The Plight of the AT Purist

A few weeks ago, I went to the Appalachian Trail Institute near Damascus, Virginia.  I was there to take a course that was supposed to help me get ready for my thru-hike.  The term “purist” came up a few times and, apparently—but not surprisingly—there’s controversy and judgement in a place where “Hike Your Own Hike” is offered as the one cardinal rule.

The course instructor, a self-proclaimed Appalachian Trail purist, felt like people had come to use that term in a derogatory way.

Kind of like the way some people talk about orange politicians—with disdain and disrespect (and a little horror thrown in for good measure).

But I think quite the opposite is true.

If I look at my own purist, perfectionist tendencies, I have to admit, as a purist, I’d be the first to judge someone else who skips ahead or takes shortcuts.

The Purist Promise

I respect the Appalachian Trail purist who aims to touch every blaze. 

The purist will complete her thru-hike in one season.  

She will follow only the white-blazed path thru the woods, never cutting corners or miles by taking a shorter path with fewer PUDs.*

Also, there will be no aqua-blazing.  (That’s enjoying a little canoe trip through part of West Virginia.)  Strictly verboten if you want to join the ranks of the purists.

Should the purist exit the trail, he will enter it again at exactly the same place.  So if there are two side trails to a shelter, the purist will not enter from the south and exit to the north.  That’s a decision that may haunt him forever.

Extreme Purism

And if you’re ultra pure, pristine like a mountain spring, you’ll even eschew slack-packing.  Slack-packing is a “manna from heaven” opportunity to leave your heavy pack behind for a day or two and stretch your legs while carrying only a light day pack.

Can you imagine how you’ll fly and dance and careen down the trail when you shed your thirty-pound pack for a day? 

Can you imagine doing it without even a soupçon of guilt?

If not, then you’re not a purist.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

No one said you have to be a purist (except maybe another purist).

Just beware that the pendulum can swing far in the other direction.

The problem with making blue-blazing a habit and yellow-blazing a strategy is that it most likely does say something about character and integrity.

How you do one thing is how you do everything.

There are myriad shortcut opportunities presenting themselves every day in every area of life, begging us to take the bait, to take cut the corners and, ultimately, shortchange ourselves and out experience.

It's a question of integrity.

How do we answer the question of integrity on the trail?  How do we define integrity for ourselves?  As an ultra purist?  Or as something else?

The answer is as individual as each hiker.

I struggle myself.

I mean, I get it...the purist thing.  As already noted, I lean that way.  My perfectionism drags me in that direction.

But I’ve hiked two sections of the AT in New Hampshire in September and plan to hike another section in North Carolina in March as my final shakedown hike before the big event starts on March 30.

I told myself that when I’m on my thru-hike, I could skip those sections if I’m pressed for time, because my biggest concern as a NOBO is that I won’t make it to Katahdin before it closes on October 15.  You have to average 14 miles a day to complete a thru-hike in six months, more or less.

It’s totally doable.

But, still.  I worry.  Because I intend to enjoy my hike and I’m a “stop and smell the roses” kind of hiker.  I like to look at moss and watch mushrooms grow and put my feet in cold streams and drink coffee in the morning.

So there’s a chance I’ll get behind schedule and I’ll want to jump ahead, to skip the parts I’ve already hiked.  

I’ll probably remember how challenging they were and how my knees didn’t want to bend after a few days and how we almost killed the dog and how I got hypothermia in New Hampshire. 

Or I could remember how exhilarating it is to traverse Franconia Ridge like a strong, confident, bad-ass thru-hiker.  How heavenly it feels to sit in the sun on top of a mountain with the whole of the world rolling out below in every direction.  How utterly delicious an ice cream sandwich tastes after several nights in the woods.  How refreshing is the spring water pouring from the mountain at the Guyot shelter.  

What will I do when faced with a challenging section I’ve already hiked after having already hiked 1,800 miles?  

Will I climb on, retracing my steps?  

Or will I call a taxi?

I really don’t know, but I am glad I have options.

The problem isn’t in the purism.

It’s a noble intention to touch every (white) blaze and to want to experience every part of the trail, including the hard parts and the boring parts and the part that goes through that superfund site in Pennsylvania.  Ewwwww!

And it does reflect poorly on a person if their m.o. in life is to skip all the bad parts.  Because the low points are the very things that elevate the high points and make them stand out and make them special.  

Without the lows, the highs become mediocre and boring and same ole some ole after a while.

How luxurious is a hot shower when you take one every day?  Not luxurious at all.  In fact, it could even become a chore.  How strange.

How sweet is the taste of plain water when you never experience thirst?

How delicious is an ice cream sandwich after a week of oatmeal and dehydrated pinto beans?

So, yes, there’s much to be said for purism as a mark of character and integrity.

But it’s not the only mark of character.

And it’s narrowly defined by someone else’s standards.

And it hovers on the razor’s edge of fanaticism and rigidity and fundamentalism and righteousness. 

It doesn’t take much to tip it over to the dark side.

Perhaps that teacher in question, a self-proclaimed purist, detects a note of denigration when others use the term “purist” because some purists don’t leave much room for exploration and finding one’s own path.  It's hard to find your path when there's only one "right" way to walk.

There’s nothing wrong with being a purist.

But, note to purists who’ve tipped over, there’s nothing wrong with NOT being a purist, either.

Hiking your own hike means deciding for yourself what your hike will look like.  You decide for yourself what defines your success.  How long it will take.  The route you will follow.  The color of the blazes you touch along the way.  And the standard of integrity you will hold yourself to.

Only you will know at the end of the day if you hiked your hike with integrity.

There’s more than one way to hike the trail.

It doesn’t have to be perfect or pure or fanatical.

Unless you want it to be.

But you decide.

And hike your own hike without apology.


*PUD in Trailspeak means "Pointless Ups & Downs," as in, "OMG, this is the fifth mountain we've climbed today!  Why can't it just be flat for a while."