The night before I started the trail I set a goal for myself. I said to Jess and her aunt, “I’d like to practice meeting people while we’re on the trail.”
The Appalachian Trail, in all of it’s 2,200 miles of glory, is a place unlike any other. Not only does it house hundreds of thousands of hikers every year, but it also supports an OFFLINE social network that, as a twenty seven year old, I’ve never experienced. Everyone talks to everyone. Literally. I never pass a hiker (whether a day-walker, thru-hiker, or section hiker) without at least saying hello. More often than not, someone asks, “how are you??” And instead of immediately walking away as most strangers would, they WAIT to hear your answer. Usually the conversation progresses to, “where did you come from?”, “where are you headed?”, “where are you from?”, “what do you do?”
An outsider completing a day hike would be tackling mile 2 of their 4 mile hike, sans backpack, and observe a group of hikers balancing ~30-35 lb packs on their hips all standing around chatting. Half of them are breathing heavy from the upward climb, and they all smell a little ripe, as they are 3 days out of a town and haven’t showered since getting back into the woods. It must seem like a bad joke to the day hikers as we converse with each other in this state…all the while SMILING and LISTENING to what the others had to say.
On the trail, this happens every day, several times a day. I met so many people that my head hurts!
Before moving to North Carolina, and before my brief teaching stint at a small private school on the main line in Philadelphia, I worked at a well-known suburban public school near King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. There was/is an administrator there who suffers from what I like to call, “The Busy Syndrome.” Oh, administrators…it’s their JOB to care about you. It’s their JOB to help you. Granted, they’re…busy…, but I’d much prefer a bustling, “too-busy-to-talk-to-you administrator, than the finger-pointing, “hey, how ya doin’, what’s the word, have a great weekend?” fly-by that most everyone experiences from this individual. Why ask a question without waiting for an answer?
Is it to be polite? That’s confusing to me because I think most people would agree that it’s actually kind of rude.
When my husband and I decided to pursue his coaching dream in November 2014, we picked up our life outside of Philadelphia, shoved it into boxes, and took off running to Boone, North Carolina. My adventurous friends looked at me in envy. I tried to be excited. I have always wanted to move. I have always wanted to live in the mountains. “Yea, sure.” I lied to myself. “This will be great.”
I couldn’t breathe. My friends! My family? The city? Starbucks!
It took me eight months to make a single friend…and SHE reached out to ME. Realistically, the only reason Molly and I became such good friends is because she lived two floors above me and essentially, she wouldn’t take no for an answer. From there, I adopted one or two of her friends as “donor” friends. I just assumed that making connections as an adult was hard…and that I would have to get used to it.
Since returning from my five week trip I have tried to extend the friendly, outgoing Caitlin into life off of the AT. I work in retail and instead of spewing the sales as I greet customers or selling credit like a robot at the cash wrap, I always ask people how they’re doing. Some people are shocked that I’m waiting to hear what they have to say. I can see their heart flutter as they think to themselves…”oh…um…how am I, actually?”
I have been more successful in the last week than I have in the 5 months prior to leaving for my hike. And in addition to selling credit and clothing, I have connected with two women who I am excited to get to know. I could have asked them if they needed help and walked away, but instead, I’m pretty sure I’ll end up with two new friends.
If life were like the Appalachian trail, not only would everyone talk to everyone, but they would actually listen when you talk.