By J.J. King
Family and friends have asked which trail rates as my favorite hiking experience. Regardless of mileage, time duration, or designation status, every trail presents a unique topography and organic roster of fauna and flora. As unique as each human who laces a pair of shoes and dons a pack, so too are these glorious paths.
After many years of experiencing the pleasures of long-distance rambles, I sometimes wonder if my fellow hikers realize that they are actively promoting and reaffirming one of the greatest privileges we enjoy as Americans ... freedom. Freedom to embrace an unbridled life along these trails. An experience hallmarked with opportunities for discovery, exploration and personal growth.
Our intrepid adventures also provide another defining component within the hiking community. We are blessed by fortunate encounters with fellow citizens known as “Trail Angels.” Good-natured souls, their genuine kindness, generosity and support allow for greater enjoyment of the outdoors. Indeed, the ideal of humanism is alive and vibrant along the National Scenic Trails.
I hiked on two National Scenic Trails during 2017. My original goal was to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). I commenced this grand saunter on April 25th. Similar to a previous thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I encountered many examples of support from countless Trail Angels. Boxes of bottled water and groceries were seemingly available when most needed. Volunteers at Warner Springs Welcome Center offered many services, including refreshing bucket showers. Hiker Heaven in Agua Dulce hosted remarkable hiker support: laundry, shuttles, Internet and mail service, and camping ... among inquisitive chickens.
But on May 30th, after completing 517 miles, my ambitious trek drew to a close. Due to an injury, I departed the trail. Humanism was perceived yet again, as a shuttle was provided to obtain a rental car. At that moment, I could not appreciate that my summer would nevertheless end in a rewarding manner. That while a hike of the entire PCT was not possible, exceptional generosity and kindness was awaiting in Wisconsin.
Hiking the Ice Age National Scenic Trail (IAT) from July 28 to October 7, 2017 promoted a deep and profound connection with one of America’s most notable citizens, and also with remarkable ordinary citizens. It afforded a palpable connection with a giant champion of the great outdoors, John Muir. Rambling over rocky moraines, impressively straight eskers, and circular-shaped kettles, I gained many opportunities to better appreciate how Muir developed an advanced level of knowledge of glacial physics. But the IAT also provided ample evidence that goodwill in the Badger State is alive, unconditional, and vibrant. Humanism need not wait until scripted seasonal holidays as prescribed by one’s calendar.
My saunter included a campsite at Ennis Lake, the site of Muir’s homestead upon immigrating from Dunbar, Scotland in 1849. While each segment of the IAT rightly claims its own reserve of natural tranquility and remnants of immense glaciology, camping here was a vaulted highlight of my entire hike. Not only was I fully connected with my naturalist hero, I also cheered genuine humanism at an Amish bakery before making camp.
At first glance, I paid little attention to the “Nature Trails Bakery” sign, having passed it to access Ennis Lake. But I was compelled to reverse course and ventured down a dirt road. Soon, I accessed an Amish farm with a building featuring a prominent smokestack, emanating a most pleasing aroma. Warmly greeted inside, I witnessed shelves of bread, cookies, donuts, muffins and pies. Our conservation was cordial and educational. Mysteries of how these treats were crafted were revealed. My backpack was equally intriguing as it mirrored a simplified life. After choosing a delicious cherry pie for supper, and a lip-smacking loaf of cinnamon bread for breakfast, we exchanged fond farewells. But upon starting down the dirt road, my new friend came running to provide his business card. His kind spirit was uplifting.
I was offered countless acts of kindness from total strangers in some rather remarkable ways. However, the moniker of stranger quickly faded and assumed a kinder title of friend, promoting an element of humanism not as easily observed within urban environments. Twice while enjoying lunch on the side of a dirt road, a car slowly came to a stop. The driver’s window was lowered. A hand was extended grasping a wad of cash. “This is for you. Have a nice day.” As my offers of money for shuttle rides into towns were cheerfully declined, I too gratefully declined any resemblance of monetary exchange.
One Trail Angel expressed an equal interest to find my lost American Flag. Somehow my prized patriotic banner became dislodged from my pack’s webbing. It was proudly flown during my cross-country bicycle ride, my attempt of the PCT, and (nearly) across Wisconsin. This flag had seen more of America than many Americans! His motivating spirit to locate it was refreshing to witness. To inject some humor, I named the flag “Wilson” in reference to the volleyball lost by actor Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway. “Wilson! Wilson!!” Similar to the fate of the drifting volleyball, our repeated calls never resulted in its recovery.
Indeed, the National Scenic Trails provide opportunities to celebrate both iconic topography and human spirituality. They quietly beckon us to experience inspirational leaders and everyday citizens. They solidly reaffirm a warm human character transparent among Americans. They abruptly hush negativity and sadness often aired on radio, reported by printed media, and broadcast by computer and television. These trails are a conduit of humanism in its purest form. Here one may celebrate our national heritage ... a spirit of the land itself, and the spirit of countless citizens who promote a profound sense of humanism and stewardship. There is perhaps no other outdoor pursuit that provides such promise and reward as our National Scenic Trails.
J.J. King resides in Jackson, Wyoming when not living in a tent. He returned to the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail in April 2018.