I’ve written here before about the way that free food acts like a bat signal to wandering hikers. There were the many times that, after hiking alone all day, I was suddenly surrounded by friends congregating around a cooler of sodas or a grill set up at a road crossing. Then there was the afternoon in Damascus, when word started spreading that the Baptist church was setting out a free meal under a pavilion, and you could see the hikers popping out of buildings up and down the street.
So when I saw a “Free Dinner Saturday” banner in front of a church in Luray, I assumed it would be an opportunity to connect with fellow hikers after a few days of walking alone in the Shenandoahs. I had eaten my first dinner an hour or so before, but it didn’t matter; I eagerly followed the aroma of lasagna to the church basement.
I was about halfway through the line when I looked at the people around me and realized my mistake. While the unkempt beards, shuffling gaits and unique odors were all familiar, these were wanderers of a different sort. I had inadvertently joined the church’s weekly outreach to local homeless people.
I apologized and explained my situation to the lady serving the salad, who smiled politely and assured me that I was still welcome. What she really wanted to say, I am certain, was “Don’t worry, I don’t think anyone can tell the difference.”
At a certain point in my life, this–being mistaken as homeless–might have bothered me. But long-distance hiking, if you let it, has a way of eroding the customary ways that we worry about what others think of us. Within a couple weeks of starting the hike, standard conversations with new friends might involve mysterious rashes or bowel movements. And there are only so many ways to conceal your intent when you disappear into the woods with a wad of toilet paper and some hand sanitizer.
So the hikers form a merry little band of friends who discuss the finer points of privy usage and can recognize each other by their snores. I loved it. When you don’t have enough energy to keep up appearances, it means instant, honest friendships based on shared circumstances. The connections and conversations fostered by those friendships are some of my favorite memories of the trail.
Every once in a while we would forget that other people were not having this same experience. They would crack the windows politely while giving us rides, marvel at our excitement when we finally found a Dr. Pepper, or stare while we dealt with pack explosions and resupplies outside of grocery stores. It was one of my favorite parts of town stops: while surrounded by strangers going about their regular routines, running into another person who was out of place in a way that I instantly recognized.
I hope some of this sticks with me now that I once again travel by car and sleep with a roof over my head. Not that I always want to smell bad or talk about poop with strangers, but there is something liberating about living your life in a way that is meaningful to you without worrying about how other people perceive it. Liberating for you and, I think, liberating for others–when we see someone else who is experiencing something that we were trying to conceal, there’s a connection that frees us to drop our charades and live honestly. And living honestly seems like something worth pursuing.
(If you were hoping for a personal update about what I’ve been up to since leaving the trail, that’s coming soon.)
Thanks for reading.