First is my AT friend Soulslosher, who was the only openly gay thru-hiker I knew. I asked him to write anything, anything at all about hiking through Appalachia as a gay male, and he gave me this awesome response:
My sexuality, it was one of the last things on my mind when I stood atop Springer Mountain. Yet when my thru hike was fully underway, in my mind, I was confronted with just how I was going to handle my sexuality while hiking the trail. I was far removed from my comfort zone in the liberal Northeast and felt as if I had to dial myself down. Rural communities can be unwelcoming to LGBT people and I was slightly concerned if the inevitable thru hiker feelings of loneliness, sadness, etc. would be amplified since I likely wouldn’t have many, if any, gay people to relate to.
In the very beginning of my hike, I considered if I should promote my sexuality, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, by having some sort of LGBT orientated patch on my pack. I also contemplated trying to hide it or be honest and open about it when the time was right (if I was asked, etc.). I decided to opt for the last option, mainly because I didn’t want to risk a conflict by being too open. Yet being gay is something that is a part of my identity and it was the approach in which I felt the most comfortable.
I had the assumption that if anyone was willing to go hiking in the woods for 6 months with a bunch of strangers from all over the world—through unfamiliar towns and territories—that most people would be open minded. I was correct in this assumption. Whenever I discussed my orientation with fellow hikers, it never was an issue. If anything, a few hikers were astonished, yet supportive, that a young gay man was out here … in the middle of nowhere, dirty and smelly, hiking from Georgia to Maine. However, I’m unsure if I broke anyone’s perceived stereotypes about gay men. But by deciding to be open and honest about my sexuality, there was a sense of pride in being accepted into the hiking subculture in which masculinity is such a huge factor.
In another aspect, I found trail romance to be quite abundant for the heterosexuals. But being gay, I’m always asked about my experiences of romance or hookups. Honestly, it wasn’t something I sought out because I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. I am uncertain if I would have accepted even if the opportunity did present itself—all the dirt, smells, and muscle cramps would likely make for an unpleasant experience. Plus, I felt that the odds were stacked against me … you don’t go fishing in saltwater for freshwater fish. I was primarily focused on hiking and just being out there.
Being a gay thru hiker never put a damper on my hiking experience. In fact, I think it helped me create special bonds with other hikers since I often revealed a piece of private information about myself.In addition to wanting to write about LGBT issues on-trail, I also wanted to tackle the idea of hiking as a couple, which I've never done. The first thing I always think of when this topic comes up is Mitch Hedberg ...
But I decided that, as authoritative as Mitch can be on some issues (koalas and acid come to mind), I'd better get a second opinion from my college friend Eva, who tried to thru-hike the AT with her boyfriend in 2011, the same year that I did. Things were going well for them until her knee cartilage began to demonstrate the structural integrity of Jello and she had to leave the trail. But I asked her to say a bit about what it was like to hike as a couple, and this is what she wrote:
I've almost always hiked with friends, so I don't feel like couple-hiking was anything special. For me, hiking the AT as a couple didn't seem like a departure from the norm so much as a continuation of what I've always done. This sense was reinforced by the fact that Ben and I met and became friends as counselors, leading hikes for kids in the ADKs.
I also think of my AT arrangement not as Eva and Ben the pair, but as the trio of Eva, Ben, and Glide. Ben and I met Glide, a middle-aged, former Ford employee from Detroit, on the Approach Trail. The three of us became instant friends based on our mutual longing for switchbacks and blistercare. Glide, Ben, and I hiked together for essentially my whole time on the AT. Glide was hilarious and also interesting in that he was really the first friend that Ben and I had made as a couple. Before, I had become friends with Ben's existing friends and vice versa, but on the AT, Ben and I entered as a pre-formed unit. In some way, that made me think of Ben as more a part of myself than I had before. Of course, Ben's refusal to take a trail name was a constant source of disappointment, especially since I had the best ideas for sickly-cute, matching aliases: Zenith and Nadir, Crescent and Gibbous, Apogee and Perigee, etc. (oddly, they were all astronomical, I'm not sure why).Mitch Hedberg jokes aside, I don't see why her experience shouldn't hold true for any well-established couple, especially if they've lived together before (because that's essentially what a thru-hike would be). I think a disparity in the enthusiasm for actually hiking long distances would be more of a problem than just being around each other 24/7. I definitely witnessed this disparity once on the AT: eager woman really enjoying her hike, man just going through the motions tagging along. I've also heard other stories, like a man thru-hiking with his wife's pack on his front, and his pack on his back (presumably the wife carried her own whip). But those people probably have other problems not specific to hiking. I'm guessing happy couples stay happy on the trail, for the most part.
I can't really think of any witty/interesting/telling couple-moments. I think that hiking as a couple must be very similar to hiking with the people you become friends with on the trail. One benefit of starting the trail as a pair is that everything (food, shared gear, shared beds in towns) is cheaper, which is nice. And hiking as a pair was convenient when one person could hang a bear bag while the other primed the Whisperlite (yeah, no JetBoil for us). But yeah. No grand insights. Honestly, I would be more interested to read about what it's like to hike alone. Sex on the trail was like sex in civilization: more tasteful in private and I'd be more likely to acquiesce if I weren't in the middle of cooking dinner. Also note that I also lost my virginity in a tent, so, the woods are familiar territory for me. To directly address some of your questions: I personally didn't feel the need for privacy—during the day, we didn't see many people. There was plenty of time for hiking in silence or conversation or singing or "having a moment," etc in the privacy of the the vacant forest. And I don't feel like people treated Ben and me differently than they would have had we been hiking as friends or separately. Again, unfortunately and all too often, Ben and everything else on the trail felt like an afterthought compared to my knee saga.
That's all for the whole Trail Love deal. Other topics of sex and romance will be touched on in future asides, no doubt. Thanks again to Eva and Soulslosher for their contributions.