I was taken a little aback on a recent A.T. hike when I passed a group of individuals who did not look like hikers. Some had rucksacks; others carried a blanket under one arm, a plastic bag in their hands, or nothing at all. They weren’t wearing name brands or outdoor gear. In fact most of them wore combat boots or worn out sneakers on their feet and bulky, heavy coats to keep warm—a far cry from my lightweight capilene layers and micro-puff down jacket.
Their leader—a young man named Brian with a dark, manicured beard and a Marmot rain jacket—smiled at me and explained that his group was made up of mostly homeless folks from Haywood Street Ministry.
“Members of the un-housed community are expert campers, expert hikers, and expert survivalists,” Brian explained to me later. “It’s important for them to feel proud of their skills, and it’s even more important for the individuals whom we pass to recognize their ability.”
I was put in my place. My self-righteousness had been exposed like a backpacker’s rear end on National Hike Naked Day.
Brian went on to tell me how many un-housed “hikers” walk five to ten miles a day to receive meals, a shower, services, and occasional shelter, and how most of the folks in his circle have spent more nights under the stars than even the most experienced backpacker.
One of the hikers in Brian’s group was David. On his first hike he weighed 348 pounds. “Because of backpacking,” David said, “I’m now down to 239.”
David and I talked and laughed about how we both tried to take too much on our first backpacking trip. We compared notes on our favorite local day-hikes and we bonded over a shared love for Grayson Highlands in Southwest Virginia. Then we both recounted the difference that the trail had made in our lives.
“One of the best parts about the trail,” David said, “is that nobody’s gonna tell you that you can’t be out there. It’s a place we all belong. No one on the trail tells you, you can’t have this because you didn’t do that. Out there, it’s common ground.”
The trail is there for people who need to be healed. But it is also there for people who need to be broken. Hiking can literally lift up the people who feel undervalued and help them have a mountain top experience, but it can also take the proud into a desolate valley. The trail is an equalizer. And as David put it, “To Mother Nature, everyone has the same self-worth. “
It is amazing what happens when you overcome whatever it is that hems you in and get out on the trail. Regardless of whether you start the journey housed or un-housed, haughty or humble, once you take that first step you are a hiker. And you are home.