Ethical Dilemmas

One thing that quickly struck me about life on the Appalachian Trail is how easily hikers share personal information, not just about themselves, but also what they’ve learned about other hikers. I’m guessing it’s due to the perceived anonymity of trail names coupled with the feelings of intimacy created by the shared experience of hiking. Anyone with a backpack becomes part of your friendship circle, and it’s habit to talk about friends with other friends, so exchanges like these become commonplace:

“Have you met [Hiker A] yet? Great guy. He’s in the military. Did he tell you about how he and his best friend have an arrangement to sleep with one another’s wives while they’re deployed.”

“Did you pass [Hiker B] this morning? No? That’s too bad, I’ve been wondering how she’s doing. Her boyfriend cheated on her right before she left, and she’s been having some pretty terrible mood swings. Tell her I say hi if you catch up to her!”

Deeply personal details become part of the shorthand description you give to other hikers when you’re trying to figure out which acquaintances you share.

“Do you know [Hiker C]? Blond hair, mid twenties, works as a geologist I think, older brother died last year from cancer? You do?! Isn’t she great? I’m hoping to catch up to her by the next town stop.”

I’m always half-gleeful about hearing interesting gossip and half-horrified over how casually people hand over these secrets that don’t actually belong to them. I very quickly realized the trail should be treated like the internet:  Don’t share anything unless you’re fine with the whole world knowing it; privacy is very much not guaranteed.

I have jotted down so many second-hand anecdotes, taken hundreds of photographs of people who are sweaty and exhausted, and witnessed a not-insignificant number of people behaving in ridiculous, hilarious, embarrassing ways. That stuff makes the BEST stories, but I’m really not interested in sharing anything negative that could be linked back to a hiker’s real identity.

When I photograph people, even in groups, I do always ask for permission. Some people have said no; others have said yes, with the caveat that I either not post it online or give them veto power first. The vast majority have just said, “Sure!”

I feel pretty comfortable posting photos of people and identifying them by trail name if they’re sober, aren’t doing anything shifty or foolish, look as presentable as a hiker can expect to look, and didn’t expressly ask me not to post, especially if I’m not also sharing any incriminating or embarrassing anecdotes.

If I’m sharing a personal story I heard second-hand, I won’t use an identifiable name and won’t post a photograph.

If I’m sharing a story involving something I witnessed firsthand that paints the subject in a questionable light, I might post a photograph but definitely won’t use an identifiable name.

My mother has been obsessively reading trail journals kept by other hikers who started around the same time I did, and she actually managed to find a few different photos of me posted in various places and an anecdote attached to my real first name. (At the time, I was pretty pleased to be “nice” Sarah, but now I kind of want to challenge the other Sarahs to a fistfight or maybe a dance-off to see if I can’t upgrade to “sassy” or “smart”. I can barely keep myself alive in the woods, though, so I’m happy to pass on “with black dog”. Also? It is a very good thing I really love my mother and do not ever anticipate needing to hide from her, as it is clear I will be unable to successfully do so.)

This experience really brought home the fact that, while I desperately want to talk at length about the terrible snorer who drove me out of the Fontana Hilton shelter at 3am and the kid who started his hike wearing 11-pound carpenter jeans and carrying a machete, I DO NOT want them or their family members to stumble across those stories.

(To my fellow hikers:  If I ever post a photo of you or a story about you that you want removed, just let me know.)

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