Curiosity Peaked: Anthropology Student Hikes A.T. in the Name of Research

 

Danica Loucks '13 on the top of Mount Lafayette in New Hampshire.

For five weeks this summer, Danica Loucks ’13 hiked the Appalachian Trail by herself, starting at Daleville, Va., and ending at Kent, Conn.

The experienced backpacker wasn’t seeking a transcendental experience in the wilderness, or weeks of nature-induced meditation. Rather, Loucks, who is an anthropology major at Bowdoin, was on the trail to find out why every year many hikers leave behind their regular lives to hike the 2,184-mile trail. What were they looking for? What did they hope to discover after months of logging miles, eating dehydrated lentil soup and suffering sore muscles? And did they find it?

To support her trail research and lay the foundation for an honors project next year, Loucks was awarded a Grua/O’Connell Research Award from Bowdoin this summer.

In a way, Loucks is using the parameters of anthropological research to gain personal, as well as more universal, insight. Loucks grew up in Montana, and as a child backpacked and hiked with her family. While she loved these expeditions, she wasn’t sure why. “I had a subconscious, visceral reaction to it: ‘Oh, this is something I enjoy, I feel very refreshed’,” she recalled. “But I’m not comfortable leaving these visceral reactions be.”

Loucks' Trail Lessons
When Loucks was asked whether her time on the trail had changed her, she said it had, in a couple of ways. For one, it boosted her sense of endurance and strength, which she can call up to get through hard times. “When I’m out on the trail, I’m hiking 17 to 20 miles a day, day after day.” When she’s stressed at Bowdoin, juggling a million things, she reminds herself of this feat.

Plus, when you’re walking every day and sleeping outside, you’re vulnerable to all weather variations. “You have to learn to accept it and deal with it. If you’re unable to accept and get over it, you’re going to quit,” Loucks said. She recalled one particular memory of hiking the A.T. last summer when it rained for days on end. Soaked and uncomfortable, she chanted a mantra to herself, “Accept, accept, accept.” That, too, has been a lesson that has spilled over to life after the trail.

To read more from Loucks’ trail (and travels) journal, go here.

Last summer, with four free weeks to spare, Loucks’ curiosity about the A.T. compelled her to head out on the trail. She started at North Adams, Mass. and ended her solo trek three and half weeks later at Grafton Notch in Maine. “That was really amazing and confidence building,” she said.

And the spark of her honors project was born. While on the trail, and later talking to hikers who had completed the trail, Loucks noted that the trekkers often described being transformed by their experiences.

To find out why and how this was occurring, Loucks headed out on the trail for the second time this June, boarding a Greyhound bus to Virginia to begin five weeks of fieldwork. With a small digital recorder and field notebook, and the gear she needed to survive on the trail, she began tracking backpackers. In the end, she interviewed 20 subjects ranging in age from 18 to 60, with the majority being men, since most through-hikers, or “thru-hikers”— those who go the entire distance of the trail — are men.

Sitting with her subjects by the side of the trail, camping with them at night, waiting with them while they did their laundry in town or hitched a ride on the road, Loucks was able to ask, “How did you reach the decision to through-hike? Why did it need to be this location, with a defined start and end point? What is a typical day like and what is the quality of your interactions with people and the landscape? Do you want more time alone?”

She also asked philosophical questions, such as why did they think people enjoy spending time in nature? And, what did they think makes an area natural or wild?

“I also asked people how they compared themselves before they started hiking to now,” Loucks said. “I wanted to get at the idea that a lot of people came out here at a transition in their life, or to make a transition in their life.”

Loucks suggests that the desire to spend four to six months hiking the trail is akin to anthropologist Victor Turner’s description of a rite of passage. “Rites of passage are rituals that involve a separation of individuals from their communities, the enduring of an ordeal, and a reincorporation of those individuals into ordinary life but with a changed status,” she writes in her fellowship application. “In this liminal period between separation and reincorporation…participants are secluded, have ambiguous identities, and are ‘withdrawn from…the values, norms, sentiments, and techniques associated with these positions’.”

Loucks observed that most thru-hikers take on a trail name different from their given name. And traces of their old identities are erased by their fatigue, grime and standard hiking gear that makes it difficult to discern their status or background.

And Turner argues that rites of passage often involves pain, Loucks points out. People “live outside their normal environment and are brought to question their self and the existing social order through a series of rituals that often involve acts of pain,” Turner writes. Pain is a frequent companion of the A.T. hiker. “The willingness to endure the ‘acts of pain’ that come with hiking for months on end is expressed in such slogans as ‘No rain, no pain, no Maine’,” Loucks adds.

The Grua/O’Connell fellowship supports, regardless of discipline, faculty-mentored student research. The competitive fellowship is just one among many that Bowdoin College offers to qualified students to support summertime research, projects or internships.

Photos from Loucks’ hike:

Comments

  1. This is a subject near and dear to our family. Our son Nate (’12) is setting out next March to thru-hike the AT. The link shown above is our journal from when Nate and his brother Ben and I hiked Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness. The transformation cited in the article is real, even over a short 100 mile stretch.
    http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1177395770951.19845.1709836979&type=3&l=094ba6fe51 has some pictures from that hike.

  2. Marilyn Dunham says:

    Great ! the last picture is beautiful… and part of the reason hiking is such a wonderful experience.

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