10 Ways Thru-hiking is like the Peace Corps

I first learned about long distance backpacking while living in my village of Zogore in Burkina Faso, West Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer over a decade ago. When someone joins the Peace Corps and has to decide what to bring with them, books are high on the list. Surely there will be time to read the complete works of Shakespeare or War and Peace, right?

And it’s true, I read well over 200 books during the 2 years I was there, but the book that made the most impact was There are Mountains to Climb. Not for the prose, or riveting story line, but it was the first time I learned about a trail that crosses the country, and the people who set out to hike it in just a few months.

It was September, 1999, I had just arrived in the Burkina 3 months earlier, but I already knew what I was doing in 2 years when my service was over. Hiking the Appalachian Trail!

When I finally made it to the trail in 2002 I realized there were LOTS of similarities.

Here are my top 10 ways thru-hiking is like the Peace Corps:

1. You will be covered in dirt almost all the time.

2. You will think about food non-stop.

3. People think you are crazy.

4. You have changed way more in a short amount of time than your friends and family at home.

5. You curse the postal system.

6. You talk about poop a lot.

7. You get giardia.

8. You make deeper connections with people faster than you ever thought possible.

9. When you return people always ask about getting attacked by bears/lions, but the wildest thing you saw was a porcupine eating someone’s shoe/a chicken tied to a bicycle.

10. You will never be the same again.




So after I posted this fellow thru-hiker and Peace Corps Volunteer, Lisa, posted her list. Wow! She must have had a lot of time on her hands Thru-hiking will do that. Wait, so will Peace Corps.

More of the 1000 ways in which PCT hiking and Peace Corps are the EXACT SAME THING:
1. You meticulously plan your next town meal at least 4 days in advance.

2. Then you dream big about the first meal you’ll eat after finishing.
3. You look forward to maildrops and cry if they are late, particularly if they contain something delicious.
4. You lick the melted chocolate out of every wrapper crevasse, then suck on the inside corners for trace remnants.
5. If you’re vegetarian, you turn carnivorous after the second encounter with an outside barbeque and charred meat.
6. You wear one outfit every day until only bleached, soft shreds remain.
7. It’s bizarre to see your comrades in normal clothing.
8. You suffer from the half-way blues, daydreaming about the things you would do and eat if you went home now.
9. Intestinal parasites, diseases, and associated smells are the hot topic of conversation, especially during meals.
10. You are perpetually sweaty and dirty and the locals are clean.
11. Your toenails take on bizarre shapes and co-exist with semi-permanent layers of funk.
12. When you emerge into a new town, friendly and curious locals find you bizarre or interesting or exciting.
13. Kids stare at you and think you’re odd.
13. Random strangers invite you into their house to eat.
14. You consume things you would never touch under normal circumstances.
15. Kind tourists feel sorry for you and give you soda pop and toiletries.
16. The small pleasures in life are so wonderful and you are filled with gratitude.
17. You have too many ups and downs to count, but feel extremely lucky to be alive.
18. People think you’re crazy.
19. You start with a filter, then switch to bleach, then just drink the water straight.
20. You start with toilet paper, then switch to rocks and sticks, then switch to the water method. It’s just so refreshing.
21. You have weird-sounding nicknames and insert trail/local speech into your everyday language. e.g. “i didn’t mean to take a nero – it just happened” or “the prefect bouffed all the money”
22. You are elated when you spy edible fruit along your walk.
23. Ice is SO very exciting.
24. During siesta, you end up chasing the shade even though you tried yet again to strategically place yourself in the likeliest continual-shade-spot.
25. You become great friends with unusual and magical people.
26. You watch terrible TV programs whenever you have the opportunity.
27. You talk to yourself and practice rolling your r’s as you walk.
28. You give up on flossing.
146. You notice every phase of the moon.
147. You smell like mildew.
148. Your body loses the ability to digest dairy products in a smooth and elegant fashion.
149. You think you’re tan, then take a shower and realize that half of it’s dirt.
361. You finally come to the realization that your gastrointestinal issues are not just a “phase”.
362. Though you’ve never bought a copy of “People” and never will, you devour it at any free opportunity.
363. Local, tiny libraries are the best.
364. Ice cream is amazing, no matter how cold it is outside and how much it gives you the runs.
365. You either love or hate the postal service.
366. Large ungulates casually walk past your sleeping pad.
367. You hitch rides no matter how sketchy the driver or vehicle and sometimes sit with farm animals on your lap.

A Solo Hike

I’ve done a lot of my long distance hiking solo. Well, that is to say I’ve started out many of my trips solo. As much as I like to plan I’ve given in to the philosophy of, “the trail provides,” even when it comes to hiking partners.


Average Joe and I on Katahdin

I hiked with a good friend, Average Joe, on the Appalachian Trail, but when I had a foot injury that took me off the trail for a few weeks in northern Virgina and she had to keep hiking to meet family, I spent the next month and a half solo hiking and coming and going in different hiking groups as we traveled north. When Average Jo got Lyme Disease later I was finally able to catch up and we finished together.

NEMO and She-ra reach Canada

NEMO and She-ra reach Canada

When I left the Mexican border on the PCT in 2006 I had started the trail as a solo woman, but didn’t find myself alone all that much. In fact by the time I had reached the Saufley’s at mile 454 I had found one of my best friends to this day, NEMO. The trail magic that a hiking partner can bring has the power to make or break a hike, meeting NEMO and lots of other hikertrash made my PCT hike.

When I chose to thru-hike the Colorado Trail in 2007 after a summer of leading trail crews out of Durango, Colorado, I had spent so much of my time in close proximity to other people that I craved time alone in the wilderness.

Maybe it was growing up in the backwoods of Wisconsin climbing trees or exploring the shores of near-by Fountain Lake, but I thrive in nature alone. I didn’t count the days between seeing people on the Colorado Trail, but I do remember thinking three weeks was long enough to go without much human contact. Now, after having spent the last five years working long hours, living in a city, and not hiking more than a few days at a time, I can’t imagine a more delightful way to spend three (or more) weeks than walking alone.

Inevitably the first question I get asked when people find out I’ll be starting a thru-hike alone is if I’m scared. Sure, the first few nights out I’ll jump at noises in the night. I’ll sleep with my hiking pole by my side ready to turn it into a deadly stabbing device if bothered in the dark of night, but after realizing nothing is out to get me, after relaxing into the pace of days spent walking and watching the world pass by one step at a time, I love it.

Because the Continental Divide Trail is less traveled than the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail, I know the opportunity to hike with others will be fewer and farther between, but on the otherhand I followed a few hiking journals this year and was surprised to hear how many people were on the trail. The word was an actual “tread” was getting developed through the New Mexico desert because so many feet had traveled the same path.

I’ll take it!

I hope to travel long segments of the CDT alone, but I also hope to meet and hike with others.

Much of the magic I find on the trail is other people. The point is, I like hiking alone, and I’m not scared…much.

I take lots of selfies when hiking alone

I take lots of selfies when hiking alone