collected by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy support Bates’s intuition; the path is relatively free from crime. There have been ten hikers murdered on the trail in 45 years, including this most recent incident, according to Brian King, a conservancy spokesman.
Even if statistically it’s not that risky, we never know what’s in the mind of a lone stranger approaching us on the trail, but that’s true of anywhere we go. Few places in civilization offer what long-distance backpacking does: extended time in nature, the release from digital dependence, the shearing of our defenses that allows us to be present with each other as we seldom are back home.
These truths and my memories of deep trail friendships occupy more space in my mind than the knowledge of a murder—even one that hit so close to home. The crime was truly terrible. The loss of Sanchez is crushing. But such horror is the exception. I’ll be back on the trail, alone, and when I am, I’ll hug the next Mountain Man I meet.