If you live in a city of any size, you often encounter street people as you attempt to negotiate the intersections. Often they will have a shopping cart piled with their earthly possessions. A hand lettered, weathered cardboard sign asking for help is often held up as an extra visual to remind you of their plight. Actually, it is hard work standing on a corner hours on end day after day. You can't help but notice the dry skin and calloused hands as you press a few coins into their hands. They usually respond with a "God bless you" with a voice compromised by cigarettes and whiskey. They spend the night sleeping on the streets. Many bed down in the landscape shrubbery at the freeway entrances and exits. They are down to the basics in life, food, clothing, shelter and daily survival. Some are there by choice and there is a certain type of “no responsibilities” freedom. Most however, are there because of struggles with mental illness or drug dependence or both.
There is another lifestyle that reminds me of this. I am a backpacker and find a kind of strange kinship with the homeless folks. The homeless have gone ‘off trail’ in life. While street people live out of their shopping carts, backpackers carry their homes on their backs. Their packs provide clothing, shelter, food and daily survival. For the backpacker, the experience is time limited. For the street person, their life is an endless purgatory of moving from place to place and living from day to day.
The backpacker is a gypsy of sorts too and in the wilderness to become reconnected to nature and to him or herself. Navigating through the wilderness and over mountain passes cultivates a sense of competence and reminds the backpacker that if he is not careful, he could be possessed by his possessions. Why in the world would someone own a house and need to rent a storage locker too? How much do we really need? I seem to have two or three of everything. Why?
Backpacking is like being a street person because it is a divesting and a prioritization process. Much of my thoughts while backpacking are directed at finding the next water source. I am often thirsty. You can never seem to get enough calories (or oxygen) aboard on a long day ascending a mountain pass. Where is that next boulder in a shady spot that my pack will rest on too when I sit down? I still remember the hamburger and fries I had ten years ago in Tuolumne Meadows slowly savored after five days on the John Muir Trail.
This brings me back to the cardboard signs held aloft with expectant hope asking for money for food. Street people are plagued by the same problems as backpackers and I'm sure hygiene begins to look and smell similar after about five days on the trail for the backpacker.
When it comes down to it then, where do the similarities end between backpacking and being homeless? I supposed there are scores of reasons why folks backpack. Some like to fish the alpine lakes. Some like the quest aspect of navigation and endurance. I like the beauty and carry photographic gear with me. Some like the social aspect of a shared experience. Some just want to get away from a clock and a job.
Some however, are driven into the wilderness not by wanderlust but by personal demons that nip at the heals of their souls. These reasons include postponing life decisions, lacking a sense of personal meaning or purpose or just bugging out and running away.
Cheryl Strayed and Chris McCandless are examples of street people in the wilderness. I have been approached by PCT through hikers asking for food. There is a desperate driven pace for some of these folks.
The wilderness and the streets are places for some to find themselves and for others to lose themselves. Both backpackers and street people know how thin the social veneer really is and how far away the backcountry ranger is if you need help. And sometimes even the backcountry ranger is lost forever too.
Trail name "Padre"