Last August, I spent 21 days hiking the John Muir Trail. My trek covered 250 miles and a dozen passes considered some of the hardest in the US. This trip woke me up from deep down in my bones; I learned what I was capable of, how to let go of trivial amenities, and who I really am. So many things factored into my growth. From the scenic landscapes to the silent hours alone with marmots to the brilliant hikers I met on the trail that became dear friends -- all of it contributed to my experience.
Now, I'm a people person. I always have been and it's a part of my personality that I cherish. I can strike up a conversation with anyone. It's innate and I love it. Meeting and getting to know others on the trail was always a favorite part of my day. Often times I would go hours without seeing someone, so I would always look forward to it. Walking by an older, yet insanely fast hiker at 7:30AM exclaiming the beauty of the sun would brighten my soul for miles. I worked on my listening skills and became close with people I never would have met in my dense, traffic-ridden life in Los Angeles. Everyone is so content in the wilderness and it's impossible not to feel their happiness affect you, aside from your own.
The trail had someone from every walk of life and by the end of my 21 days I had met hikers of all age, size, race, and gender. Being courteous to my fellow hikers was a given, and politeness was expected, as it should be. After all, you see so few people each day that when you do run into someone you can't help but talk to them and get a sense of who they are. Of course there are times when all can be said is a simple "hi there" (cause we are trying to hike hundreds of miles!) but many times the passing hiker meet and greet includes the following: "Where are you going?", "Where did you come from?", "What day is it for you?", "Have a great hike!". It's an instinctual interaction and often times helpful getting more information about what's ahead.
But...it didn't always go that way for me. My hiking partner, Anna and I came to find that every once in a while, on average once (sometimes twice) a day, we would cross paths with a man or a group of men that would inject "concern." Their nay-saying would impose disillusionment in our daily goals. The more this happened, our shock grew into resilience; our disbelief turned to self-preservation. Just like everyone else, we were in the middle of a hike that was indeed hard, but not impossible. Overall, we had prepared, we were successful every day in exceeding our hiking goals, and we gave nothing but praise to those we met along the way. Personally, I felt that anyone I passed on the trail had my back and I had theirs. We were bonded, conjoined. We were all equals.
Unfortunately, from the beginning of our hike to a few days before it ended, Anna and I were consistently approached with unsolicited deprecation from men. "You won't get there tonight." "Do you know how much of a climb that is?" "That's too much for one day, you'll never make it." Now, I recognize the many sides of this issue. One expressing warning for safety's sake is welcome, and on long days I convinced myself that many of these men thought that was what they were doing, but in reality they weren't. This daily prodding I received would inevitably bring me down.
One day, I had crossed paths with a middle-aged woman who cried out, "You look great!" Although she was completely false as I hadn't had a shower in 12 days, that was where her mind went as she walked past. It brought a smile to my face and I admired her peppy, checkered shirt. A few hours later, I ran into an older man who stopped me mid-climb to brag about his experience in the backcountry. Keep in mind, I never asked. He initiated the one-sided conversation and I politely stood there. I told him I was heading to Lake Marie from Muir Trail Ranch and he scoffed. "I've been doing this for 40 years and if you are able to do that missy, I'll be very, very impressed." Those are the exact words that came out of his mouth. I don't even remember what I did but I think I just smiled and said, "Thank you but I'll be fine." Over 100 miles into my hike, I was brought down by a man with 'experience'. Did he care to ask about my experience? Would he shut down his granddaughter that way? Does he recognize that he's foretelling my failure? He. Called. Me. Missy. My head almost exploded comparing the nice woman's quick assessment of my stature versus the 'experienced' man's.
Still, Mr. Missy can say what he wants...and he did. But on my way towards Selden Pass I began to second guess myself. I teetered between feeling empowered by his cold comments and feeling incapable. I wanted to put him out of my mind, but then I would just remember the 10 other men on the trail that have spoken to me that way. On my ascent, I was also swarmed by flies. They were eating away at me while Mr. Missy was too. It was tragic how this man turned myself against me. I wasn't sure if I could make it, like he said. But then, I did. I always did.
I'm not categorizing all men this way. Way more men on the trail were complimentary and treated us like equals. No mention of my lanky legs' lack of strength. No mention of my steady smile and blonde hair. It was insignificant to what every hiker was there to accomplish and many men knew that. So, what did I have to do to be respected by all on the trail the same way I respect every hiker? Deep down, I knew that this wasn't an issue men had to deal with and I questioned if that outlook could ever change.
These interactions were just too frequent. They were too expected. I had to put walls up when approaching stern-looking men who were ready to squash me for no reason. And although these haughty hikers made a rash comment and continued on with their day unscathed, I was left to pick my dignity back up, shove it into my already heavy pack, and move on. So thank you for the extra weight, Mr. Hiker Man. Thank you for always giving me a reason to make it to my camp of choice. I used your words for fuel, but I would have made it there anyway.
All I want you to take away from my experience is to not bring others down. With something as quick as a brief "hello" in passing, no one has the time to make a judgement about who they are meeting. So don't. The trail is for solitude but also for support. Be supportive. Feed your fellow hikers with the confidence they deserve. Treat everyone equally. We're all after the same things. And we're all going to get them.