Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Homeless or Thru-Hiker?

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“What’s the difference between a homeless person and a thru-hiker?” Maddog asked one day in Washington.  He, Gumby, and I had been hiking together for most of Washington.  Maddog and Gumby took turns telling jokes to keep our minds occupied.  I only knew two jokes, and I had told them way back in California.  “I don’t know.  What?”  Pause.  “A Smartphone.”  I laughed long and hard and chuckled hours and days later.

Maddog and Gumby in Washington.
The Trail began and ended with these two!
I was reminded of this conversation the other week as I headed out to help another ranger to dismantle a transient camp that had been discovered within park boundaries.  It was the third camp from what appeared to be the same woman.  As we approached the camp, he described the other two camps they had found and how they’d also discovered soap and a washcloth by the creek.  I instantly thought of how many times I had jumped into a creek to clean up on the PCT and other backpacking trips.  How “laundry” in a creek was an every two to three day occasion during my five months on the trail.  I pushed out the thoughts and the empathy.  “Makes sense,” was all I said.

When we reached the campsites (there were three relatively close together, only one in use), my mind blanked and traveled back to the Trail.  On my right was a damp clearing in the brush—not a prime campsite, but doable in a pinch.  On my left was a clean, dry site below a cedar tree; it was on the upslope of a hill, slightly dug in, and braced by a few-feet-wide tree trunk.  I stopped.  It was a place I had camped.  It was cleared of brush as a PCT thru-hiker would clear it.  It was positioned at the base of a tree as a PCT thru-hiker would position it.  It was an area made flat by scraping into the slope as so many PCT thru-hikers would sculpt it.  I’d have chosen that site if I walked by it on the PCT.  I had slept in places just like that.

PCT transient camp with "the Canadians" in a cuddle puddle.
We approached the most recent camp.  Tarp over a sleeping bag, some clothing, a few coffee cups, and a book.  I tried to keep my mind in ranger-mode, but I found myself wondering how her sleep setup fared in the rain, when the last time was that she did laundry, how she managed to keep clean enough to hang around town and go to the library.  When did she wake up?  When did she read?  What was it like for her to go to bed and wake up outside day after day?  Where was she digging her cat holes?  (The area was remarkably clean.)  As we packed up all of her belongings, I couldn’t help but to feel a tinge of guilt.  I, too, had lived outside for months.  I had washed up in the creek.  I had headed to town to clean up and get a cheap or free meal.  I had had no place to go but outside, no one to talk to but Gumby and the birds and lizards, no belongings but those that I could carry.  Who was I to take apart someone else’s campsite?

After spending nearly 5 hours in a McDonalds eating
 and charging electronics and cleaning up,
I first realized that I was, indeed, homeless.

I thought about and have been thinking about the above for a couple of weeks.  And I cannot resolve it in my mind.  It is another way the Trail has changed my perspective—but it is so new that I don’t know yet what to do with it.  Clearly, what made Maddog’s joke so exceptionally funny was how painfully close was to the naked truth.  The line between thru-hiker and transient is drawn with 4G.


  1. interesting perspective. Thru-hikers are there by choice and more or less transients are there by need. one could argue that thru-hikers are there by need too,but its not quite the same...or is it ?

  2. I have poured over every corner of this blog since coming across it in my hunt for info on the PCT. After 6 months of thinking about it, I am hoping to drop my life in Kentucky and tackle it head-on next April. I would love to be abe to contact you with questions and inquiries that pop up aong the way in my planning.

    Thanks for such a great blog!

    1. I did the same thing before I tackled the trail, pouring over blogs and books. At some point, you decide enough is enough and just go for it!

      I'd be happy to help in any way I can -- I LOVE to talk Trail. My email:

      Thanks for reading!

      P.S. My first step when I finally made the decision to hike was to start my savings account -- watching it grow made the PCT much more real . . . good luck!

  3. I appreciate the perspectives and ponderings you share in this post. So many times homeless neighbors become "other," when actually, I think that we are all more alike than we are different.

  4. Yes we know how that can be!! Both the wife, and I (Wolfhound6), were accused of being homeless at Boiling Springs ATC. Just because we are not college students or we did not purchase our gear/equipment at an Outfitters, does not mean we were homeless.
    We purchased our gear/equipment at Dicks and at Walmart, because they have the same quality stuff at a cheaper price.
    Granted we both live in East Hampton, NY, a popular area for the rich and famous, does't mean we dont like to be "thrifty". But yes, there is a fine line between Hikers and Homeless. We have seen it hiking through the Gap in PA, really sad...