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Trekking the trail leaves my pals and me stinky, hairy

Blast Oregon Bureau

Few of the hikers I encountered carried razors, and I grew accustomed to the look of unshaven legs, armpits and, of course, faces.

Previously, I'd always viewed facial hair with disgust. It seemed unkept-looking and I frankly wondered why any man would have a beard when every woman I'd ever known had an aversion to them. My views, interestingly, would turn completely around by the time I was finished with my 6 1/2 month hike of the Appalachian Trail, a 2,000-mile walk that stretched from Maine to Georgia. I now have a fondness for wildly bearded men, whether I know them or not.

The presence of facial hair in large quantities became a way of identification for brother hikers. (As for the females, one would need to see her pack, her armpits, or depend on one's nose to identify.) When I was in a town, where I'd do laundry and stock up on provisions, it was almost guaranteed that if I saw other hikers on the street, I would know them. Even if I didn't know them, it was easy to strike up conversations and get to know them. So I got into the habit of looking closely at hairy people with body odor, scruffy clothes and packs.

Back in Lancaster, Penn., the small city I called home after completing the hike, I often found myself looking at folks who at a glance seemed hiker-like. Hell, I might know them, I thought. Well, it turned out that all the people I found myself gazing at with a friendly smile turned out to be homeless men. Even when I finally got it into my unconscious mind that I wouldn't see any hikers I knew in the streets of Lancaster, I continued to make eye contact and give a smile, or start up a conversation.

I knew what it felt like to walk down a street, everything I owned on my back, wishing that there was a dry, warm place I could go to and dry out my rain-soaked socks, or make myself a warm cup of tea with a snuggly blanket around my tired shoulders.

I don't mean to say that my fellow hikers and I actually were homeless, though a few were. There is a world of difference between the homeless and my middle-class, expensive gear-toting friends, but there were similarities. In becoming a transient for the brief period of half a year, I put myself in place to look at life from a new angle. I'm glad I did it, and plan to do it again.

When life is simple, it takes on a whole different aura. And it's not exactly what most people would think. For example, I had grandiose thoughts when I started out that I would have time to think about and develop my own philosophy on the meaning of life. I didn't. Most days, as I was hiking along, my thoughts ran something like this, "I think I'll make mac and cheese tonight for dinner. Do I still have some sun-dried tomatoes to add? That would taste good -- macaroni, mac and cheese. Mmm, steak would really taste good right now."

Other times, it would be more like, "Damned rain! When will it ever stop? My socks are wet, my boots are wet, my pack is extra heavy, my shorts are wet, my shirt is wet, and my bra is wet from sweating underneath this shitty raincoat. Ow! That blister from walking on wet feet all day hurts!" Or, "Gotta go potty, where's a good bush? Ooooh, I gotta take a dump RIGHT NOW!"

I tried to think of the things I'd always wanted to think about, but somehow my mind would always take the meandering path back to the baseness of my physical existence. After my body's needs were taken care of, in the tent at night, I'd read poetry by candlelight and write faithfully in my journal to record what I did come up with, but most of the time it didn't amount to much.

Even though it wasn't what I had anicipated, I learned a lot by what I didn't think about. By that I mean insight into the humanity we all have in common, the joy that comes from living a simple but purposeful life, how great pizza and beer taste after living on Top Ramen for a week.