Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Just a Bindlestiff

October 6th, 2015

Just a bindlestiff


Walking long distance is never just about solitude. Most trails cross roads, towns, and some (such as the Te Araroa) go through cities. It’s one thing to be out in the bush– hot, sweaty, a bit fragrant from a few days without bathing, sporting unruly hair and a scraggly beard– and running into other trekkers. Even if they are day-hikers (what my son Bennett calls “bed-sleepers”), they recognize you for who you are–a hiker. But there are times when you can find yourself walking down the sidewalk of a city where your appearance and fragrance can single you out as stranger if not simply strange.

A term used by American long-distance trekkers is “hiker trash,” a phrase that is variously meaningful. Applied by actual hikers, it can be a form of self-consciousness, an awareness that in certain circumstances you are violating social norms. I pack hiking clothes and one set of town clothes– a shirt and pants that are only worn in a clean environment. So, for example, the other night I was in Waitomo with my tent set up in a campground. I was able to shower, put on my clean clothes, comb my hair and beard, and eat a magnificent meal in a nice restaurant. My shuffling limp might have been noticeable, as were my not-quite-stylish clothes, but I was well within the bounds of decorum. But “hiker trash,” like its source term “white trash” is more than self-consciousness. It can clearly be pejorative and demeaning, a word (like many other culturally deterministic terms) that gathers conflicting ideas and charges them.

It’s no coincidence that hiker trash emerged as an epithet on the Appalachian Trail, a route that has its roots in the Deep South, right up through the area where there live many of the people who were (and are) regarded as the original white trash. So it is not just a self-deprecating term deployed by middle class hikers who might be a bit embarrassed about their appearance. It also signals questions of class on the trail. Some general history might help. Benton MacKaye, the man who first envisioned the AT and who was one of its early promotors, did not picture a trail where people started hiking in Georgia and finished in Maine. His vision did not even require continuity of the trail itself. Instead he wanted a trail that would run near most of the major Eastern population centers and could then provide access to the great outdoors to any and all people. The major national parks that Teddy Roosevelt initiated were primarily in the west, out of reach of working class Americans. The AT was to provide recreation and the chance to work in outdoor camps in clean air away from the perceived decay of eastern urban life. Incidentally, similar arguments were used by the English in the “right to roam” movement during the same years, trying to grant access to the countryside for laborers in the English industrial midsection. The original vision of the AT was of a place that welcomed all.

Trail names are an amusing part of today’s American hiker culture, and they too have their roots in the AT. People hiking long stretches eventually get named by their fellow hikers because of some characteristic, attribute, or event, a gesture both humorous and ritualistic. One of my favorites was a woman who was using a tried-and-true method of defecating in the woods: plant your feet firmly, reach out and grasp a small tree or sapling, squat, and take care of business. She chose a rotten small tree and was subsequently dubbed “Timber!” Trail names serve another function, as long-distance hikers are to some degree anonymous. Newly christened, they have no past (at least to other hikers). In conversation, rarely does anyone directly ask someone else what they do “in real life.” There is, almost in the spirit of Benton MacKaye, an attempt to erase class. Everyone is just a hiker, everyone is hiker trash.

So a form of camaraderie is achieved with the term, an almost Foucauldian “fellowship of discourse” which brings with it friction with outsiders. I recall vividly being in a small town in western Connecticut. I was taking a break in a coffee shop sitting off to the side out of notice. When I went outside I discovered a picnic table set in a small park near a grocery store which was having a sale on six packs of Polar Bar ice cream. Sitting around the table were six thruhikers (and my son Bennett), each eating an entire six pack of ice cream bars, oblivious of the incredulous stares from passing shoppers (Bennett, to his credit, did give me one of his). That moment captured the sense of collective unity designated by hiker trash– a certain defiance of social norms and an assertion of a particular form of identity: people who may not be all that clean or well-groomed, but who nevertheless are capable of remarkable physical efforts such as hiking 20 miles a day, day after day, or eating an entire pack of Polar Bars before they melt.

Doing the White Mountain traverse, particularly the Presidentials, also brings out these class issues. This is a stretch where there are no open campsites. A characteristic of the AT is that all campsites are free, including the regularly spaced shelters. In the Whites, the Appalachian Mountain Club maintains a series of huts which offer bunks and meals at a price meant for well-heeled visitors from the cities (almost the opposite of Benton MacKaye’s vision). The first couple of thru-hikers to arrive at a hut can request work-for-stay, which usually involves some menial task in return for being able to eat leftovers and sleep on the dining room floor. It’s a good deal if you can get it (Bennett and I were lucky in that regard when we made our crossing). What is conspicuous is the clear distinction between the paying guests and the not-quite-welcome hiker trash. Of course it all varies with the evening and the guests, but generally speaking, most thru hikers feel the disrespect, which is ironic given the relative hiking skills of the paying customers compared to them.

On the Pacific Crest Trail, the term is used, but is much less charged, tending to be more just a slightly humorous, deprecating epithet used by disheveled middle-class hikers. The PCT requires a lot of planning and forethought. Food must be purchased well ahead of time and mailed to drop points along the way. It is not a trail you can simply begin and resupply every couple of days.The AT has many hikers who range up and down the trail, stopping to work for a week or two, then head back out. People who in the city might be regarded as homeless, but who have some financial support (disability or veteran’s benefits, savings from seasonal work) and can live by and through hiking. Sitting in a shelter having a conversation with its occupants, you almost never know anything about their financial circumstances.

So, as my hair and beard get longer, my clothes a bit more worn, am I regarded as tramper trash here in New Zealand? I cannot answer that yet. Without doubt, I find people notice me when I walk down the street. I’m a man alone with backpack trying to figure out where he is. Couple that with the drive-on-the-left-hand-side syndrome, and you get someone who is always a bit uncertain crossing the street, and who often is walking down the sidewalk on the right, causing consternation for other pedestrians. That marks me as an outsider, a tourist, but not a bindlestiff. I think in part, at least in the areas I have been, NZ is a less formal country, so my clothes and general appearance are not significantly out of place. But ultimately, it is a matter of self-perception. In the absence of obvious discrimination or disdain, I don’t see people’s reactions because I don’t yet recognize their cultural cues. So for now, in the words of Mark Twain, I’m just a tramp abroad.

T. Hugh Crawford