Without so much as a “hello”, they all ask the same question: “Is there a bear box?”

A bear box is a steel container you put your food in so the bears don’t get it and more importantly so they don’t come looking for it in your tent.

For the hikers who followed us into camp the question about the bear box seemed as inevitable as asking about the weather at home.

I’m not saying bears don’t pose a risk, but the emphasis is out of all proportion to the threat or likelihood of a sighting.

You begin to realize the question also serves another purpose: it places respondents on a pecking order that starts with the lowly day tripper and ends with the elite “through hiker.”

There was no debate we ranked near the bottom.

When asked about the bear box we looked confused. We didn’t know if there was a bear box or if there was where it would be or what it would look like.

Nor did we have a bear bag, the sack used to hang food in a tree as an alternative to the box.

The importance of the bear bag was one of many lessons I learned hiking for four days in Vermont with my son and two of his friends. We hiked a section of ground where the Long Trail and Appalachian Trail converge.

In our case the kids solved the problem: they piled the enormous quantity of food we were hauling into a tarp, giving it the appearance of a blue burrito the size of a body bag. They nearly broke a tree limb hoisting it up.

The first night we couldn’t lift it higher than six feet off the ground, making the whole effort a bit ridiculous.

“That’s the biggest bear bag I’ve ever seen,” a gaunt and bearded veteran said in a voice that simultaneously conveyed both concern and disapproval.

The other hikers at the shelter rolled their eyes.

We didn’t hike long enough to adopt trail names or gain much credibility with through hikers, the people hiking continuously from Georgia to Maine. But it was enough time to get some insight into trail sub-culture.

Some of the surprises:

— How few people have hiked the Appalachian Trail. In spite of its fame, proximity to the Eastern seaboard and bucket-list status, only 12,000 people have done it since 1937. By contrast 4,000 people have climbed Mt. Everest.

— How it’s insanely monotonous. It’s the same landscape for huge stretches. Hikers say it basically looks no different in Massachusetts than in Georgia.

— How you need to focus on every step. The terrain can be so rocky and muddy and covered in tree roots that you need to totally concentrate.

— How many of the people appear out of shape. Hikers say that a successful finish is more about grit, endurance and mental toughness than peak fitness.

— How an amazingly large number of people had never hiked before they set out. One women decided to do it for her 50th birthday. She drove to REI, bought gear and set off. It’s a pretty common story.

— How isolated you feel. You do pass people. But not many. And though you aren’t that far from civilization you also aren’t THAT close. You basically hike alone. Even if you go with others you go at different speeds.

— How the majority of hikers are solo hikers, including lots of women. Maybe it’s self-selective, but this is clearly not a group activity.

— How you meet a lot of people. You may hike alone, but when you get to camp you talk to everyone, (in our case about six to eight people a night). Since there are no other distractions and no cell service, it feels like you have more “real” conversation here than many other places.

— How heavy everything is when you have to carry it. My pack was about 30 pounds, which is way less than an Army Ranger would carry, but crushing nevertheless. A lot of through hikers focus on reducing the weight. One guy we met made his own dehydrated chili.

— How you can wear the same clothes day after day, sweating through shirts while hiking and letting them dry at night and how that doesn’t bother you.

— How damn slow it is. The terrain was steep, but I was still surprised to average only a mile an hour. We took seven hours to go seven miles every day.

— How embarrassing it was to watch one guy hike 20 miles in a day, covering the same distance that took us three days. And how he didn’t seem tired.

— How you can poop in the woods and its no big deal. You realize that squatting down works pretty well.

— How when you plan to hike you don’t think about rain. But it rains a lot. To complete the trail you have to hike through driving rain. That’s probably a big reason only 25% of people manage to finish.

— How when you get to the shelter you put up your tent and make some pasta and crawl into your sleeping bag. And how you literally sleep for 12 hours and how that seems normal.

— How you can control your bladder and not get up to pee even though at home you do that every night of your life.

— The variety of people you meet:

Two single women were hiking with their dogs. One bailed after one day. The othe rmade her dog carry his own food and water. She kept going.

An overweight ex-marine from Alaska passed us while a quiet reservist from Vermont stopped to talk. He did two tours in Afghanistan and met his wife hiking the trail 29 years ago after she was forced to stop for a snowstorm.

There were two twenty-somethings from Texas who traveled fast and light. He had already hiked the trail three times and she wanted to try to run it. They worked to make money to return.

There was a girl from Pittsburgh who had never hiked and her friend from Vermont who spent her whole life on canoe trips. They quit their jobs to hike. The Vermonter sprained her ankle the first day. She intended to press on.

The woman from Dallas who, with no experience, drove to REI, bought gear and set off just before her 50th birthday. She was ultra-orthodox about the experience, quick to explain how we were hanging the bear bag incorrectly.

The middle aged dad with two kids who said they were going to stay out “as long as it’s fun,” which made no sense at all, since none of it is fun.

We met between five and ten people each day. At least we met them well enough to get their name, where they were from and what they do for work.

The thing you couldn’t get was a reason why they were dedicating five months of their lives to the trail.

Most people looked puzzled when you asked, eventually responding with some variation of the “it was there” argument.

I knew why I was on the trail. My son asked me to go.

He wanted to hike with his friends Nick and Henry and they needed an adult. This was ironic of course as I was the one bringing up the rear. I was not even qualified to hang the bear bag. Fortunately Nick’s uncle Matthew also joined.

All I could think while hiking was that it feels like you don’t learn anything from all this effort.

You focus on walking. You sweat like crazy and carry the pack with a grim determination to make it to the shelter. And it’s all just totally pointless.

I had read Bill Bryson’s book about hiking the trail, “A Walk in the Woods” and if there is one lesson that book imparts it’s to not hike the trail.

There is no question hiking the entirety of the 2,100 miles is a monumental achievement. My cousin’s husband David just finished.

We met one “sectional hiker” who spent most of his vacation for 25 years hiking the trail bit by bit. He was almost finished.

I couldn’t help thinking that there are better ways to spend your holiday.

But maybe I was missing the point.

The trail makes you slow down. You cannot think about anything. You just look at your feet and march on and you do it for at least seven hours a day.

You walk in silence and when you get to camp exhausted you eat quickly, hang your bear bag and go to sleep. In the morning you do it again.

You carry everything you need. You waste no motion. Everything is simple.

People say the trail is humbling. And by that they mean there can be setbacks.

I thought it was humbling because it strips away any scaffolding you have erected around your life. On the trail there is no title or fancy clothes or big house or fast car or prestigious job.

You are what you carry. And how well you carry it.

You pass people on the trail, just like you meet people in life. And sometimes they stick around and you see them at the next shelter and sometimes they don’t. You never know which it will be.

I was relieved to get to the last camp. We’d be heading back to civilization the next day. Matthew used his stove to make some pasta. We added Parmesan cheese and Cajun spice. I put my years as a Boy Scout to use building a fire. We waited for the inevitable stream of hikers to arrive.

Three young, well-equipped Canadians rolled in.

“Where’s the bear box?” they asked.

We said we didn’t know.

They rolled their eyes, sat down and pulled out their pocket-rocket stove and pouches of noodles. They had the latest gear. They were all business.

They looked up as our kids began to pile our food onto the tarp.

“That’s not how you hang a bear bag,” one of Canadian’s offered.

Our kids didn’t care. They were having fun.

Nick hogtied the enormous blue sack and picked it up.

And then, laughing all the way, the three boys trudged into the woods looking for a tree that would hold the weight.

**Published by Ted Merz Aug 26, 2018**