PrintI confess. I pick up hitchhikers. I can almost hear the collective gasp of horror at the reading of that statement. Didn’t we all learn our lesson about this in the ‘70s? Consorting with hitchhikers can generally up your chances of encountering the highest order of creep.

But I only pick up a very special type of hitchhiker, the Appalachian Trail hiker. This rare breed of man or woman voluntarily chooses to spend their vacation time, money, and collection of blister pads trekking their way 2,180 miles through fourteen states, from Georgia to Maine, on this, the granddaddy of all hiking trails. Along the way they invariably encounter hunger, exhaustion, dangerous animals, and all other dreaded discomforts that the rest of us work so hard to avoid.

Some of them hike for the physical challenge, some for the camaraderie, and some as an exercise in personal rediscovery. By the time the hikers get to my neck of the woods, they have been trudging along the trail for five long weeks and have made it to the North Carolina and Tennessee line and the center of the Great Smoky Mountains. Here in the Smokies the passage of the intrepid A.T. hiker is as much a rite of spring as the blooming of the red bud tree. At this point the hikers invariably decide to hitch a ride down to the bustling streets of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for supplies and a little taste of civilization. I can spot an A.T. hiker from 500 yards; scraggy hair and beards abound, giant packs and bed rolls are piled up on the grass, and tattered cardboard signs plead wearily for a ride to town.

They have nicknames born of the trail like Toybox, Postman, or Bootstrap, and when given a ride they are as grateful as adopted pound puppies. They tell harrowing tales of animal encounters and sounds in the night, blaspheme the names of hikers who don’t follow accepted trail etiquette, curse their failed waterproof packs, and bemoan the constant aching of feet.  However, they also extol the beauty and wonder of the trail, marvel at the sense of self and serenity they are gaining with each conquered mile, and share their hopes and fears of making it to the end. The ride to town is about 20 minutes, just enough time to tell their tall tales and provide me a vicarious escape into a world of forest primeval and supreme self-discovery. By the end of the brief ride I am dreaming of leaving all my responsibilities behind and beginning a new life on the trail. Those fleeting moments of delicious escape are why I keep opening the car door of my heart to them.