A month before my April 23rd start date for thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, I realized 2016 was also the Centennial of the National Park Service. That was an awesome discovery, and a key piece of inspiration for hiking; however, the more inspiring part of hiking the 2016 season was that it was an election year.
The 2016 election and the ensuing political landscape have cast America as a polarized Left vs. Right landscape. This is not true. How do I know it’s not true? I’ve walked the length of the United States living out of a backpack.
The Pacific Crest Trail passes through a large number of rural and mountain towns; some are liberal and others are conservative. I spent time in these towns chatting with bartenders, waiters, hotel staff, locals, and wanderers that were wondering what I was doing.
I noticed a common thread in these conversations: everyone was happy to talk about their home, their favorite hikes in the area, or to share a tip about the camping area they had just visited. More importantly, everyone I met was kind – without fail.
I specifically remember sitting in a Mexican restaurant in Lake Isabella with a member of my trail-family* trying to determine how we were going to get around a fire closure that had been implemented and that shut off the trail between Walker Pass and Kennedy Meadows.
As we sat there eating our food and drinking Coronas, the couple at the booth behind us turned around and offered to drive us to Kernville once we had all finished up at the restaurant. In Kernville we met up with the rest of our trail-family and some other friends. We were then fortunate to secure a ride from a raft guide who had his own company, no clients that day, and a 4x4 van that could get us up the backcountry road to Kennedy Meadows.
In northern Washington, my dad joined me for the final ~100 miles from Stehekin, WA to Manning Park, BC. Unfortunately, he pulled a muscle going over a log bridge, in the rain, and we had to significantly slow our pace as he chose to continue forward.
He ultimately decided to get off at Harts Pass, about 40 miles from the border. A trail angel there offered to drive him to one town and he could hitch from there to where my mom would rendezvous with him, she was planning on meeting both of us in Manning Park.
My dad is a southern boy from rural Virginia who grew up working on his grandparents tobacco farm. He and I differ in opinion on a lot of subjects. He caught a ride in northern Washington from a stranger in a massive pickup with a 9in revolver hanging under the dash, and the two ended up having spectacular conversation.
Despite my dad’s and my differences, he agrees that when it comes down to it the vast majority of people are nicer and more like you than you would expect.
I said that the 2016 election helped inspire me to finish hiking the PCT, and it did. As I slowly moved across America, I met people from all across the country with a myriad of backgrounds, views, and experiences. Every one of them was kind and every one of them loved being out on these trails. I hiked with veterans from Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Desert Storm; I hiked with people from small town USA; I hiked with consultants from San Francisco; I hiked with government employees; I hiked with everyday people; and I met far more.
No matter where the people came from, what they did, or what differences we had – the trails and the communities were there for all of us. This is a huge part of why I was able to finish the trail – the people, the community, the friendships – at the end of the day we’re all more alike than we are different and working up a trail will usually show you that.
*Trail-family – a term used by thru-hikers to describe the group with which they regularly hike, camp, and share rooms with in town. Essentially, your new “family” while on the trail.
Whenever ambassador Caleb Walker isn't at the National Outdoor Leadership School office in Lander, WY., where he works, he's usually somewhere in the backcountry with his dog - trying to decide what to cook for dinner. Find him on Instagram at @walker_caleb_ryan