Kentucky Blue, Cough Drop and I drove along the winding road to North Adams, Massachusetts, on Friday afternoon, fighting to keep our eyes on the road despite the clear skies and shining forests. The foliage this year was duller than in years past, an unfortunate development that was much lamented by the organizers of this year’s Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association Gathering, but it was a gorgeous weekend none the less. I was excited just to be in the company of such good friends, regardless of what the Gathering might be like. This would be my first, so I had no idea what to expect.
|The Gathering campsite in a hayfield with a beautiful view of Mount Greylock|
The opening festivities of the Gathering initially made me feel a little like an outsider. The announcements went into great detail about people who everyone else seemed to know by name. The Appalachian Trail has some amount of celebrity culture which I choose to avoid, so I was intentionally in the dark. I was happy enough to watch old friends reconnect as I had done with Cough Drop and Kentucky Blue in the last few days, though. (I’ll put up a trip report of our previous days’ hike soon.)
The real fun started when the announcements were over. “Let’s see who’s hiked the most in here!” the announcer shouted. “If you’ve hiked or backpacked five thousand miles, stand up!” Kentucky Blue and I stood, along with dozens of others in the small auditorium. “Now ten thousand!” We sat, along with most of those already standing. Fifteen thousand and twenty thousand dropped all but two. Only Billy Goat and a jolly-looking lady in the back remained standing. In one-thousand mile increments, the announcer raised the ante, looking completely amazed. “Twenty-seven thousand?” Billy Goat and the woman both nodded, smiling widely. At thirty-four thousand miles, the woman finally sat, laughing. Billy Goat claimed the title at 40,000 miles. The announcer gave a shout-out to Wanda (I can’t remember her last name) as being one of the most powerful hikers out there. I was more impressed at her accomplishment than Billy Goat’s, only because nobody seemed to have heard of her, while Billy Goat is something of a hiker celebrity.
|Trail organizations like the International AT showed off their accomplishments.|
The announcer then went on to have each Appalachian Trail through-hiker class stand, and I was amazed to see representatives from every single year from 2011 back to 1977. The earliest year represented was 1968, a spry and strong grey-hair. A wave of applause drowned out the announcer as he congratulated the man for his accomplishment. Will I still be a part of this community in forty years? I wondered. I know so few of the people here, and my circle of hiker friends is pretty small as it is. This crowd seems like a tight family, and I’m like a new friend coming in for the holidays, missing all the in-jokes and wondering who everyone is talking about.
|Kentucky Blue addresses a classroom about lightweight hiking|
Saturday morning was when the real meat of the Gathering began. My presentation on the New England Trail was on the earliest schedule block, competing with others on the Canadian Rockies, Kilimanjaro, Nepal, and the Israeli National Trail. I resigned myself to presenting only to my close friends. Kentucky Blue and Cough Drop were with me for sure. I was overjoyed to see Uncle Tom and Anne from the Pacific Crest Trail, and Mad Mike from the Appalachian Trail, all good friends I see very seldom. There were a few other familiar faces, but I was blown away to see the room completely packed! I got so nervous I almost went over my allotted 75-minute period, but the crowd seemed to enjoy the show. What a relief!
With my first presentation out of the way, I was able to check out several others for the rest of the weekend. I watched talks on the Spanish Sierra, the International Appalachian Trail in Maine and Canada, and the Canadian Rockies, all places I would love to see someday. The presenters had been to so many places, seen so much. As I realized how many of my trail friends were in fact here, and how much I have in common with the crowd, I started to realize how this community is formed. It’s not so much about the people at the Gathering as it is about the many places in the world we can explore.
|Paul LaBounty talked about his trek through the Spanish Sierras. It’s good to see so many people who are obviously hikers.|
I couldn’t talk about the Gathering without mentioning the one real celebrity of the weekend. Saturday night’s presentation by Andrew Skurka, probably the most accomplished explorer of our generation, was a fine show. Last year he used a combination of skis, packraft, and feet to traverse a nearly 5000-mile loop in Alaska and the Yukon. I can’t say much about it except that if you have a chance to see him talk, go for it. He’s a pretty cool guy.
The Gathering ended on a bittersweet note, my friends having left early Sunday and the crowd dwindling. It’s always hard to leave a beautiful and exciting place like this, but I can only say I can’t wait to go to another Gathering. I guess that’s why everyone had been so happy to see each other in the beginning, and I guess that means I really am a part of this crazy community of hikers.