If you’ve spent much time with through-hikers on any long-distance hiking trail, you may have heard a variation of this theme: “I’m not walking more than a tenth of a mile off the trail unless there’s food at the other end.” Another common one regarding side trails or approach trails is, “those miles don’t count.”
Sometimes those sentiments seem to me like a bastardization of the entire spirit of backpacking. What’s the point of hiking a long trail if you’re not willing to explore a little, or see something different? What’s an adventure that adheres strictly to a rigid and narrow path? And who says that any miles “don’t count”?
More often, now, I’m just amused by that attitude. I acted the same when hiking the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, although I made an effort to find some interesting side trips. Often, for through-hikers, it’s a matter of time– getting to Katahdin or Canada before the snow falls. Just as often, if not more, it’s about being burned out. After a few months of hiking, a gorgeous view is “just another view.” I’ve heard this fairly often from through-hikers, too, and I hope I never get to that point. But I try not to judge too harshly. A through-hike really isn’t all about fine views and wilderness; you can get great views without spending six months hiking, and if you want real wilderness and solitude, you won’t often find it on a popular hiking trail.
I’ve become more interested in the solitude of wild places in the years since being a through-hiker, so the “those miles don’t count” attitude of many through-hikers has begun to work to my advantage. There are side trails from the AT that hundreds of hikers walk past without a second glance, side trails that lead to views that are often better than what you find on the main trail, or campsites that are more pristine. The longer the side trail, the fewer people go there. The fewer people who go there, the quieter the wilderness.
I used to find a place like this, a place that was so gorgeous and peaceful that I had to recommend it to any hiker I passed, and be almost offended when they replied “it’s too far off the trail. I’m not going there.” These are places that I love, and saying that they’re not worth the effort to visit is kind of insulting. What’s more, someone made the effort to build and maintain a trail to the place, and it would be an insult to tell those people that their effort was wasted. But now I think it’s for the best. Save the wildest places for the few who really want to find them. Besides, when fewer people know how valuable something is, that makes it all the more special to those who do know.
My favorite example of this is Mount Abraham in Maine– 1.7 miles each way from the AT, so rarely visited by through-hikers or section hikers. It’s fairly popular for day-hikers, since another trail approaches the summit from the other direction. It has some of the best views in the state, which is saying a lot since Maine’s mountains are pretty extraordinary.
How about you, dear readers? What are some of your favorite miles that don’t count?