The north-bound AT thru-hikers of 2011 ranged from 20 to 89 years of age. On the AT, like anywhere else, social prejudices can impede friendships between people of different ages. I’m as guilty as the next guy. I, at age 52, found myself skeptical of tatted-up young men with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. Eventually, I discovered if I could get over that predisposition, I was more often than not rewarded with an interesting conversation and sometimes a new friend.
A cohort once confided “I just can’t respect a young person who would decide to smoke in this day and age.” I figure everyone has his own reasons concerning whether or not to puff. Sometimes I wondered if part of the friction between age-classes resulted from personality clashes. It seemed like the older thru-hikers tended to be over-achievers who had saved their big adventure for retirement, while the younger hikers tended to be social nonconformists and free spirits who were living for the moment.
“I get up when the day starts!” admonished an older hiker as he left a shelter full of youngsters still in slumber. “Where have you been?” I wondered, “Young people always get up later. It’s just the way they’re wired.” It seems the older a thru-hiker is, the earlier he gets up. Older guys are more susceptible to the heat, they hike slower, and they don’t need as much sleep as younger hikers. It’s no wonder some younger hikers resent older hikers who crash around the shelter in the dark to get an early start, especially when they are seen setting up camp in the early afternoon.
I made many good friends with younger hikers, perhaps because there were so many of them, perhaps because my son is that age. Upon getting to know a younger man, I would inevitably find he was a unique individual, undefined by his age. As far as judging by appearances, who was I to talk? Every thru-hiker eventually looked so scruffy, that we learned from necessity to ignore appearances and first impressions. After a couple of months on the trail, we actually grew to view clean-cut, well-laundered hikers with a bit of disdain.
I was the most impressed with the attitude of a 72-year-old thru-hiker named Loner Bohner toward younger hikers. One evening, after setting up his tent, a rambunctious group of excited boys from a local summer camp descended on the campsite. When a harried camp counselor apologized to Loner Bohner, he replied: “Now don’t you worry about me. I have ear plugs and nothing can keep me awake. Those young boys need to learn that they can have fun out here in the woods.”