I was fortunate to find myself immersed in a room full of hikers this past weekend. Each year the members of ALDHA-West come together to swap trail stories and share each other’s passion for backpacking long distances. The weekend is devoted to uniting hikers from around the world and specifically those who have section-hiked or thru-hiked one or all of the three big thru-trails of the world—Continental Divide, Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails. To join in the merriment, we come from near and far. Many folks are from the west coast, but some came from farther like Kansas, Virginia and even Mexico. Regardless of how many miles we needed to travel—my good friend Shera and I traveling an intimidating 7 1/2 hours each way—we all rallied for the yearly reunion. This year’s gathering took place at Camp Augusta in Nevada City, which rests along the rolling foothills of the Sierra Nevada. It’s a beautiful camp, one in which cute little cabins are scattered beneath great, big cedars and moss-lined oaks.
What makes this particular reunion so special is that it doesn’t matter if you know any other hikers or if you know the whole crew. Further, it doesn’t matter if you hiked a thousand miles with another attendee or only a mile as the bond between hikers is something very unique. We are friends. We are family. After years of not having seen each other, we pick up just where we left off: the trail.
The amount of stories generated is beyond impressive and each and every time I learn about a new trail or piece of gear, I am eager to know more. And, as it typically turns out, I am even more eager to place my feet on that trail. The Grand Enchantment and Hayduke are just two that now permeate my thoughts on a regular basis.
Anyway, if your asking what a bunch of veteran hikers does during such an event, here is the lowdown. It was friday at 3 o’clock when one of my closest friends and I hopped into her Honda Fit and drove the 7 1/2 hours over the border, down past Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen until finally reaching the camp at the dark hour of 10:30pm. It was a long drive, one entertained with trail-talk and an assortment of dance parties. (How does one have a dance party whilst behind the wheel of a car? Very creatively of course, with only the most appropriate music including The Talking Heads, Snoop Dog and Macklemore to name a few). When we finally reached the camp, we poured ourselves a glass of wine (glass referring to Silipints and stainless steel cups) and walked down to the cabin where a dozen hikers defied the hands on the clock that would otherwise suggest it was well past “hiker midnight”. There, the conversations were abloom, adrift in the world of gear, miles and trails.
The next day—after a slightly torturous hangover—I sat in on a series of hiker talks. They included a female setting the speed record on the PCT, another woman pack-rafting the Brooks Range in Alaska, a man walking the length of South America under a very hot sun while learning about small town cultures and the traditions within and then finally, but certainly not least, a talk from my friend Swami, who simply put is a legend. His talk told the story of how he came to hike 12 long walks in 18 months. 15,000 miles were covered in that time—staggering, I know—and the trails/routes followed included the Pacific Northwest Trail, Great Divide Trail, International Appalachian Trail, Southwest Horseshoe, AT, PCT and CDT to name a few. As I sat in the front row being swept into stellar photography, I could only think, yeah I’m gonna hike that one day…yeah, I’m gonna hike that one day.
And indeed I will. You see, I discovered a few things this past weekend. One is that I’m not ready to stop hiking. There are a dozen trails that I yearn to set foot upon before I leave this earth and as a preparation I want to hike them while I’m young, healthy, energetic and uncommitted to anything that would otherwise tie me down. The idea to go back to school can be put on the back-burner once again. The dream of pursuing a career so that I can afford a house, a truck NOT from the 80’s and any other big-item luxery can be a priority for another day.
Back at the Gathering, I was listening to Swami’s talk and dreaming of trails. It must be said that the reason I could overlook the 7 1/2 hour drive was to see this particular man. He is one of the most inspirational people in my life and I am very fortunate that we have become good penpals as a result of our brief meetings on the PCT back in 2007 and again in 2012. For someone who has hiked 50,000 miles at the young age of forty-three, his modesty is absolutely amazing. But I suppose such a characteristic evolves when hiking becomes more than just a thing we do. When hiking becomes part of us, thriving beneath our skin and ingrained deep into our minds, veins and bones, we become humble.
After Swami’s talk, the group dispersed and headed up to dinner. I joined yet another conversation with a table of hikers, some I’d met before and others I had only heard about. Then, the herd moved back to the main lodge, and we all sat down to watch the latest Triple Crowners receive their awards. I was pleased to see three hikers whom I’d hiked with—albiet briefly—on the CDT in 2011. Peanut Eater, Paranoid and Handlebar each received the metal plaque, a plaque that I had received a couple years ago and I’ve since felt very proud to possess. Hiking the Triple Crown is no easy feat. It involves hiking the lengths of the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails and promises a journey of many challenges, but also of many rewards. We each hike for different reasons and with different outlooks on life. We hike these trails in different orders and over the course of different timeframes.
At the end of the ceremony, we listened to a few stories from other renown hikers, including Barney “Scout” Mann who is an exceptional writer, husband, hiker and trail angel at the southern terminus of the PCT. (He’s also an exceptional dancer, unlike myself). He presented a story for another award, one given to couple who has opened their door to thousands of hikers. The trail angels, Jeff and Donna Saufley have been beyond generous. Not only have they welcomed hikers into their home, given us a hot shower, a warm meal and a place to rest our tired legs, but they have instilled a story with each of us that will no doubt live on forever. Thank you Donna and Jeff for opening up you home and heart to us hikers. And thanks for doing all of our laundry.
After the ceremony, the night gave way to a dance party and by morning we all gathered at the outdoor picnic tables for one last feast together. After a raffle and a dozen hugs, Shera and I began the drive back home. In route, we spent the night in Mount Shasta at the home of one of my other best friends. We made a delicious meal, drank wine and sat by the fire doing what we do best: talking travel and trails.
That said, I’m not sure where I’ll be come the end of September 2014, but if I’m around, I will definitely take the 7 1/2 hour drive back down to the ALDHA-West Gathering.