Between late spring and mid-summer, like bears coming out of hibernation or birds migrating south for the winter, hundreds of exhausted, dirt-caked hikers from the Pacific Crest Trail come into the front country and resupply in Lone Pine. You see their gaunt frames in the post office light up as they open packages of food like Christmas presents. They congregate outside the local bar and swap stories about their time on the trail, drunk and cocksure. I meet and greet them more often than not as they traverse Main Street for a cheap hotel room.
After about 750 miles of hiking the 2660 mile trail, I'd imagine someone would appreciate a break from eating dehydrated food, pooping in bags, and wearing the same pair of socks for days at a time. It's safe to assume that other thru-hikers, whether on the Appalachian Trail, John Muir Trail, and so on, don't mind a reprieve from the great outdoors, but I nevertheless ask people why they decided to thru-hike. The answers are generally similar; to escape, to let go, get out of the rat race and re-learn how to live.
It's a romantic notion, Hippie bullshit for sure, but still romantic.
I talked to a couple of self-proclaimed "hiker trash" the other night out by the hot tub at my place of work, and I asked about life on the trail and what they thought of it so far. Over the sound of singing and an off-tuned guitar, they drunkenly rambled about how beautiful the scenery is, how blue the sky is every day, and how amazing the people they meet are. One guy tried to convince me to go out myself.
"I used to work corporate, man," he began, "I lived out on the East Coast working for a big company, y'know, climbing that corporate ladder and shit, when I decided, 'Fuck it, I want something different.' So I sold my stuff and got on the trail. Anyone can do it, man. It's so worthwhile to do it, and you totally should!"
I said I'd think about it. I'll probably stick to shorter trips though since I have bills and responsibilities, but I didn't tell him that part.
The PCT is almost like a wilderness version of 1960s Haight-Ashbury, full of backcountry beatniks and hiker hippies. Jaded by the expectations of modern society, hundreds of people decide to make their mark on the world by abandoning it. They migrate from all over the world to join the new way of living, only instead of tuning in, turning on, and dropping out in tiny apartments in San Francisco the people on the trail are doing it in tiny tents. The hippie community isn't confined to a city, either; it spans thousands of miles and changes every day.
As far as counter-culture movements go, the PCT is pretty different. The Summer of Love types protested the Vietnam War, made movements in the arts, and evolved thinking about gender and race, and the echos of their impact on modern society. The PCT, though, seem more of a personal evolution rather than a social-political one. The 1960s counter-culture movement worked toward changing the world, but the PCT seems more of a means to change the self and to encourage others to do the same. Instead of communal living in an urban setting or in an established location, the PCT does so in a nomadic way like a sort of ancient tribe. They've swapped bell bottom pants and suede vests for nylon short-shorts and t-shirts, but at least they both kept the trait of being smelly and dirty I guess.
Living in a society that puts so much emphasis on social media, 24-hour news, constant streams of information thanks to the internet, and living constantly at full throttle, a counter-culture based on walking in the woods for long periods of time makes sense. With the recent release of the film adaptation of the novel Wild, a lot of people are hitting the trail, but I think the underlying need to break away and find yourself still seems to be the main reason people have for hiking the PCT and other thru-trails.