Hiking is not for everyone, I realize. But you can experience much of the joy of hiking without walking very far at all. If you like to hear stories and meet interesting people, I’ve found hikers to be among the best. Being alone can be a real advantage because you are far more approachable when you are by yourself. It is much easier to get folks to open up.
My favorite thing to do along the AT is to feed the hikers. That’s right, a picnic along the trail. For others. Some people feed stray cats; others put out seed for birds. I feed people carrying all their possessions on their backs. There are two things about long distance hikers: They all have a story about why they are there and they are all hungry. Anyone who hikes a long trail for more than a few weeks burns up a tremendous number of calories. I’ve read that someone hiking 20+ miles a day, carrying a pack can’t carry enough calories to gain weight. In addition most of the through hikers are young boys who eat constantly when they aren’t exercising. Long distance hikers lay in their sleeping bags at night and dream of food. They discuss the merits of different foods endlessly, sweet torture to a hungry belly. If you offer one of them food along the trail they will gratefully tell you their story.
My favorite trick is to roll a cooler of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream to the trail and offer a container to anyone who walks by. Hikers cannot pass up full fat ice cream on a hot summer’s day. It’s the stuff of dreams come July. I hand them a spoon and tell them to pick a flavor. And they start talking.
And this sport did not originate with me. At Davenport Gap in the center of the SmokyMountainNational Park, the AT crosses a parking lot. I passed the spot on a Saturday in May, a busy time of through hikers, and it looked like a tailgate party. Sandwiches, potato salad and cold soda were available for anyone. Grandmothers were tempting walkers with homemade pie. I guy was grilling hot dogs and letting those that passed add their own condiments. Even little kids were giving out bags of cookies to go. I had neer seen anything like it. I later ran into a park ranger who told me that while the public had gotten the message not to feed the bears, they still had the urge to feed something. Feeding hikers: it’s the new animal.