My high school commencement speaker told my graduating class that high school was the last time in our lives when we’d spend so much time co-mingling with people from every social status and sector of society. Look to your left, look to your right. Here sit the grocery store workers and the attorneys, the teachers and the electricians, the gas station attendants and the homemakers, the artists and business owners. Today, the future doctors may be sitting next to the future farmers, basking in a shared accomplishment, but that’s an occurrence unlikely to happen again after you turn those tassels and toss your caps in the air.
That was the message (more or less, with 18 years of dust to dull the details). I’m not sure if it stuck because I thought it was bogus or sad or a fascinating window into what adult life was like. And until I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail 16 years later, I believed it was true.
I was surprised to learn that the AT, as the trail is called, has a rich culture unto itself, and long-distance hikers comprise a gritty subculture within the AT community. Hiking, like public high school, is a great equalizer. On the trail we sat around countless camp sites and rehydrated meals with people from dramatically different walks of life. There was Yogi, an 18-year old, fresh out of high school and taking a gap year before settling down to live in a van. Puddles was a New England real estate broker and a supporter of President Trump. Jack* was a professor of environmental law at Harvard. Okie was a retired truck driver from Oklahoma who adored Reba McEntire and Carrie Underwood. Ambassador was British and a mid-career dentist until she quit to become a life coach. Seven and Double Tap were a young Midwestern married couple, both nurses. River was a retired state trooper, proud of her unit for embracing her and her wife as a same-sex couple on the force. One Pole was a military veteran, Ninja was a teenager from the Bronx, and Essence was a West Coast teacher celebrating her 25th wedding anniversary with an East Coast dalliance.
The diversity of profession, political leanings, social class, age, sexual orientation, and nationality was like a high school reunion that invited every graduating class from the last 60 years. There were life-long campers and people who’d left white-collar lives to see if nature was actually as therapeutic as they’d heard. The trail gave shelter to homeless, helped unlikely couples find love (however temporarily), and indeed, was a balm to the wounds that life inflicts, whether through poverty, loss, divorce, abuse, or pressure-cooker professions. Trail culture unifies a rag tag group of people whose daily life is reduced to walking, collecting water, eating simple meals, burying toilet paper, and swapping stories of challenging terrain and weather. It’s an elemental lifestyle, and it seems to speak to all of humanity.
So, I could have gone through life believing that high school and the Appalachian Trail were outliers, rare times of life when social strata co-mingle rather than staying separated by varying degrees of privilege. But then…coronavirus. Environmentalists have long known a truth that I dare say broader society ignores: we are all inextricably linked, both through natural systems and the social & economic systems we’ve created. COVID-19 doesn’t care about our artificial boundaries – it doesn’t care if you’re the Prime Minister or a cashier, whether you’re a man who loves the 2nd amendment or a man who loves other men (or both). Coronavirus is the greatest of equalizers, and now we’re all back in the same high school, on the same trail, breathing the same air, sharing limited resources. Hikers are humans laid bare, highly aware of our reliance on natural systems and each other. Much like hiking, coronavirus exposes both our innate strength and our innate vulnerability.
The coronavirus pandemic has united all of humanity on the same side of a giant problem, perhaps for the first time in collective consciousness. (Climate change is arguably another such problem, though we haven’t exactly taken a unified approach, and as time goes on, the national coronavirus response becomes similary fractured and divisive.) However, we’re in fact always on the same side – we all have the same basic needs: breathable air, drinkable water, nutritious meals, a community to belong to, and a way to get rid of our waste that doesn’t leave shit in someone else’s camp site. So, if we can’t escape the fact that our lives influence and depend on others’, if we’re all working toward the same goals, let’s act like it. Collaboration has been proven over and over again to have more positive social outcomes than competition. I say often as an experiential educator that knowing isn’t the same as doing. So, let’s DO something. Let’s actively practice ways of living that respect – even celebrate – our differences and respect others’ needs to live. Let’s stop leaving our shit in other people’s camp sites.
How do we do this? Here are ten ideas I’m going to work on in the coming months.
With hope for the future and gratitude to anyone who will join us in our efforts,
*Trail names are a part of long-distancing hiking culture. With the exception of Jack who didn’t yet have a trail name, I didn’t change names to protect anyone; these names are simply how I knew this band of merry men and women, and I’m quite proud to know each one.