Maybe I didn’t smell as bad in the South, or maybe it was harder to see the hunger in my eyes back then, but it wasn’t until I got into the North that I first felt like I was being negatively judged because I was a hiker… A thru-hiker.
I’ve been hiking and backpacking since I was a kid, but I didn’t know there was a negative stereotype associated with hikers until I started my thru-hike. At the beginning of the trail we joked around about it… About being called “Hiker Trash,” but it mostly felt like an inside joke… That we were embracing the fact that we were dirty, smelly, jobless, and homeless. Though all of those things were true, most of us were that way because of a deliberate, well thought out choice.
While we are on the trail, most of the people we meet treat us with respect if not awe. We are out here living a dream. A dream that many hikers have, but that few have the opportunity to realize. There have only been a few times on the trail where I feel like I’ve been judged negatively, and in those cases it was because I’m a woman. It certainly irritated me, but societal assumptions that women can’t take care of themselves and achieve their own dreams their own way is something that I (and most women I know) have been dealing with and fighting all of our lives.
In general, I expect people to treat me with respect and they do. I had forgotten that being treated with respect was a privilege, and that when dealing with strangers that privilege has nothing to do with who I am and what I’ve done. Instead it has to do with how I look, who they are, and what their biases, prejudices, and assumptions are. In my normal life I think I probably look like a professional middle class woman and most people default to treating me with respect.
When I leave the trail and head into town people see me with different eyes. They see a thin, muddy, smelly, sometimes soggy young woman with a backpack… Unfortunately the default attitude that goes with that image is not always respect.
The first time that I wasn’t treated the way I expected to be was at the Allenberry Inn and Playhouse in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. I was going to share a room with my friend Hummingbird. She hiked faster than I did, arrived first and checked in. She and some other hikers were walking back into town for lunch as I hiked up the hill to the Inn, so she passed me the key as our paths crossed. When I got up to the Inn I realized that I’d forgotten which building our room was in so I walked up to the front desk and waited patiently to ask which of the buildings I was in. The woman behind the counter looked up at me, studied me for a moment, and then with some disdain said, “What do you want?” I explained the situation and the woman told me that they hadn’t given any rooms to any hikers that morning and turned away. I was confused, since I knew at least 4 thru-hikers that had gotten rooms that morning and they told me that they were all staying in the same building and that a bunch of other thru-hikers were also staying in the same building. I was tired and wet, had a key to my room, I just didn’t know which building I was in, so I rephrased my query and told her I just needed to know which building all the thru-hikers were staying in. She told me there was no such building. At this point I pulled the key out, waved it at her and pleaded… please, I know the room number, I have the key… Please can you help me? She snatched the key out of my hand and said, “Where did you get this?” I reiterated my story and sent another text message to Hummingbird (I think her phone was dead) and the woman behind the desk finally agreed to at least look up the room for me. As she was doing that, my friend Bergy came up behind me and whispered, “They’re not very hiker friendly here.” Though eventually the lady gave me the key back and acknowledged that there were other hikers staying there, I definitely left feeling that they weren’t very hiker friendly.
That was just one employee at one place, one time. I shrugged it off and assumed the lady was having a bad day or had had some recent negative experiences with hikers. Unfortunately it was the beginning of a pattern. I mostly experienced it when trying to check in to hotels or Inns in town, with multiple people telling me, “We don’t have any hiker rooms available”. The first time I assumed that that meant that they didn’t have any rooms available, but it turned out that it meant they didn’t have any rooms… For hikers. At one point my dad called to make a reservation for me and had to explain to a proprietor that I wasn’t just a hiker, that I was a respected and respectable adult that could afford and deserved a room. The proprietor then agreed to let me stay in a regular room. After that I learned that when they told me that there weren’t any hiker rooms I needed to ask about rooms for regular people. When I insisted on getting information about regular rooms I was always able to get them to give me a room eventually, but sometimes it really felt like I had to fight for it.
Some establishments put signs on their doors saying, “Proper clothing and hygiene required.” These signs are clearly aimed at thru-hikers. There is no denying it, we do smell bad. No matter how often I do my laundry and shower I smell bad. It’s not my fault I smell bad. I challenge you to go hike 20 miles a day and smell good afterwards.
A few places even explicitly ban hikers, like the laundromat in Kent, CT. If places won’t let me in to wash my clothes, what chance do I have to get clean and smell nice? Lucky for me, my parents were visiting and did my laundry in the laundromat in Kent for me. The local paper wrote an article about hikers and the laundromat there. As the article states, legally hikers are not a protected group, so we can be banned and discriminated against based on how we look and how we smell. We are lucky that we are a small group and that the majority of the people and businesses we encounter are hiker friendly.
The thing I find myself thinking about is the larger group that the hikers are a part of… Which buttons are we pushing that cause such a negative reaction in some people? Why are we being discriminated against?
I think it’s discrimination based on socio-economic status… People are assuming that we are hiker trash, hiker hobos… That we are dirty, smelly, homeless, jobless, penniless vagrants. These are not the assumptions that I’m used to people making about me. These assumptions lead some people to default to treating me without respect.
I am incredibly lucky that I’m only experiencing these prejudices because of my choice of vacation. When I shed my backpack, shower regularly, do laundry regularly, and eat as many calories as I burn, I’ll stop looking like a homeless hiker and won’t be subject to this variant of prejudice anymore. My thoughts are with all the people that don’t have that option in their lives… That can’t walk away from the societal prejudices that cause people to disrespect them because of how they look.
*Everywhere I’ve been (Georgia to New Hampshire) the trail angels and positive interactions with people have far outnumbered and outweighed the few negative interactions that I’ve had.*
Here’s the link to the article about the Kent laundromat: Stinky people are not a protected class