On my 2017 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I was given the trail name Gandalf for my tendency to sprawl out my belongings and prevent others from passing. I joined a large contingent of thru-hikers with Lord of the Rings–themed trail names. There were at least four other Gandalfs that year, along with multiple representatives for each of the members of the Fellowship and more esoteric characters that only readers of the books would care about. (Tom Bombadil, anyone?)
The Lord of the Rings fascination reaches far beyond trail names. It seemed like every AT shelter had “Not all who wander are lost” carved into it somewhere; the quote also serves as the most overused thru-hiking Instagram caption. It’s so ubiquitous that most a number of people don’t know it’s from Bilbo’s poem about Aragorn in The Fellowship of the Ring. “Second breakfast” is a beloved part of a hobbit’s diet and an essential part of a thru-hiker’s as well. And one time, while contemplating a blue-blazed, bad-weather bypass in a storm, I noticed “Frodo and Sam did worse!” written on one side of the sign at the fork and “Voldemort was a purist” penned on the other, like angel and devil fantasy advisers.
Over the course of my time on the AT, I chatted with a lot of thru-hikers whose Kindles and audiobook queues were stacked with fantasy novels. Because my days comprised an endless amount of headspace and an ever dwindling number of thoughts to fill it with, I spent a lot of time wondering why that was.
When it came to my own thru-hike, fantasy was very much linked to the reason I was on the trail in the first place. “It makes sense that people who enjoy epic tales of fantasy would be magnetized to do something epic of their own,” says my fellow 2017 AT thru-hiker (and supremely well-read fantasy lover) Tess “Lotus” Mullaney. “Someone drawn to these types of stories might be drawn to finding the magic in their lives and dreaming big.”
It’s hard to say what exactly spurs the motivation to thru-hike, but a love of fantasy novels was somewhere among my influences. Before I even left, I marked in my guidebook where I would pass Frodo and Sam’s mileage to get to Mount Doom (about 1,350 miles—it’s toward the northern end of New Jersey, in case you’re wondering). “The obvious connection is a fascination with adventure and the unknown. We want to picture ourselves as Frodo or Bilbo, stepping out our front door on a journey to the ends of the earth,” says Alexander “Mile Back” Popp, who waxed poetic on this topic when we met up at a shelter in North Carolina.
It also sets up thru-hikers for success in a way other genres don’t. The ability to idealize the most unpleasant circumstances imaginable is basically a thru-hiker requirement; extreme weather, rotting feet, and perpetually funky smells all have to be thought of as an endearing, even charming, part of the journey. If you’ve ever seen a thru-hiker scream “This is so cool!” into the howling winds of a storm, they’re probably picturing themselves in a realm where death is always defied and never something to actually worry about. Tasia “StinkyCheez” Kellogg, a thru-hiker inked with elvish tattooes, agrees. “The idea of having my own adventure in the woods helped romanticize the sufferfest of the trail,” she says. “Climbing Clingmans Dome in a whirling snowstorm? Yeah, no—this is Narnia. Where is the lamppost?”
And in a weird sort of way, thru-hikers are dealing with things more akin to a character in a fantasy novel than anything else. They’re facing low odds of success, adapting to unforeseen scenarios, and picking themselves up after various obstacles knock them down again and again. They grow weary and run-down over the course of the journey. They also get tougher, wiser, and sometimes grow long beards. And when it’s over, they have the deep-seated need to do it all again—I just set out on my second thru-hike, this time on the Pacific Crest Trail. In general, relatable is not a word that first comes to mind when thinking about the fantasy genre, but thru-hikers can relate. After all, when you boil it down, The Lord of the Rings really tells the story of an awful lot of walking.