We started early discussing why we decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. Even before we left Seattle people began asking us; why hike? why the AT? and why now?
Our initial reasons centered around what we considered an ‘authentic’ American experience – one that exists outside the commercial superculture defined in America by consumerism, overconsumption, mediated isolation, overwork, and the crumbs offered us by late Capitalism.
One of the truly great things about the Appalachian Trail is the inclusiveness of the experience. Basically anyone can participate – young and old, rich and poor, working class or bourgeois. And after even 10 days in a wilderness the grime and sweat make it difficult to discern someone’s income, age or regionality. Furthermore, the quality of experience is not dictated by age, class or expensive equipment – Grandma Gatewood hiked the trail three times starting in 1957 with an army blanket, homemade shoulder bag and a pair of Keds.
Gatewood was a farmer’s wife from Ohio, not an expedition leader, and certainly not part of a ‘cultural elite’ to whom America now offers it’s most rarefied experiences. Nor was she a freakish reality show TV contestant – a Hollywood manufactured caricature of herself, a human desiccated by the pursuit of fame and fortune at the expense of dignity. Rather, Gatewood represents a genuine American narrative – someone who wanted to see the country around her, to meet people and explore the world, to see the small towns that define true American culture, and be immersed in a transcendental experience (even without defining it as such). Her story is our story – an American story.
We’ve already seen many types of people on the trail – recent graduates, retirees, veterans, lovers, idealists, cynics, Americans and foreigners. The diversity is surprising and in some ways stunning. From the German with the newest camera and fancy ultralight backpack, to a fresh smelling and well groomed older Southern gentleman wearing a twisted bandanna and an external frame pack, all are bound by their willingness to participate in a singular experience.
We all have our own questions and problems, and our own reasons for undertaking this arduous journey. Yet something beyond the material binds us and provides the substance of the experience. Every spectacular view has already been photographed, and words have already been written describing the difficulty and scenic beauty of this particular experience – the value of the experience is not the product, which in some ways defies commodification.
The Appalachian Trail appealed to us as a genuine experience – a chance to experience a sincere Americana unadulterated by advertising culture and as individual as the people who hike it.