This article was written before I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. I remained abstinent of social media on this hike as well, and still swear by this unorthodox approach.
You Did WHAT?
A few weeks into my Appalachian Trail hike, I was convinced to pay the next month’s phone bill. That’s right. I was going to let it disconnect. I wanted only the most divine, wholesome, and unseparated experience with nature, and my iPhone was no part of this longing.
What persuaded me to keep making the monthly payments was the convenience that came with leaving it on. See, the only way to disconnect was to stop divvying out these payments, and I still had time left before the next bill was due. So, I went on trail with the phone connected, and saw the convenience of data and messaging, and I was glad I did—not that I had much service anyhow.
Still, I refused to use social media. So, unconventionally, my perspective of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail was one without the draw, one I know well from urban life, to click on these apps.
The Real World
There are two parts to thru-hiking: the trail, and the community. Both elements are equally impactful to a hiker’s experience, and they compliment one another well. When demoralized by the adversities of living in the mountains, you can scheme to find town and relief from the community, hikers and trail angels alike. Alternatively, if you find yourself sick of civilization or being around others, you can escape into the forest.
The trail is volatile. Hikers know this. Every reward gained is offset by a rainstorm, a sprained ankle, a stalking bear, a stinging bee, poison ivy, endless morning spider webs, or whatever adversity you are prone to. This is why the trail community is vital. And it’s the best version of humanity that exists, I think.
There were few hostels I stayed in that I thought were making money, and even the ones that did seem profitable still didn’t convince me they were wallowing in these profits. Trail communities root from generosity, from other humans providing because they love what they do and want to help. With this comes an ideal module of interaction. Smiling faces all around.
Beliefs, background, identity, ethnicity, orientation, approach, and itinerary are irrelevant in the real world. Hikers hike. Trail angels do magic. No one’s better than anyone else.
But there’s a dark world out there, one I was not familiar with until my return from Georgia.
Before I dive in, you must understand I’m no Luddite. Social media has done unimaginable things for me, including reconnecting me and my best friend in 2009. But just as great as the power of social media is the importance of understating how it operates and how to use it in a healthy way.
Think of it like a fly rod.
“Once a fly fisher, always a fly fisher,” as my Mom has quoted my late grandfather. Fly fishing is regarded as a more effective way to catch a meal than the traditional method, but for me this rod is absolutely useless; I don’t know how to use it (sorry Boy Scouts, it’s been too long). In fact, a traditional rod would be better since I do know how to use one, just as not using social media may be better for someone who is unfamiliar with its ploys (refer to “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix to learn about these).
Young people have the advantage with the internet. We grew up with it, it was ingrained in our school curriculums, and most of us jumped on the boat early enough to experience the heuristics of such a powerful entity before our adulthood. I often find Baby Boomers have a difficult time interrupting messages on social media, and it’s easy to not realize the magnitude of the entity, how it works to not challenge your opinions but instead to superimpose them, no matter how ignorant and emotionally driven they are, and also how the use of these networks reflects its users.
As soon as my bottom made contact with the composite of the bench at Amicalola Falls, I pulled the phone out and re-downloaded the social media apps. I had to tell everyone what I did. It was great. Whether or not recognition was due, it came. Facebook blew up with friend requests from hikers and outing figures alike. This was the community, I thought.
But as time went by, I saw superficiality, and more often than not, it prevailed. The in-person hiker is not the same one who sits behind a computer. The one behind this screen is a much more confident version, one that can say anything he or she wants. And he or she will. I see it on my main feed and in hiking groups. People are bold. And in the times this boldness was thrown at me, I wondered, “Would this person say this to me in the flesh?” Upon offering to talk out the differences these internet users had with me on the phone, I was sure the answer was no.
Social media poorly reflects the true trail community. Threatens it, I’d argue. And audacity is just the beginning. I cringe watching thru-hike prospects obsessively asking questions on trail pages. Check out a couple gear lists, shop, learn the basics (you could do this in an hour), pick a start date, and go, for God’s sake. Mulling over preparation is not going to help you.
And the politics. Don’t get me started. If we can sit at a shelter picnic table and have a civil time cooking our Knorrs and rolling our spam wraps, we can do it in the virtual world (maybe with some more appetizing food, as well). A few people I regarded highly of on trail are now nothing but infantile Facebook users to me. Don’t be that guy (or gal).
I can’t speak to this, but I’ve come to notice how punctual some hikers are with posting and interacting on social media while they hike. Like I said, I don’t use social media on trails, so I can’t lace up these shoes. I wonder, though, if a need to keep one’s hike up to date on social media dilutes the magic of thru-hiking. This is why I waited until I got home from my hike to post pictures on social media. Documentation is something that needs not be vexed over while on trail, yet so often is.
Plus, if we’re being honest (we are) posting pictures and anecdotes related to a feat as thru-hiking is going to stir much attention. So now, you’re in town, but how can you indulge and gain the full experience when you’re too busy catching up on social media? I don’t know how this one plays out fully, but there were many times I was in the company of hikers and angels alike when I was glad I didn’t have the brain-sucking internet to distract me.
Hike abstinent of social media. Do it. And I don’t mean keep the apps on your phone and try to not sign in. That won’t work. I mean drag these apps to the deepest depths of the forest and bury them in an ATC-approved cat hole.
If you’re going to leave your home, your job, your friends, your family, your pets, why not go all the way and fully disconnect? Again, I’m not suggesting you turn your phone off. Your loved ones will want to hear from you, and you’ll want to hear from them. Rather, I’m suggesting you give yourself a break from something with so much potential to affect your mental health.
And really, it sounds kind of silly to say you’re going to live in the woods for months at a time, backpacking thousands of miles, but still plan on checking social media whenever you get the chance. Embrace the real world while you’re in it. You may not have it again.
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