The people you’ll meet on any given trail.
On the return leg of a hike through Eagle Creek Trail on my first ever trip to Portland last week, I realized the same hikers in the Mt. Hood National Forest were also headed for the peak of Royal Arch in Boulder last summer. I thought of categories of hikers to amuse myself as I stumbled across wet rocks, including one for me. I enjoy hiking, but I’m no aficionado. I didn’t appreciate climbing mountains when I was younger, especially as a 16-year-old with devastating menstrual cramps whose parents dragged her to Utah on a bad week. I wore jeans to hike, and I complained on a loop. It’s a wonder my parents didn’t leave me on the trail. (I need a Bryce Canyon/Zion National Park do-over.) As a 40-something, I revel in nature more than I did as a miserable kid, but like teenage me, I’m not a camper. I’m a day hiker who looks forward to showering and hitting the pillow afterward.
From my observations, here are other traits of hikers you’ll find on any trail, starting with people like me:
The over-planner (me): When the over-planner prepares for a hike, she looks at ratings and descriptions on AllTrails. She searches for a trail with a moderate difficulty rating that’s a reasonable distance. She desires considerable exercise, but she doesn’t want to kill herself to burn calories. Fewer crowds and better scenery are bonuses. After selecting a trail, she packs a regular school-size backpack with extra bottles of water, a lightweight jacket, her purse so it doesn’t get stolen out of the car, and enough snacks to get her through the next ice storm, including, but not limited to, protein bars, fruit, a sandwich from Whole Foods, a bag of Dove dark chocolate, roasted pistachios from Trader Joe’s, and any other tasty morsels a squirrel might stuff in its cheeks. In other words, she over-packs, just like she does to head to the airport. She won’t eat all those snacks; instead, she’ll reward her hard work by inhaling a cheeseburger and a beer after the hike at a nearby microbrewery.
The over-planner reaches the trail early in the morning, parks too far away, and is finished by the time the masses fill the parking lot. The over-planner hikes in yoga pants but doesn’t do yoga. She wears a t-shirt and the same running shoes she also wears to ride the cross-trainer at the gym. She hasn’t set foot in an REI since the ‘90s. She’s puzzled by anyone using a walking stick. She has tons of energy at the beginning and none by the end, but she’ll happily put one foot in front of the other until her legs are Jell-o, reaching six to eight miles without complaining, unless the altitude is above 5,000 feet, in which case, forget it; she’s allowed to bitch. She’ll cry, “I’m a sea-level girl!” and after a mile-and-a-half, she’ll be hunched over sucking oxygen at 6,915 feet and will have the urge to punch the next person who bounds down the trail and says, “It’s not too much farther!”
Screw you and all your vigor, she’ll think.
Note: The over-planner will twist her ankle in the last few minutes of the hike while on solid ground.
The sprinter (the pro): Speaking of vigor, the sprinter—or pro—is a freak of nature. The sprinter a) does not wear an overloaded backpack that leaves creases in her shoulders; b) does not carry a bottle of water because she’s a super-human who doesn’t require hydration to thrive; c) does not admire the scenery (she’s seen it all before); d) passes other hikers with an agility so nimble one can’t even be jealous of her, and e) doesn’t have an ounce of fat on her bones. The sprinter has stamina one can only dream of, and it really doesn’t matter what she’s wearing; she’s a minimalist. Anything extra weighs her down. When she grand jetés her way around the over-planner and disappears around the bend, the over-planner will never see her again. What takes the over-planner two hours takes the sprinter 30 minutes. By the time the over-planner spills the contents of her huge backpack into the backseat of the car, the sprinter will have already made it home, showered, and eaten a Cliff bar as a main course.
Your mom (the able elderly): Unlike the sprinter, your mom stops frequently to admire the waterfalls, the sheer drop-offs, the sky-high trees, and the caterpillars. She travels in a pack of other able retirees who are in good shape for their ages and keep REI in business. Your mom sports a lightweight rain jacket when it’s not raining; a moisture-wicking top; convertible pants with cargo pockets; wool socks, and top-of-the-line hiking boots—all in muted colors. She wears what she thinks the pros wear, but her outfit is entirely unnecessary for the bird-watching expedition she’s on. Your mom carries a walking stick—two if she’s feeling feisty—an accessory only mandatory for downhill skiing.
The over-planner considers these walking sticks a hazard.
You’ll poke your eye out if you slip, she’ll think.
Your mom and her hoard of cheerful, unemployed friends mosey and won’t make it to the summit, but they don’t care; they never have to work again.
The tourist (the aimless foreigner): The tourist won’t even make it as far up the mountain as your mom. The tourist wears whatever clothes she put on to go to breakfast that morning, including a cumbersome sunshade-turned-hat. A camera hangs from her neck, but she doesn’t use it. The tourist travels in flocks, and these aimless foreigners look confused by their surroundings. The over-planner will see them on her return leg and knows the tourist will never make it up those steep rocks just around the corner. In fact, the tourist seems to be meandering in circles, not making much progress at all, like she’s inside a pinball machine. It’s as if the tourist happened upon this hike by accident with no plans to attempt it. The tourist will not have water, but unlike the sprinter, she needs it. The over-planner will worry about the ill-prepared tourist, who doesn’t speak English and can’t ask for directions if she wanders haplessly off the trail.
The blasé teen (the other ill-prepared): The other ill-prepared hiker is the blasé teen. She and her one friend neither have backpacks with supplies, nor any water between them. They either wear shorts or jeans, Vans, Keds, or other shoes with worn soles not meant for hiking. The teen and her friend have matching snarls on their faces, like someone forced them out of bed to use their feet to propel them forward through this harrowing life. The blasé teen will ask the over-planner for directions, when there’s only one direction to travel, as if she’s annoyed by this prospect.
“Do you know how to get to the Punchbowl?” she’ll ask.
She just passed the Punchbowl.
“No, I mean, do you know how to get down there?”
The teen will point to the bottom of the cliff at least 100 feet below at the raging river in the canyon.
“I don’t think you can get down there,” the over-planner will say.
You can jump, but good luck with that. Why are you even here? Clearly you’d rather be home draped over the couch like a throw pillow.
Like the tourist, the teen will not get much farther than a mile because, like, a mile is a long way, you guys.
The blasé teen will someday graduate to become the over-planner (me).
The 30-year-old hipster couple (your sister and her boyfriend) (dog optional): The 30-year-old hipster couple does this hike, or one similar, every weekend after scavenging the farmers market. They are dressed appropriately for hiking, except if the male with the gnarly beard is wearing open-toed sandals. They bring one small backpack between them that looks empty, and they both have one water bottle each. (The female carries the seemingly useless backpack.) The young couple is in shape and will hike the complete trail but will move more slowly than the sprinter. The two lag after drinking too much Mezcal last night. They may or may not have a dog of the hunting variety with them, and the dog is happier to be there than they are. The couple will celebrate the day’s jaunt later while sharing small plates of quinoa, duck fat fries, and bone marrow at The Blind Insert-Animal-Name-Here.
The photographer (the non-hiker): There’s always one photographer on the trail who isn’t there to hike. He is stationary, with his back turned to the astounding forest and epic waterfalls because he’s mesmerized by one green leaf. He is bent over, squinting through a long-range zoom lens that’s two millimeters from said leaf, as his girlfriend/assistant holds the tripod he may or may not use later. (See 30-year-old hipster couple.)
The badass (the unexpected expert): The badass hikes with one or two other cool friends. At the start of the trail, the badass’ physique will strike the over-planner as belonging to someone who gets winded easily and may not have seen exercise in the last decade. She’ll wonder if the dude with the pudgy gut can make it, but the over-planner will struggle to keep up with him. The badass is an unexpected expert who’s wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and old running shoes. His backpack is lighter than the over-planner’s, and he’ll only stop once to take a few bites of a protein bar. He has water, but the over-planner will never see him drink it. He chats with his friends as if he’s not exerting any energy at all, and halfway up the trail, his friends will point out the badass is two years into treatment for stage 4 melanoma and had treatment just yesterday. The over-planner will suddenly feel like a wuss and will think note to self: Do not complain during this hike.
After four-and-a-half miles, when the over-planner turns around because she has to pee and is doing the math on how much time it will take to get back to the parking lot, the badass will continue on to complete the six-mile one-way trip (a total of 12 miles, for you mathletes out there). The badass doesn’t keep up with the sprinter, but doesn’t care to, and the badass will win the prize for best hiker on the mountain, fighting cancer while acting as if he’s not sick, joking with his friends and finding more joy in everyday life than the over-planner ever will. The over-planner will learn a lesson from the badass and his friends, when they didn’t even intend to teach her one.
Enjoy the trail, fellow hikers!