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A Sense of Community on the Appalachian Trail and Camino de Santiago

Roncesvalles 06 albergue 06 shoes“Hey man, is there any way you can come hike with me on the Appalachian Trail?” I anxiously asked all my close friends.

“No, I’ve gotta’ work,” was the response I invariably received.

“Well, how bout’ just going for a week or two,” I virtually pleaded with most of them.

I was distraught. Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. For the minute I stepped foot onto America’s most popular footpath, it became clear that the Appalachian Trail Community runs wide and deep. Approximately 3,000,000 hikers per year hike some part of it each year. Amongst that three million are approximately 2,000 thru-hikers.  These are people attempting to hike the entire 2,181 mile trail from Georgia to Mount Katahdin in northern Maine in one hiking season. Thru-hikers usually begin their hikes in late March or early April. Anybody beginning in that time frame is virtually assured of being in the midst of a ‘bubble’ of hikers for the entire fourteen states.

Appalachian Trail hikers give each other trail names. Mine was Skywalker, due to my near 7-foot (2.10 meters) height. There were plenty of other colorful trail names, such as Luna (walks at night under the moon), Chainsaw (snores loud), and Wrongway (gets lost a lot). These trail names help establish hiker’s identities and are much easier to remember than regular names.

The Appalachian Trail has 255 shelters, which is an average of one shelter every nine miles (15 kilometers). These three-sided shelters are popular sites for camping, cooking dinner, getting water, and socializing. I found that even on days when I was hiking alone, I could look forward to having company that evening at the shelter. In fact, this tight-knit social community makes the hiker feel like he or she is part of something larger than himself or herself. In my case, it even served as an impetus to keep going on low-morale days, and ultimately helped me complete my thru-hike.

Community on the Camino

There is only one footpath in the world that has a social network or culture that can compare to the Appalachian Trail. That is the Camino de Santiago.

The biggest problem with most foreign trips is meeting people. Usually, foreign tourists are limited to formal conversations with restaurant waiters, hotel desk clerks, bellhops, etc. While walking through the streets in foreign countries, tourists habitually do ample sightseeing and make lots of eye contact with strangers. But deeper penetration into the culture usually proves elusive. The good news is that the Camino de Santiago is a dramatic departure from such a traditional overseas trip.

Pilgrims are forced out of their comfort zone. The routine requires it. On an average day on the Camino Frances, a pilgrim walks 25 kilometers, including climbs and descents, while carrying a backpack. That, in and of itself, loosens up most people.

“How do you decide who to walk with on the Camino?” is the perennial question people ask before walking the Camino de Santiago. Usually, the answer is very simple. Pilgrims walk with other pilgrims who go about their speed. Almost by default, this creates kindred souls. In fact, it can create the oddest hiking partners. I vividly remember a pair of widowed septuagenarian males walking almost the entire Camino Frances with two Scandinavian college students. Better yet, they reveled in having pilgrim dinners and red wine, often followed by dancing in the evenings.

Pilgrims stay busy—much more so than other tourists. They are constantly preoccupied with existential pilgrimage questions such as how far to walk for the day, which albergue to stay in, where to eat dinner, whether to do laundry, choosing bunks and occasionally bothersome pilgrims. The good news is that this full agenda forces people to ‘let their masks down’. It is much easier to develop authentic relationships on the Camino than almost any other type of trip. In the Information Age, cell phones, computers, and other electronic gadgets habitually get in the way of establishing authentic relationships. Studies consistently point up the irony that despite the fact that we are more interconnected than ever, people now have less than half the close friends that people did just thirty years ago. But Camino-style travel takes dead aim at this. You can spend just a few days—sometimes mere hours—struggling along the Camino with other pilgrims and already feel genuinely close to them.

A great irony is in the making. In the Middle Ages, 500,000 pilgrims, mostly indigent and illiterate, walked the Camino de Santiago. Now in the much more affluent 21st century, medieval ‘Camino-style’ traveling is making a comeback. The stark fact is that large numbers of overseas tourists have found packaged, sedentary travel packages to be sterile. The one, and only one, change I would make in the Camino culture is to institute the convention of ‘pilgrim names’ (‘walking names’), as is the custom on the Appalachian Trail. This adds an element of excitement and surprise in the early part of the journey. Better yet, given the nature of the journey and far-flung origins of the pilgrims walking it, some of the names would likely be quite vivid. And in a practical sense, pilgrim names would be easier to remember.

Perhaps the stunning resurgence of the Camino de Santiago lies in the wisdom espoused by St. Augustine way back in the first century. “Solvitur ambulando (Walking solves all).”

Bill Walker, “Skywalker”, walked the Camino Frances in 2010 and 2011.  Bill Walker is the author of the recently released, The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago. He also is the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail (2008), and Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail (2010).

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