The following is based on my very biased opinion regarding who reigns supreme between NOBOs and SOBOs. First, I’m sure you remember that NOBOs and SOBOs are distinguished by which direction they are hiking on the Appalachian Trail. In the world of thru hikers, NOBOs start in the winter/spring on Springer Mt. in Georgia, and finish in the summer/fall on Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Contrarily, SOBOs start around the beginning of summer on Mt. Katahdin and finish on Springer Mt deep into fall.
Then there are those flip floppers. They start as one and flip to the other [insert standard Romney joke here]. I think they most commonly start somewhere in the middle, hike north, and then flip south for the end. They tend to retain a douchey-ness associated with northbounders.
As you might well imagine, the relationship between NOBOs and SOBOs is quite complicated. [Btw- I sure do hope you all are pronouncing this right. Noe-bow and Sew-Bow.] There are several reasons for this. First of all, most people hike north. It’s the direction that Earl Shaffer thru hiked for the first time in history back in 1948. Plus, summiting Mt. Katahdin at the end is way more epic than hiking up Mt. Springer. So, like I said, most people hike north. When we passed through Harpers Ferry, WV and visited the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, they had over 900 people claiming to be northbound thru hikers for 2011 and only a little over 50 southbound thru hikers for 2011. Granted, there were still more southbounders to come after us, so I figure the number was more like 100. Still, we’re talking 9-1. And we saw a high percentage of those hiking north, so take it from us, there were A LOT. We saw NOBOs from the first day we were on the trail. Around VT and NH we passed through the northbound “bubble”. We had been warned about this phenomenon for some time. Somehow a high density of northbounders managed to be chunked together over a 4 day span and there were days that we passed 50 people hiking the opposite direction. At this time in the hike, you’d arrive at a shelter and there would be 20 people there because northbounders were coinciding with the southbounders and it was a cluster. We saw the last of the regular season northbounders in CT. However, we even saw some non-traditional north bound hikers down in TN when it was getting late in the year. They planned to hike as long as they could before the weather just became too unbearable. (Crazy).
NOBOs and SOBOs have very different experiences just based on the fact that northbounders are with other hikers alllll theeee tiiiime, and southbounders are much more scarce. But there is another reason that they don’t see eye to eye. While we were hiking around Hamilton Pool today in TX with our friend, Linda Owen, she commented on the fact that the trail we walked down to get to the river looked completely different when we returned on it in the other direction. She hit on a very important point. Yes, northbounders and southbounders both hiked the AT. They both saw the same towns and the same mountain views, but the majority of the time they were just hiking on a trail, and they never saw the same thing as the other. The viewpoint you get from walking one direction is biased. You see one side of every tree, rock or bush. So in a very fundamental way, NOBOs and SOBOs have two very distinct experiences. I think everyone hiking the trail comes to this realization at some point. I mean, you have a LOT of time to think and I’m going to go ahead and assume that this crosses everyone’s mind. And I’m sure it’s a pretty profound feeling moment when they think of it. And I don’t mean to suggest that the fact that everyone realizes it makes it less profound, but it is funny to think of how badass each person probably feels at that moment. (Especially if you know them).
The NOBO-SOBO relationship is further colored by the fact that NOBOs, for the most part, are running into SOBOs in the far northern section of the trail as a result of the seasons that people hike. So as a southbounder, you’re running into northbounders after you’ve hiked 0-700 miles and they’ve hiked 1500-2200 miles. There is an unavoidable superiority complex. Northbounders have experienced more, made it further and are ready to let you know it. They interact with you like they assume you’re not going to make it the whole way. They give you tips about your gear or what experiences you’ll have in the future. They tell you how your body will change, your appetite, your mind. They tell you all of this as if you haven’t been affected at all by whatever portion of the hike you’ve completed. And let me tell you, you are changed by the first week. I think they forget that. I try not to forget that when I interact with other hikers, especially weekend or section hikers. People are changed every time they backpack, but if you do it for too long you forget.
Obviously it’s all about perspective. There is a strong degree of relativity involved…as is well expressed through the AT mantra “Hike your own hike”, however there is also a component of objective truth. I think there is a common experience that is unchangeable. At the core, hiking just “is”, and something about it is the same for everyone, but this truth is veiled by all these other consequential factors.
That being said—hiking SOBO is way better than hiking NOBO. J I know I’m contradicting what I just said, but the sameness of the experience be damned. There are too many elements that layer on top of the base truth of the experience to make them in any way equal. I preferred hiking south because: you get the hardest part of the trail done in the beginning, which makes the rest of it seem like a breeze; you are less crowded, yet there are enough people that you are not lonely; the Smokys are less likely to be impassable due to snow; and you’ll hit the south in the fall rather than the summer so the temperatures will be much more bearable. Plus you won’t be a douche.
Sol would add: When we ran into the flip floppers when we were headed south, he remembers feeling that he was trying his hardest to not act like a “NOBO” to these newly southbound hikers. Translation: We were scarred enough by the people who were dicks to us in the beginning that we tried not to act like a dick to those we met as we continued, even when we had hiked over 1500 miles.