What It’s Like to Fall in Love on a Long Hike
Lots of people say they hike to change their lives. For some, that starts by changing their love lives.
The first night Magpie asked Constantine to make out, he demurred—at least initially.
The two long-distance hikers had met ten days or so into a thru-hike of the remote Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT). For three weeks they burned through the miles and, that night, crammed into a double bed in a stranger’s house in Washington, they were much too exhausted—or so Ryan “Constantine” Bunting thought—for a first kiss. “We did make out,” remembers Dana “Magpie” Pica, with a laugh. “But we realized we were both so sore that we just went to sleep.”
Before beginning the PNT in Montana’s Glacier National Park in June 2019, Magpie had endured a breakup. She’d had on-trail romances before, and Constantine, she thought, was funny and handsome enough for a rebound fling—some “trail tail,” she kids. Their biggest challenge soon became privacy, or finding enough time and space away from other hikers to be like any other zealous young couple.
“There are certain things you don’t do after being on trail for six days—like, you don’t put your mouth anywhere interesting,” Magpie laughs. “But we’re both gross, so who cares?”
Indeed, love—or, at the very least, lust—is more common on long trails than guidebooks or the Guthook app comments section might lead you to believe. So long as it doesn’t get predatory, pink-blazing (when a hiker speeds up or slows down to hike with a crush) is a prime trail pastime. Rumors of romance and quarrels of trail couples become soap-opera fodder, gossip that allows people to while away hours of pointless ups and downs. I once watched a man pitch his tent at the bottom of a hill during a deluge because he was irate that his girlfriend had outpaced him. Later that night, delighting in schadenfreude, we marveled as he frantically scooped water from his flooded tent with a cook pot while she slept in the shelter. I laugh about it two years later.
Still, I’m not sure I’ve ever been asked more about my love life than of the time I spent on an Appalachian Trail thru-hike with my wife, Tina. We’d already survived a southern summer and a Wyoming winter in a van that sometimes felt tighter than our tent. But how can you have sex, friends would wonder, when you’re caked in blood, bites, and sweat? And how do you slide into side-to-side sleeping bags after quibbling about, say, where to make camp?
Maybe it means finding a restaurant bathroom, a trailside motel, or a hidden watering hole (but never a plywood privy). Maybe it means letting off steam with the lukewarm beer you’ve packed out of town. To bastardize the bands Pablo Cruise or Yes, love will always find a way. After all, who else is going to tote your tent while you mule the food?
Following their first bedraggled tryst, Magpie and Constantine hiked together for the next 700 miles. After, they pined for one another while he trudged across Wisconsin’s 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail and she tended to a dying friend in Montreal. They rendezvoused in October 2019 at the start of the Arizona Trail—an epic “first date,” as Magpie puts it, that lasted months and 800 miles. Along the banks of the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, Constantine handed her a crocheted heart he’d found on trail in Wisconsin.
“It was a physical way to define what our relationship had been growing to become,” says Constantine. “She carries it around to this day. That still feels like a big thing.”
When they’re not on trail these days, Magpie and Constantine live together in her home in the small British Columbia town of Pemberton. She plans to join him later this year for the North Country Trail, the 4,600-mile behemoth of the National Scenic Trail network. It will be the last leg of his quest to become the first known person under 30 to have hiked all of the network’s 11 paths.
Magpie, 28, and Constantine, 26, talk about their love, possible marriage, and prospective citizenship plans with delight. (She’s Canadian, and a visa only buys him so much time there.) They mention their next hikes together with the casual assurance of a couple planning a Friday night at the movies—the trail, after all, formed and fortified their relationship. With a catch in her throat, Magpie remembers the more perilous moments of their 2020 voyage on Canada’s treacherous Great Divide Trail, from water crossings to avalanche zones. She realized then that this was much more than trail tail.
“That hike was absolute hell,” she says. “And those challenges really solidified my feeling that I trusted him with my life. That accelerates relationships a lot more than if you’d just met in a bar.”
The first time Stephen “Pizza Steve” DeRouen was going to meet Therese “Special Brew” Hobson’s family, he worried.
Five days into his 2019 trek of the Appalachian Trail, near the northern edge of Georgia, he’d met Special Brew, a recent graduate of Florida State. They instantly bonded over their matching Hyperlite packs and the fact that he was from Tallahassee, where he’d managed a Chipotle she frequented during college. They started talking and, sometimes, hiking in tandem.
By the time they were out of Tennessee, they’d confessed their feelings. Special Brew called a guy back home from a trail angel’s front yard and broke off a short relationship. Two days later, they shared a tent for the first time atop Beauty Spot, a panoramic bald knob where the Appalachians unfurl in an infinite ripple.
But Brew soon developed a chronic case of plantar fasciitis so debilitating that it sometimes made it impossible to put weight on her right foot. Steve slowed down, too, and stuck by as doctors jabbed steroids into her foot or when the pain demanded she pull up for the night a bit early. Nearly 1,300 miles into their northbound adventure, Brew hopped off the trail to let her foot rest and to visit nearby family in New York. Steve trudged on solo to the Pennsylvania–New Jersey border, where Brew’s family scooped him up, too. But what would they think of his thru-hiker hygiene?
“I was concerned and nervous—full-grown beard, very smelly,” remembers Steve. “I had to let them see me the next day after I’d cleaned up.”
“At least they got to smell me first,” Brew cuts in.
Her family soon dispatched Steve’s fears. They offered a shower and a shave, of course, but Steve was more taken by their warmth and rapport. He could tell how much they cared for one another, which prompted him to start calling his own family from the trail.
Brew’s family understood the circumstances that had galvanized the couple’s bond. Even before Brew’s foot woes, word of a man wielding a machete and threatening hikers worked its way along the trail grapevine. He eventually stabbed two hikers and killed one, so Brew was glad to have someone she trusted nearby. “I could feel that Steve was looking out for me without him saying it,” she says. “And that’s when I knew.”
Their shared pace also taught Steve, who had planned to finish in four months, to slow down and enjoy the adventure, since a return to life and work would come soon enough. They now live together in western North Carolina and will start working at the same dairy farm this spring—roles that will give them the same proximity they enjoyed when they first fell in love.
“I have my way of doing things, and I want to do it that way. But Steve is an outstandingly patient person,” says Brew, scoffing as he jokes that he just needed her water filter. “Waiting for me was not always easy, but he always made it seem easy.”
She learned from that. In fact, the best thing about finding love on a long hike or simply hiking with your partner is that you have no choice but to absorb what they know and embrace how they feel. It’s an intimacy that doesn’t ferry secrets.
Magpie, for instance, is a queer woman from British Columbia who lived in Canadian punk houses and whose two best friends are nonbinary. One day, Constantine—“a very conventional straight guy raised in the South,” as Magpie puts it—asked why she kept referring to one person as “they.” She spent miles and miles walking him through queer theory, biological sex versus gender, and TERFs. He was fascinated. She fell for his openness; he fell for her knowledge.
“What was attractive was that he was willing to listen to my experiences and knowledge about something he knew nothing about,” says Magpie, just days after Constantine began the Florida Trail. “He believed me and respected me. He wanted to learn.”
This is just as true for couples who didn’t meet on the trail but, rather, took their relationship to the trail. Scroll through the index of certified triple crowners, and you’ll notice a litany of shared last names—the Hesseniuses, the Hahns, the Haynams, all pairs who have completed a top feat of American endurance athletics.
After a decade together, Tina did not know of my devotion to Pop-Tarts until we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line; I don’t think I understood her ability to hear a single podcast about, say, beavers, and then wax poetic about them for a day. You also have constant chances to help your partner at their weakest or tap their strength when you need it. I’ve never been more in awe of anyone than while watching Tina power through three possibly broken bones for a thousand miles.
“On those grueling days, you don’t always have to be perfect—and, really, with someone you love, you shouldn’t be,” says Jeff “Indiana” Senterman, who’s made a career out of managing trails and is now hiking more of them with his husband, Moe “Storm” Lemire. “That’s a lesson for regular life, too. You have to rely on each other. If you do that, you’ll enjoy each other, even when it sucks.”
In 2016, Senterman started a new job as director of the Catskill Center, a New York nonprofit that maintains the region’s forests and trails. Before also making the move to New York, Lemire, his college sweetheart and husband of nearly two decades, decided to hike the Appalachian Trail alone. Senterman visited as often as possible, but they struggled with the six-month separation.
Yet watching his husband prove that he could endure 2,200 miles inspired Senterman. When Lemire came home, they started hiking more together, rekindling an early passion of their relationship. They now run Hike on Guides together in the Catskills and completed their first thru-hike as a couple, the 138-mile Northville-Placid Trail, amid last summer’s heat. Up next, as soon as Senterman gets a sabbatical at the Catskill Center, they’ll hit the Pacific Crest Trail.
The Hiker Trash Husbands, as they call themselves, do have one caveat, that’s perhaps more familiar to couples who hike together than couples who met while hiking: “You can have sex or hike, but not both,” says Senterman.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other rewards. “When it’s just us together, the act of hiking itself is pretty darn intimate,” says Senterman. “You’re experiencing that person in a way you wouldn’t by just having coffee. The intimacy that comes with spending that much time with a person is a blessing. I hope he feels the same way.”