Written by: Brandon "Monkey" Imp
Ringleader and I travelled to her Law School graduation this past weekend while Lightning ran around at Trail Days. Dozens of people approached the two of us to talk about the trail - classmates, professors, deans, the works. One fact was widely unrecognized: we travel as a group but hike alone.
Traveling as a group has its perks. We share and balance our pack weight. We share two tents, a pot, a stove, a water pump, medical equipment, and food. By doing so, we save overall weight on our backs (after all, ounces equal pounds!) Without the 10+ pounds of camera equipment, we would be ultralight backpackers and average 18-24 pounds (there is a variation on any given day due to water and food weight). However, since we are making a documentary, our packs are much heavier. I cannot imagine making a movie on your own while hiking the trail - your pack would just not be big enough to carry everything.
The mental and emotional trials that envelop "loneliness" can be overcome as a group. We are essentially cut off from the world and therefore have no new information. It's hard to gossip, learn from current events, or progress towards a career. It may be hard to believe, but this absence of information leads to a spiral of depression and feeling of worthlessness (see: 24% completion rate of Northbound thru-hikers). As a group, we can wallow in these feelings together, talk about them, and get over them. If you stay in your head, you are doomed.
Post-hiking enjoyment of the trail is heightened when you complete the trail as a group. This is something I have learned from my travels throughout the U.S. and the world. No matter how excellent your trip was or how excited your family/friends are for you to have gone on an adventure, they will only want to hear bits of it. You may return home from a trip and have 100 pictures. You start going through them with your parents - the first 10 are great, the next 20 a little slow, until you just speed through the final 70 because you see their eyes have glazed over. This statement does not attack anyone - it's the truth and I admit I have been a culprit as well. However, if you go about this adventure with someone else, they will love to talk about it over and over and over for years to come. If they are not hiking in the woods, they are just a phone call away.
All that being said, we still hike alone. A phrase that all hikers say is, "Hike your own hike." The phrase can be interpreted multiple ways. One interpretation is to walk your own pace. Lightning is fast compared to Ringleader and I. Ringleader often stops to film throughout the day. So, no matter who leaves first in the morning or at lunch, Lightning arrives to our camping destination first, I arrive second, and Ringleader arrives third. Those of you not hiking may think, "Why don't you all just figure something out and hike together?" That is a GREAT question. We have tried. The fact is that we hike ten hours a day. We all come to a point where someone is going too slow, someone is going too fast, or we do not want to wait around because we are "in the zone." Also, you cannot regulate when you need to stop for a bathroom or snack break. All of these seemingly trivial factors add up to the point of frustration. So, we hike alone.
There are exceptions to hiking alone. If we have a 20+ mile day, Lightning may hike behind me. She knows I hike a consistent pace that will leave me enough energy to get through the day, so she tags along so she will not burn out. Ringleader and I will hike together when it's beautiful and I know filming will be done. The three of us hike together when we have a common goal that is not too far away (a few miles to a town, a landmark, or a shelter). These exceptions are not found on an everyday basis. Also, the exceptions rarely last an entire day.
We travel as a group but hike alone. Hiking alone creates an entirely unique experience for each hiker. For this reason, most groups that start off together do not finish together. We will break that generalization. The three of us will climb Katahdin together because we are bound by our film and gear, just like married couples are bound by law and love.