ALDHA-W Gathering 2014
Once again, the most fun weekend of the year was the American Long Distance Hiking Association-West Gathering. Held at Meany Lodge at Stampede Pass—just a few miles from the PCT—the Gathering attracted 150 people from across the country and a few globetrotters. Hikers enjoyed great activities, stories, presentations, and comradery around the keg. With each hour of the Gathering, attendees became more and more fueled to get back on the trail with their friends.
What makes the Gathering unlike any event is the passion and diversity of the attendees. This year in particular, I met and had meaningful conversations with people of all ages, socioeconomic backgrounds and political beliefs. In a world so fragmented and stratified, it is so easy to just hang out with our own demographic, but at the Gathering, I was stoked that there was such a good spread of so many different people there, especially older folk (because anyone who hiked the PCT or CDT in the 90s or earlier is a badass and I want to hear how they did it). The Gathering felt like a family reunion except that we are brought together by a love of hiking that, for some of us, feels stronger than ties of blood.
I had the honor of giving the first presentation of the Gathering about the Inman 300, an urban thru-hike of LA. Since the room was filled with nature-loving hikers, I was concerned that the audience would scoff at my tales from the asphalt. Instead, I was overwhelmed by how supportive and interested everyone was in the hike. I was especially touched to hear how some of ALDHA-W’s longest standing members have used the stairways of LA as training grounds for decades.
“Dirtmonger” Ryan Sylva gave the second presentation on his Vagabond Loop, a 3,000 mile southwest connection of the Arizona, Hayduke, and Grand Enchantment Trails. More than any ALDHA-W presentation I’ve seen, Dirtmonger’s speech appeared as if he was telling not just the story of a trail, but the story of a man. The talk paralleled Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, beginning with Dirtmonger’s call to adventure and a poem by the inspiration for his trip, Everett Russ. Aided by helpers and mentors including Blister, Brett Tucker, the friendly people of the San Juan Hut System, and others, Dirtmonger fought through the challenges of navigating the canyons, drinking alkaline water, and resupplying in backwater towns full of unfriendly locals—ever driven to continue on. After Dirtmonger made it to Durango, CO, he wasn’t sure how to get to Albuquerque to connect to the GET. Here, Dirtmonger walked into the abyss—a fire-worn northern New Mexico—where he reconciled some of his beliefs about hiking “purism”, private property, and the nature of vagabondism. Dirtmonger finished his hiking loop, but his quest continues. If a man could be captured in a trail, the Vagabond Loop is the walkable manifestation of Dirtmonger’s soul.
Teresa Martinez from the Continental Divide Trail Coalition gave a lunchtime presentation about the organization that was recently designated as the official partner with the Forest Service as steward of the CDT. The CDTC is undertaking a revolutionary model for trail management and conservation based on collaborating with community members. In an empowering call to action, Teresa advised hikers that since the CDT is such a young and malleable trail, it can become the trail we want it to be. No longer just passive recipients of land managers’ decisions, on the CDT, hikers can make the change we want to see.
Following lunch, ALDHA-W President Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa and I gave a last minute presentation on our pioneering journey of the Chinook Trail, a 300 mile horseshoe traversing the Columbia River Gorge. Jean Ella, the first woman to hike the CDT, was scheduled to appear during that timeslot, but an incident in her kayak resulted in her inability to attend. I look forward to her talk next year, but was pleased to share the Chinook Trail to an audience complete with many locals to the trail who were excited about replicating our journey.
The presentations ended with “Swami” Cam Honan’s story of the world’s first traverse of the lawless Mexican Copper Canyon that he undertook with “Trauma” Justin Lichter. Swami’s description of the trip aptly captured its difficulty, even for two of the top long distance hikers in the world. Having heard bits and pieces of Swami’s journey already, it was a pleasure to see the trip tied together. Yet his presentation left me with a pang of regret and sadness for all that drugs, roads, and cartels have taken from the canyon and its people. Although his photos were stunning, I couldn’t help but wonder if Swami and Trauma would be the last non-locals to see those sights for a long time.
A highlight of the Gathering was watching hikers make fools of themselves in the Hiker Olympics. This year, there were a few new events to add to the ridiculousness. First, contestants were asked to identify photos of famous long distance hikers. Surprisingly, many people had trouble identifying Earl Schaffer, the first thru-hiker. Another joke-worthy challenge for competitors was the ‘Dig a Cathole’ contest where hikers gave impassioned speeches about how their cathole was more suited for the job that their neighbor’s. The last new event was hiker trivia, where challengers answered 20 questions ranging from trail history and management to identifying geographical or historical features along hikes. Shockingly, long distance hikers apparently need to work a bit on their Leave No Trace ethics as almost all of the contenders incorrectly guessed the distance suggested to camp from water sources (the answer is 200 feet)!
While hikers tie-dyed their ALDHA-W t-shirts or went for a run in the perfect weather, volunteers decorated the Triple Crown ceremony room with streamers, tablecloths, candles, and centerpieces. During a delicious and suitably fancy dinner of Pacific Northwest salmon, Phil “Nowhereman” Hough, in conjunction with his work with the Scotchman Peak Wilderness, held a trivia contest honoring the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. In addition to the Triple Crown plaques, this year Yogi and Worldwide made beautiful posters personalized for each new Triple Crowner to commemorate their accomplishment using quotes from each hiker’s application. Gossamer Gear gave each Triple Crowner a hat with a Triple Crown logo.
The most touching of all the speeches was made by Scott “Shroomer” Williams who read from “Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman. I can’t recall for sure which stanzas he recited—the whole poem itself is too long to have read for the Triple Crown Ceremony—but two lines stuck with me for how well they sum up the people at this year’s Gathering:
Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.
Liz "Snorkel" Thomas
Liz Thomas is a well-traveled adventure athlete most known for breaking the women’s unsupported speed record on the Appalachian Trail in 2011. She has completed the Triple Crown of Hiking–the Appalachian Trail, the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail, and 3,100 mile Continental Divide Trail–and has backpacked over 15,000 miles across the United States. While not on trail, Liz lives in Denver, Colorado.