Communication Currents

The Trail Itself: Hiking as Self-Evident, Eminent Performance

December 1, 2013
Theater & Performance

When former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford disappeared to visit his mistress in Argentina, his staffers needed a plausible excuse for his sudden inaccessibility. Their improvised answer: He was hiking the Appalachian Trail. While this excuse quickly becomes fodder for late-night monologues, their reference to the trail as a place one might want to be for self-evident reasons is not entirely coincidental.

The ‘‘AT’’ or ‘‘the trail,’’ as it is known to those who have spent any significant amount of time on or near it, stretches from Springer Mountain, GA, to Katahdin, ME. Originally conceived by conservationist Benton MacKaye in 1921 as a recreational space to combat America’s radical industrialization, the trail was completed in 1937 to relatively little fanfare. But over the years the trail has amassed a cult-like following as many hikers suspend their personal and professional lives to hike for months at a time. Since the trail’s construction, approximately 12,000 hikers have completed the entire 2,150-mile journey, with 41,000 more would-be ‘‘thru-hikers’’ attempting the feat but coming up short of the finish line.

We are two researchers who hiked several sections of the trail ourselves and conducted interviews with hikers we met along the way. Our participant observation leads us to believe that many hikers choose the trail simply “because it’s there.” This is to say hiking on the AT is, for many hikers, an eminent act that doesn’t point beyond itself to some other meaning as much as it points to itself as an act that is self-evidently worth doing. While many experiences can be effectively grasped or represented through their retelling, long-distance backpacking often defies narrative description. One must, hikers insist, continuously participate in the hike to understand what the hike requires physically, psychologically and socially. In other words, if you want to know what it means to hike one of the longest trails in America, you must strap a pack on your back and become one with the painful journey. In this way, our research indicates that the seemingly “extreme” world of performance art has significant corollaries in more everyday contexts: Like performance artists, long-distance hikers use themselves as material. Long-distancing backpacking is marked by seemingly self-evident choices about how one relates to one’s own body (pain), the “stuff’ of culture (deprivation and a weight-based economy), and other people (an “alone but together sociality”).

As many hikers note, no amount of perspiration or practice could possibly ready one for the grind of the day-in and day-out hike itself. Hikers, especially in the early days of longer treks, are almost constantly in pain. This pain, as they discuss it, is not an obstacle to be overcome, but a badge of honor and a shared lexicon. Within days of commencing our hikes, we, too, began to bond with fellow hikers over blisters, shin splints, cramps, and other discomforts. While our ailments might have seemed too personal for polite conversation in the “real world,” on the trail it was commonplace, even expected. We were all in so much pain that our pain was the self-evident topic of conversation. Our pain didn’t need to mean anything, it existed powerfully enough that it only needed to point to its own existence to be worthy of mention. 

Weight is of the essence when carrying all of one’s belongings on one’s back for several months. Hikers choose what to bring. The lightest gear possible costs significantly more money. “Roughing it” is not an inexpensive affair. Hiking gear can be useful, light, well made, or inexpensive, but never all four. The negotiation of what and how much to carry and how much money any given convenience is worth is a constant struggle for all hikers from the moment they start planning their trip to their very last step. Whether it is tucked safely away in the pack or pulled out in a moment of need, each piece of gear chosen becomes meaningful for the simple fact that it has been chosen. Of all the possible things in the world, this hiker has chosen this thing to be here now. Thus it is eminently self-evidently meaningful.

The kinds of relationships built on the trail are different from those built in other environments in that they often allow hikers to feel “alone but together,” simultaneously connected to other hikers and separate from them. Other hikers are known primarily through their temporary “trail names” such as “O2BeeHiking,” “Zipper,” and “T-Rex.” The two most important things about a trail name are that it be vivid and easy to remember. Each practical choice one makes for food, shelter, gear, or friends presents a new set of opportunities to engage the hike uniquely. So, even as one hikes with others, one is constantly encouraged to “Hike Your Own Hike.” Thus one learns to relate to others in a more self-evident way; one is hiking with the people because those are the people who are there.

In short, our painful, deprived, camaraderie-filled participation in trail life leads us to believe many people feel alive on the trail because trail life continually points to the conditions of its own making. Long-distance hiking on the AT pulls hikers into what performance artist Adrian Piper calls the "indexical present" a “now” that points to its “nowness.” While many different meanings are made about the act of hiking after the fact, long-distance hiking on the AT does not point to other meanings beyond itself as much as it points to the fact of its own happening. Like performance artists who find ways to resist the commodification of art by placing meaning in ephemeral actions, hikers are able to temporarily escape, resist, and reframe the economies and meaning structures in their “real lives” by hiking.

While Gov. Sanford’s aides may have been grasping at straws, they hardly could have picked a better way to express, “We aren’t sure what he is doing, but it is bound to be very meaningful” than to say, “He is hiking the Appalachian Trail.”

About the author (s)

David Terry

San José State University

Assistant Professor

Sarah Vartabedian

West Texas A&M University

Assistant Professor