Portraiture is possibly my favorite form of photography. Faces show character in every laugh line, every weathered wrinkle, in tan lines left by always-worn sunglasses, in the trickle of sweat through trail dust. In the scraggly beards of men who have walked the woods for weeks.
On our drive through Catawba valley, my husband said, “It’s getting close to peak thru-hiker season.” We were headed to Sawtooth Ridge, a portion of the Appalachian Trail between McAfee Knob and Dragon’s Tooth, near our home in Blacksburg, Virginia.
“It is?” I asked, my wheels turning. I had just checked my email and seen that the theme of this week’s WordPress photo challenge was culture, and I thought, oooh, maybe I can cover A.T. culture. Shoot portraits of rugged hikers.
“Yeah, if they left Springer Mountain [Georgia] on March 1, they’d start getting here near the end of April and in May.”
A local friend of ours said she gives away her chocolate snacks when she encounters thru-hikers on the trail. I thought of when my husband was thru-hiking, back when we were boyfriend and girlfriend, and how he would put an entire stick of butter in his ramen noodles at night. “I wish I would have brought more food,” I said.
In the McAfee Knob parking lot, I fingered my camera as large groups of hikers clustered around car trunks and tailgates, stuffing water bottles in daypacks, eating pre-hike sandwiches from Subway, mixing formula in bottles for the baby a dad would carry on his back. I wasn’t brave enough to ask to take their pictures. On the trail, I told myself. I’ll ask hikers on the trail.
We headed south while the crowds headed north towards McAfee Knob. For twenty minutes, we saw no-one. No day hikers. No thru-hikers. The only evidence of humans we found, besides the trail, was a “Home Sweet Home” sign nailed above a squirrel hole. “Kids! Look at this!” I crouched down and snapped shots.
“Do you think a squirrel made that?” Our son asked.
“Or maybe fairies?” said our daughter.
I wondered about whoever had made this miniature sign, who had brought a screwdriver onto the trail to attach it to this little spot. A local day hiker? A Virginia Tech student? Whoever it was, they made me smile with this little surprise in the woods.
We rounded a bend and met a young man and his dog headed north on the trail. The man carried a full pack, with a pair of dusty gray Crocs tied on the side. His hands were red and raw as he gave his dog a treat for sitting obediently as our kids approached.
“Hey, how’s it going?” we said.
“Good, good. I just picked this guy up in Pearisburg,” and he pointed at his dog. “I’m trying to train him.” The black and white mottled dog carried his own saddlebag pack and was calm and sweet as he sniffed my hand. His nose was speckled pink and black. The man gave him another treat.
“Well, y’all have a good day!” And he continued north as we continued south. I’m not sure if he was hiking from Georgia to Maine, or if he was just out for a weekend backpacking trip. I did not ask his story, and I did not take his picture, except from the back.
The next hikers we encountered were obviously thru-hikers. We sat on fallen trees in a clearing, munching trail mix and baby carrots, when two women powered through the glade. They carried full packs, wore quick-dry nylon hiking pants in olive green and pewter grey, and their strides were long and purposeful. I wondered where they were from, when they had started, how many miles they were doing that day. Had they mailed boxes to themselves, filled with fresh food supplies, and cash, and lightweight spring clothing? Were they in a hurry to get to a post office and bury their faces in fresh tee-shirts? Clean socks? They said a quick “Hello,” which we returned, and then they were gone. I did not photograph them, or ask them their story. “The next one,” I told myself. “I’ll talk to the next one.”
On our way back to the car, we passed a scruffy young man smoking a cigarette on a slab of rock on the side of the trail. He sat atop a bulging backpack, stuffed full like a giant army-green sausage . He was backpacking, not day hiking. Carrying cigarettes and wearing New Balance sneakers, I didn’t think he was a thru-hiker, but he could have been. I’m sure he had a story. He was lounging, I could have easily asked. But he wore headphones, and I didn’t want to intrude, so I hiked by with a nod and a smile.
By the time we arrived at our car, where five dusty, bearded twenty-something men lay draped over their backpacks, or sat on them as chairs, or propped their backs up against them in the white gravel parking lot, I knew that I would not talk to these hikers, nor photograph their faces. I am fascinated by journalists – by their grit, by their ability to shove in and get the story, by their speed in turning stories out – but I realized on the trail that that is not the stuff I’m made of.
Instead of shooting photographs of “the next one,” or of those prone hikers reclining not 20 yards from our car, I knew I’d bring their images home in my mind, and l’d write their portraits with words. I’d hole up at home, in retreat like many hikers seek, contemplating solitude, and the Appalachian Trail, and a culture that includes those who would nail a tiny sign over a tiny hole, in the wilderness, for smiles they’ll never see, but that they’ll know, quietly.