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Solo trails/trials for this unlikely hiker: Purpose, purity, and quest

Stanley, Phiona



Alec Grant

Elizabeth Lloyd-Parkes


Alex Roddie (2021, p.25) sets himself a challenge: to hike Scotland’s Cape Wrath Trail alone, in winter, and without communications technology. And then, almost immediately, his tent floods and he calls home for backup. He writes:

"As I packed up my sodden gear and stuffed it into my sodden rucksack, I couldn’t shake a sense of failure; that in reaching out for help over my electronic lifeline I had already compromised the spirit of what I was trying to do. …Start chipping away at the shaky foundations of self-sufficiency and isolation underpinning what is, let’s face it, an artificial challenge, and you might as well go on a bus trip to Cape Wrath instead. "

Roddie’s dismissive “might as well go on a bus trip” sings even as it stings, because where —within any “artificial challenge”— is there purity, and/or purpose, and/or quest?

I ask because I, too, have set myself a challenge: to solo thru-hike the 170-mile (273km) Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) on the California-Nevada border, where I know no one. This high-altitude route traverses dry stretches (necessitating water hauling) and the territories of bears, rattlesnakes, and mountain lions. Additionally, as a fat, middle-aged woman – an unlikely hiker (Stanley, 2020) –in addition to camping gear, I will carry ruinous social imaginaries about fatness and my incongruence as a hiker. Can I do this? Honestly, I don’t know.

I want to try. Doing so feels life changing, self-actualizing. As John Muir (1911/2018, p. 21) puts it:

"[T]hese mountain days, the rose light creeping higher among the stars, changing to daffodil yellow, the level beams bursting forth, streaming across the ridges, touching pine after pine, awakening and warming all the mighty host to do gladly their shining day’s work …the landscape beaming with consciousness like the face of a god."

So, why NOT just “go on a bus trip”? I would see the same sunlight. But no. The point is the journey: stepping out of myself. The training for it. The pushing through. This is the penance, the offering. The perseverance is part of the journey.

This critically autoethnographic chapter is framed within a mobilities paradigm (Urry, 2007) that considers tangible and intangible affordances. For this reason, although I go alone, I return often to Roddie’s provocation to “chip away at the shaky foundations of self-sufficiency and isolation.” To what extent is it possible to hike alone? What impact does the rest of the assemblage have on whether we succeed or fail and – related but distinct – what is the learning that occurs along the way?

Muir, J. (1911/2018) My first summer in the Sierra. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith.

Roddie, A. (2021) The farthest shore. Sheffield: Vertebrate Publishing.

Stanley, P. (2020) Unlikely hikers? Activism, Instagram, and the queer mobilities of fat hikers, women hiking alone, and hikers of colour. Mobilities 15(2): 241-256.

Urry, J. (2007) Mobilities. Boston: Polity Press.

Acceptance Date Jan 24, 2023
Online Publication Date Apr 12, 2024
Publication Date 2024
Deposit Date Jan 24, 2023
Publicly Available Date Apr 13, 2026
Publisher Routledge
Book Title Meaningful Journeys: Autoethnographies of Quest and Identity Transformation
Chapter Number 5
ISBN 9781032484761
Public URL