Ask anyone today about their definition of "success" or "happiness", and most likely their answer will amount to the mitigation of fear, doubt and difficulty in their daily life. Accumulating enough money would surely contribute to a less stressful existence, as would the modern gadgets, services and easy schedule that accompany such wealth. Even if their answer has nothing to do with monetary stability, but instead with the assured happiness and health of their family, the end goal is relative safety, freedom from complication, and lack of challenge. The evolution of technological advancement corresponds directly with the common obstacles faced in daily life. Everything must be faster, easier, and less complicated. Physical challenge itself is diminished by 6-minute workouts, magic therapies and miracle diets that promise an effortless path to perfection.
As long-distance hikers, we fancy ourselves immune to such thinking. We send ourselves into the wilderness with nothing but what we can carry on our backs, don't we? We endure all types of weather conditions and use nothing but our feet to propel us to distant peaks in search of solitude, do we not?
We do so, however, with the aid of global positioning systems, nearly weightless cuben fiber packs, and space-tested synthetic materials woven into modern solutions for the cold, wet and steep. Big-box outdoor retailer REI reported a record revenue of 2.2 billion dollars for 2014, up 9.9 percent from 2013. I think we can all agree that the more people are empowered to enjoy the outdoors, the better. These are the future voters who ultimately ensure the protection of wilderness areas and funding of parks and trails. But to paraphrase the words of the inimitable Aldo Leopold, what we like to think of as aids to self-reliance and adventure are more often than not replacements for them. It would seem that the easiest possible route to attaining the perfect Instagram shot of perceived hardship is preferable to actual hardship. It's a thin line, the one between using our beloved gear and being used by it.
Before my critique is mistaken for ideology, I must first admit that I don't carry a bear skin and a Bowie knife into the woods to survive on rations of salt pork and tree bark. I too enjoy the fruits of the labor of our NASA scientist friends, carrying the least amount of weight possible while still remaining fairly comfortable, if not luxurious in camp, at least compared to a 19th-century fur trapper's standards. Who am I to belittle another hiker's achievement because they summited their mountain with a lightened load? I don't pretend to have all the answers, unless of course I'm busy pretending to have all the answers. I can't claim to be the sole inhabitant of Earth who fails to exist in hypocrisy. All I can tell you is that if something detracts from the wilderness experience rather than adding to it, I would rather avoid it altogether if possible. Which is why I maintain a fairly strong, if also fairly unpopular stance against "Trail Angels".
Especially along the Appalachian Trail, the trail angel is a frequent, if not nearly constant sight. Arrive to any road crossing of the Southern AT in spring, and you are sure to be greeted by a hot chocolate, breakfast pastry and covered chair in a free-of-charge, mobile restaurant. The trail angel is so prevalent that you could practically spend weeks hiking from free coffee in the morning, to free sandwiches and fruit at midday, to free hamburgers, beer and dessert for dinner without carrying a single bite of food yourself. In many cases, they are accompanied in the parking lot by a shuttle service to the nearest hostel or motel to eliminate a walk or hitch into town. Hikers congregate around such spots, creating a social atmosphere that, at times, begins to take on the traits of a traveling music festival rather than a simple rural road crossing. The effect of "bottlenecks" created by some of the more popular trail angels and hostels have been well documented and talked about as well, resulting in the closure of popular hiker destinations like the Saufleys' "Hiker Heaven" in order to mitigate the effects of large packs of backpackers on the trail itself.
My critique is not of the generosity of the trail angel, their intention is only to make hikers happy and share in the experience of the trail, after all. Nor is it an admonition of the hiker who enjoys such things, I don't expect everyone to share my borderline-disorder-level introversion or rejection of social events. My problem is that the choice is made for me. Those of us who retreat to the woods for actual solitude no longer have to make a special trip into town to find crowds, blaring radios or loud drunks. If silence and introspection can no longer be found in our few designated wilderness areas, then where is it to be found? Benton Mackaye, the man who dreamed up America’s first long trail, envisioned the Appalachian Trail not as "a footpath through the wilderness but a footpath of the wilderness".
I fully understand that I'm being a bit dramatic. Solitude can still be found if you are willing to work for it, but it is becoming increasingly more difficult as each year passes. What was once an ultimate test of one's mental and physical endurance is quickly becoming a glorified spring-break vacation, pre-packaged and ready for social media prestige. Why spend another night in a damp tent when a warm bed, hot food and like-minded company can be found a short shuttle away?
In recent conversation with another hiker, the subject of "Fastest-known-times", or "FKT's" as they are known, was brought up. The subject is a frequent one of conversations in trail circles, what with the recent controversy of Scott Jurek's triumph over the previous record for fastest supported hike of the AT, and Baxter State Park Authority's swift and strict demand for compensation in light of Jurek's celebratory champagne toast atop Katahdin. He held the fairly popular opinion among hikers that FKT's are a waste of time, that the trail is there not to be "conquered", but instead to be enjoyed and slowly savored. I held the opposing opinion that the very meaning of life is self-improvement, and that while it is possible to challenge oneself without timing the event, against what should we measure improvement? Do we simply stop attempting to improve ourselves once a general consensus is reached that our achievements are "good enough"?
Mr. Jurek, however, admittedly did so with the aid of a traveling van complete with support staff, sponsorship from a major corporation, and real-time maps online charting his progress. Isn't it a bit hypocritical of me to extol the virtues of the trail runner while simultaneously criticizing those of the trail angel? My only reasonable defense can be found in the idea of "cultural value". What value does each add to the culture of the hiking community, to the importance of the trail itself, to the very idea that living and being alive are two very different things? No one can argue that even with logistical help from others, running an average of 50 miles a day over the course of 46 days isn't a feat worthy of aspiring to. Would the trail be better represented by seemingly insurmountable physical and mental challenge, or by free hamburgers in a parking lot? Are we using modern technology and materials as an aid to finding ourselves, or as a solution to avoid the problems in which we might do so?
Whether you share my opinions or not, whether you think I'm a childish fool or an insufferably outdated dinosaur, the most important thing, in the end, is that we ask these questions of ourselves in the first place. Now please, pass the champagne.