After day three of my PCT journey, I was on my own. My friend, Jonathan, headed home and I adjusted to solo backpacking. The first night on my own, I found myself camping in a large group of thru hikers. There can be quite a bottleneck at the beginning of the trail until people start to spread out.
This first night included people from England, Canada, and the U.S. There was a middle age married couple, another single woman my age, and a large group of twenty-something males (two of whom had just rolled themselves in the mud for natural sun protection and were hiking the trail barefoot). Thus was my introduction to the variety and uniqueness of the thru hiker community.
Over the course of the trail I found myself often hiking alone during the day but running into new people at each water and lunch stop. I generally camped each night with new people, too. As I got further down the trail and fell into pockets of hikers with a similar pace, I started to see the same people in town and on the trail.
I hiked with people from New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Korea, China, Israel, Croatia, Finland, England, France, Switzerland, and almost every state in the U.S. (I’m sure I’m forgetting some other countries, too!). I hiked with Protestants, atheists, Catholics, Mormons, agnostics–these are just the backgrounds I know about. There were so many more religions and worldviews represented but we didn’t always have those conversations.
Some hikers find someone at the beginning of the trail and stick together until the end. Others hike in and out of people the entire journey and never have a consistent group or hiking partner. There were a few longer periods of time when I hiked with the same people. My first hiking partner for about a week was a college student from Washington state. Next, I connected with a university professor who immigrated to the U.S from Croatia a number of years ago. He is a seismologist and I had the opportunity to walk along the San Andres fault with him, soaking in as much knowledge as I could.
The first larger group I hiked with was in the California desert someplace between Wrightwood and Tehachapi. A group of four in their twenties from across the U.S., a retired gentleman from New Zealand, and myself. In Northern California and Northern Oregon, I spent time with couples from Seattle and Switzerland. Then, I hiked the entire state of Washington with a group of four. Two of them I met over a thousand miles earlier and one I met the first day hiking in Washington.
There were also many other people I shared the trail with along the way!
I write all this to give you an idea of how hiking partners and community ebbs and flows on the PCT, and more importantly, to give a glimpse of the variety of people represented. I remember processing on the trail the uniqueness of the community I was hanging out with. I wondered if we would be friends in our normal, everyday lives off the trail. Would we hang out if it weren’t for this common goal we were all pursuing? Would we have these same deep conversations so soon if we weren’t alone in the woods? Would I spend the time getting to know people different than me if I had my close friends with me on the PCT? My answer to these questions is, “I hope so.” Yet, I know it only happens when I’m intentional about choosing to go there.
For five years of my professional life I lived and worked on a Christian college campus. Into year two I realized that I lived, worked, worked out, ate, went to church, and more all within a few blocks of my building on campus. Not only was I in a bubble, the bubble consisted of a majority of people who looked like me, thought like me, read the same books as me, and heard the same speakers as me. There was a similar language in how we talked about faith, spirituality, politics and issues facing our world.
I learned and grew during those years; it was a strong community that helped continue building a solid foundation for me. But I also noticed some things that were lacking. I was being challenged but it seemed as if only within the context of my own religion and background. I loved and respected my community of friends, church, and co-workers. However, I also wanted to learn from and know people who had a life experience, belief system, and worldview that would challenge me in new ways and help me understand different perspectives.
So, I sought out opportunities to be involved and volunteer in areas outside of that community context. I didn’t do this perfectly or consistently but I worked at it in my own way one little interaction at a time.
It’s easy for me to stay in my cozy world and live life with people who have similar beliefs and values, lifestyles and interests. In fact, I like it. And, it is easier to make decisions about what I believe in that context.
Once I move outside of my cozy world, I get to know people who think differently and live life differently than me. Each is their own person with their own story. Once I know about their life, their realities and beliefs, it makes it impossible to think of them as a stereotype. We have a greater capacity for patience, empathy, grace, and understanding for each other. These interactions help make the world less divided and fearful. And, I am changed.
It is also really hard. Putting aside my own desire to be right, to be heard, to persuade others to my way of thinking? If you’re familiar with the personality assessment “Strengthsfinder,” then it will make more sense why this is hard for me. Two of my top strengths are Belief and Command. Talk about a dynamic duo! Not only do I have a strong sense of what I believe and why, I’m not afraid to voice it. In fact a direct quote from the definition of the “command” strength is, “Unlike some people, you feel no discomfort with imposing your views on others.” Eek! I have to constantly be aware of this in my conversations with others. Let’s just say during my lifetime I’ve gotten really good at going back to people and apologizing for something I’ve said.
What I’ve learned along the way is that when I ask questions and keep my mouth shut for a while, when I seek to understand before being understood, I connect with people on a different level–on a level that breaks down walls. But I forget. I don’t agree. I get really fired up about something and want someone to see things my way (because I’m right, of course!). It’s a constant choice and a fine balance of asking, listening, learning, and sharing.
For me, this unlikely community of thru hikers is a huge part of what the PCT was about. A group of people coming together, learning each other’s stories, laughing and traveling together towards a common purpose. People challenged me, disagreed with me, taught me, and accepted me. It was a beautiful experience of setting aside differences and finding commonalities. I have a high level of respect and affection for my fellow thru hikers.
Now we have this common experience of the PCT that will never be lost. We have a common story we can share with the world; a story that brings people together from many walks of life instead of alienates. A journey that removes walls instead of builds them.
I love this.
I don’t always know how to incorporate what I learned on the trail back at home. As I process my experience and find myself back in my cozy community, this is one of the areas I have been wondering about. One thing I know for sure is that I want to be a part of understanding people’s stories and helping remove walls in our world. Maybe today that starts simply with saying, “hello” to someone I might normally walk by without acknowledging. Baby steps, right?
Addendum: Just last week, after I had written this post, I was sitting on a bench in front of the twelfth station of the cross at The Grotto, reading and journaling. A couple walked by and asked me how often I come there. As we started talking I found out they are a Muslim couple from Iran doing a road trip in the U.S. We had a 20-minute conversation about their experience in the U.S., why they had decided to visit The Grotto on their drive through Portland, and about similarities between the world’s major religions.
A Quaker from Portland and a Muslim couple from Iran spending time together at a National Catholic Shrine asking questions about each other’s world and beliefs. This. This was a breaking down walls moment. It was also a “thin place” moment for me, a Celtic Christian term for a space in time where the distance between heaven and earth seem to vanish. The presence of God felt very near. Baby steps.