“It was so fun, I’m having a hard time getting back to my job.”
This past weekend, the American Long Distance Hiking Association- West annual Gathering drew a record number of people to Mt. Hood, Oregon to reconnect with lost trail friends and be inspired and humbled by other’s experience and love of nature. To properly celebrate the hiking social club’s 20th anniversary, we were honored by hikers new and old, especially by the return of some “lost” members to the organization and visits by younger self-proclaimed ALDHA-W skeptics.
The event kicked off with a grand spectacle— a live recording of the popular Trail Show hiking podcast. For fans, this was the first time they got to see the real people behind the voices on their favorite internet radio show. As usual, the irreverent Trail Show hosts made jest of all things within our community, nicely setting up for that night’s screening of Squatch’s new movie, Flip Flop Flipped. In HD film, Squatch’s documentary recorded his travels on the northern part of the Appalachian Trail—arguably the most beautiful part of the trail. His cinematography was so beautiful I couldn’t watch too much because it made me want to return to the AT so badly…
Luckily, instead, I found the 8 kegs donated by Hop Valley, Base Camp, and Thunder Island Brewing. Additionally, there were two kegs of Eva’s Herbal kombucha and a 30 year supply of chocolate milk, coffee, tea, and apple cider for those seeking non-alcoholic beverages. After the day’s action-packed set-up with 15 other volunteers who came to the camp early, it was excellent to relax and spend time learning about new trails and retelling funny stories from hikes with my friends new and old.
The next day, was a busy schedule of speakers, hiker Olympics, tie-dying ALDHA-W shirts, and the POD Memorial Soccer Game. The morning kicked off with Jeff Kish, who spoke about the Pacific Northwest Trail using photos, video, and slides in a multi-media presentation that showed a level of professionalism never before seen at the Gathering. In a talk tailored and targeted for long distance hikers, Kish considered how the PNT is even better than the much beloved PCT. For those of us who had previously written off the PNT, it was a presentation that made you want to drop next year’s plans and check out the PNT.
The next speaker was Bernadette Murray, who thru-rode the PCT as a child with her family in 1969-1970. The family home-schooled their kids along the way, building trail and learning from nature as they headed north into uncharted territory. Her presentation included beautiful vintage photos and memories of a childhood of freedom and adventure that made many of us in the room downright jealous. As an audience, we got to experience just a snippet of Murray’s adventurous life, and hear a few stories of her other adventures as a teenager such as canoeing down the Yukon and hitchhiking across Canada to a helicopter.
For the past two years, ALDHA-W members have been anticipating Jean Ella’s much awaited presentation on her experience as the first woman to thru-hike the Continental Divide Trail. Jean was on the schedule for last year’s Gathering, but injured her back in a kayak shortly before the event and was unable to travel. This year, in a presentation that brought strong men to tears, Ella’s talk exemplified the importance of planning, perseverance, and friendship on the trail. Ella showed us how different the CDT was in 1970’s and the grit, determination, skill, and true love of nature it took to complete it. She did an impeccable job of documenting her trip and shared records and journal entries from her time on the Divide. The presentation even included scans of her letters to sponsors. Her ability to secure a 6-month supply of Cadbury chocolate must have intrigued many a hiker in the audience, especially the last two speakers…
For many people, the big draw of the event was Shawn “Pepper” Forry and Justin “Trauma” Lichter’s presentation about their winter PCT thru-hike. In a talk given by two shy guys who will likely never address another audience anywhere, Trauma and Pepper recounted the details of their hike in a way that was tailored to a long-distance hiking audience well-versed in the PCT: an audience who wanted to hear every gritty detail about what hiking looks like on the next level. This past winter, the trail community followed Trauma and Pepper’s journey intently and came out in droves to give them support by offering rides, local information, sending food, and securing places to stay indoors overnight. In a world and time where a trip of this nature would have likely otherwise been completed by bigtime ski athletes with big money backing, watching these humble thru-hikers speak made it clear that their success was also a success for our community, a victory for thru-hikers. The ALDHA-W audience loved their opening slide which contrasted a Reno Gazette story from early in their trip that called their endeavor a “death sentence” with one in the New York Times calling it the most “daring and foolhardy wilderness expedition since Lewis and Clark.” The presentation was followed by a Q&A, where Trauma and Pepper’s good natured sense of humor and fraternal nature in our community allowed them to play off all our jokes as well as answer the few serious questions that made it into the pile.
That night, we welcomed 27 new Triple Crowners to the family and I realized that one of them was my friend Eric, who I had not seen or heard from in 4 years. Eric was the one person I hiked with for multiple days during my AT speed hike and when I took a zero and he went ahead, catching up to him became a huge motivator for me. That night, I got to sit and discuss trails until the wee hours with Eric and my friends Whynot and Shroomer—who hiked with him for half the CDT. A friends who had all hiked together, at different times and places, I couldn’t help but feel like we were family, all of us cut from the same cloth.
ALDHA-W also honored Nita Larronde, the trail angel of Pie Town, NM as this year’s recipient of the Martin D. Papendick Award. As the first CDT trail angel to receive the award, the kind lady from the Toaster House shared her photos of hikers and trail registers dating decades back. Thanks to the Wolverines of the PCT, hikers this year were able to donate to bring Nita and her daughter to receive the award. Joe “Tatujo” Kisner presented the award and read a tear-jerking letter from her daughter, Autumn. Nita is truly an angel in our community and her recognition was long-awaited and well-deserved.
After Saturday’s dinner, to celebrate ALDHA-W’s 20th anniversary, ALDHA-W President Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa called up Steve Queen, Brice Hammack, Roger Carpenter, and Alice Gmuer (the first woman to solo the Triple Crown). These four people attended the first ALDHA-W Gathering 20 years before. Allgood asked them as a special honor to blow out the candles on the ALDHA-W birthday cake. When they looked at the cake, they were shocked: printed on the frosting was a photo of Steve, Brice, and Alice taken in 1994 as they received their Triple Crown plaques. Our founding members were thrilled.
Within the hiking community, I have heard rumors that ALHDA-W is an organization for washed up retired hikers or that it is an elitist organization. After the Gathering, some of these skeptics—many at the Gathering for the first time—apologized for having their doubts. ALDHA-W is back from the ashes and while there were many “hiking celebrities” present, you would have never known it from the way people at the Gathering act. The ALDHA-W Gathering is the family reunion you look forward to, where everyone “gets” what your passion is in life, and everyone wants to help you succeed in your dreams, no matter your level of expertise.