July 31- August2: Finding the right person or group of people to hike with is one of the more challenging and fun aspects of thru-hiking. It's kind of like vacationing with people: there are some people who are great friends at home, but you don't vacation well together-- you like to get up early and hit the waves, they like to sleep in. You like dive bars while they like elegant dining. You like hanging out with new friends you met at the pool bar, they like to unwind and read, uninterrupted. The reverse can be true: you have that friend who you love to go on trips with, but have nothing in common with in everyday life. Finding these things out takes a lot of trial and error.
I had gone through a lot of hiking buddies on the PCT. Early one, I fell in with Wallaby and Fainting Goat. We made a good team. We hiked well together, had similar schedules, pulled similar miles. We got along well. Then we got separated after a snowstorm. I fell in with Silver and Velcro. We bonded fairly well, though not as well as I had with Wallaby and Fainting Goat. Then we separated at Casa de Luna. I fell in with another group after Walker Pass, but then they moved on when I was waiting for mail at Kennedy Meadows. I reunited with my buddy, Skyline after I took a week off for Vegas, but lost him at Lake Tahoe when HE was taking time off. I was like a pinball on the PCT, bouncing from one group to another, and then flicking away again.
I found the AT to be much different. Groups formed earlier and were much tighter. Sure, groups fell apart and some people got off trail for injuries or personal reasons, but when they got back on trail, they seemed to be absorbed into groups much more quickly. I was pretty much in two groups for the whole AT: the little chick group of Chicklette, Big Spoon, and myself and various other hikers who joined and fell away from the trio. Then I moved on in Hot Springs and joined Subaru, Hawkeye, and Road Runner-- who were my homies for the remainder of the trail. We often hiked with other groups for days or weeks, but our little core was for the most part, intact. The ties were stronger.
It may have been,to a large degree, that the terrain on the AT is so much trickier. It's steeper, rockier, wetter, muddier. There's a much bigger potential to fall and get hurt. We all fell. A lot. And we all stuck pretty close to one another, helping each other up, looking out for each other as we crossed slippery log bridges or scrambled up steep rock faces. The PCT is much more chill. Miles and miles and miles of ridge walking at an easy grade. Hot sun, yes. Lots of water to carry, of course. But no real imminent danger of sliding off a rock face and breaking an ankle. So we spread out more. We experienced the solitude a bit more. We zoned out in our own personal clouds of zen. It's easier to give one another space when there isn't imminent danger at every turn.
The hiking dynamic changed after Etna.
No, we weren't suddenly climbing up granite rock faces with rebar sticking out, or squelching through boggy muddy fields. But there was a sense on impending danger. After Etna, the one constant on the trail was the smell of smoke.
Instead of leapfrogging back and forth between single hikers and couples, I was leapfrogging with 3-4 person groups, who merged with other 3-4 person groups, and then dissipated again. I spent the majority of the next few days with Nick.
Nick was a pretty compatible hiking partner. Like me, he was an early riser; small, frequent breaker; foot dipper in streams; and though he had been doing lower milage than I was, he liked the challenge. And, well, truth be told, he was kind of nerdy. And you know how I am about nerds.
Seriously- that's all I want, a rugged, outdoorsy nerd. Who isn't obsessed with spreadsheets. Somebody who can build a fire, hike for hours, and grasps complex scientific theory. (and can then explain that theory to me). All I want is my own real live Indiana Jones! Is that too much to ask??
Nick wasn't Indiana Jones. But he was pretty nerdy. So we hiked along happily together.
Plus, the views were slowly starting to fade behind a veil of fog and smog and smoke. It was nice to be able to spend the time talking to somebody.