I never thought the day would come when I would say this, but the world has changed.
Never, ever, hike or backpack alone.
I say this as someone who has spent countless hours in the deep wild, thrilled by the solitude and awed by the silence. It has always been my intention to encourage the soul that is drawn to the stillness of the forest and the trail which takes them there to answer that call; to go and experience something rare and breathtaking and enriching.
I know it is sometimes difficult to find one or more persons who have the time to venture on a hiking trip with you. I had that challenge, but I went anyway. In fact, I preferred being alone on the trail, and relished the unknown difficulties of each day.
Most days, these barriers consisted of where to find water, or how to ford a river. Others might be getting a hitch into town or finding a store to resupply.
It’s different now. The factors have changed, and not always for the better.
I still hear it, as I did today when I read the news; the trail (Appalachian) is safe — but there are no guarantees.
The story this date (May 12, 2019) https://bit.ly/2HfXT8j is one where a loner attacked hikers using a machete, leaving one wounded and one dead. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard of such an act of violence intruding upon such a marvelous hiking path. Still, this time it seems different. I’m not sure why.
Perhaps it’s because things have changed along the trail in the past dozen plus years. Overcrowding of shelters, incidents of norovirus affecting hikers in greater number, the popularity of the trail compared to twenty years back. Easy accessibility to the footpath, and plenty of media exposure seem to have only led to a more crowded outdoor experience.
What was once a near-hidden gem has become stained by the stress of over-use and violence.
Am I saying not to go? Never!
But, I am saying one should be in a group of at least three or more. I am saying, sadly, that more attention should be paid to other hikers and their mannerism and behavior, especially loners who seem not to fit in.
Use your intuition, your gut, your suspicions and, if you feel the least bit of doubt, avoid questionable company. Report such individuals to rangers and trail officials.
The old saying is true: there’s strength in numbers.
For me, I grieve the loss of those attacked, who were enjoying the wonder of the wild in innocence. I also grieve the loss of safety which I felt years ago, when I could walk the footpath without undue concern about my safety. That does not mean I didn’t run across the odd character; I did, and more than once. But I grieve the ability to enclose oneself in the emerald fastness of the forest without having to look over the shoulder to see who is following.
For me, the days of solo backpacking have ended. I do not look down on those who feel the confidence and fortitude to venture out alone. I only wish I could.