A few weeks ago, I had some spare time, so I went for a long walk. I walked for twelve days and 200 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Rookie numbers compared to those who walk the full trail (which is 2600 miles in length total), but given that this was my first long distance hike, I think I did well.

In those twelve days, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone constantly - both physically and mentally. I started by hiking 10 or so miles a day until I acclimated to the altitude and the strenuous activity, and by the end of the trip, I was walking 21-23 miles a day. The physical challenge was not the biggest, however. No, the biggest challenge was the mental one of being constantly alone.

Most people who hike the PCT start at the Mexican border or Canada and end up members of a “Bubble” - a dense cluster of hikers, separated only by a few miles between them. At night, they tend to cluster at water sources or known campsites. When you hike the PCT in full, you’re never really alone for all that long. If you pick an arbitrary section of the PCT to hike at an arbitrary time (like I did), well, there’s no guarantee there will be anyone else on trail.

For most of the eleven nights I was hiking, I camped completely alone. Sometimes twenty four hours would go by until I saw another human being. This might sound lovely to someone sitting at home, but it feels terrifying in the wilderness. You may be 30 miles from the nearest semblance of civilization, with only your water filter and homemade first aid kit to save you in case of emergency. The first few hours are relaxing, peaceful, but after a while, all the likely and unlikely scenarios start running through your head. You realize how little knowledge you truly have about surviving in the wilderness. How many venomous snakes are there in the Sierras? How much tree cover is sufficient to protect you in a lightning storm on top of a mountain ridge? What if there’s a bear with rabies? Can bears get rabies??

Rational thinking turns irrational when there is not a single soul around to keep you grounded. Your own thoughts keep you awake, afraid, sleepless, tired. You long for a person to talk to, any person.

It was in this mental state, after hiking twelve days straight, after hiking about 23 miles on my last day, that I arrived at the intersection of the PCT and Big Creek Road in Bucks Lake, California. My map told me that this was a spot that one could hitchhike from into the town of Quincy. I had been dreaming about the prospect of a shower and a clean bed in a motel from the moment I started hiking that morning.

I arrived at the aforementioned road at 6:45pm and quickly realized that it was a rarely traversed country road. I stood there for 30 or 40 minutes, but not a single car drove by. The sun was setting, and I was worried I would have to for one last time camp completely alone - along the side of this road. I was getting somewhat desperate, when I saw the first car: a red Jeep, an older model, the kind meant for off-roading. I stick out my thumb, they stop. Two men, late 20s, wearing camo, carrying hunting bows. I ask if they would take me to town, they say sure, but we’re gonna be hunting until night falls in a few hours, then we’ll pick you up here… unless you wanna go deer hunting with us.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so trusting - perhaps I should have been afraid of being kidnapped, but I was not. At that moment, I was so excited to see real people, I was so traumatized by being alone, I was so thankful that they had stopped to pick me up. I had never been deer hunting before, but I said, you know what, I’d love to join you for an hour or two. My other option was to stand there, wait for the next car that may never come as it got darker and darker.

So I hopped into the back of the Jeep, we drove up the mountain (that I had just climbed down), braking only for deer we spotted. They told me about their hometown, their friends, their jobs as power line repairmen (working predominantly in winter when the storms break the lines), the injuries they sustain on the job. They told me about how they hunt for bears and deer and waterfowl, how their freezers full of game meat make them feel prepared for emergency and self-sufficient. As we rode in the Jeep, they offered me a beer, which I gladly accepted (Coors Light may as well be the nectar of the gods after 13 hours of hiking).

In my daily life, I don’t encounter people who regularly hunt and fish, who drive pickup trucks and Harley’s, who own guns, who didn’t go to college. I live in my own, self-selected little bubble of computer scientists, physicists, the occasional biologist. So this chance encounter was a fascinating glimpse into another world, their world, one they were very open to introduce me to. We talked a lot while trying to spot deer. They were, to use their own word - hillbillies - but they were also intelligent, self-reflective, kind, and thoughtful. When they asked me what I was doing out in the backcountry, alone, hiking, I told them the truth - I lost my dream job a few months ago, and it still really hurt me, and I still hated myself for messing it all up, so I wanted to think about it. One of the guys turned around and said, “Was it your dream job or a job at your dream company?” He fully understood what I was going through, he fully understood what had happened to me, he just got it and I didn’t need to explain.

After 2 hours, we had spotted a few does, but California only gives out tags for bucks at this time of year, so we ended the hunt empty handed. As promised, they drove me into town, we got some snacks and looked for a motel. Unfortunately for me, who had not stopped day-dreaming about a shower and a clean bed yet, it was a Friday and everything was booked. But my new friends generously offered to take me back all the way to basically where they picked me up and dropped me off at a campground for one last night of sleeping in a tent. These concealed-carrying, deer-hunting, self-proclaimed hillbillies showed me nothing but respect, kindness, care, patience, generosity, curiosity and expected nothing in return.

I used to think that you needed to have a certain type of life to develop the character traits that I now value the most - that you needed to be well-read and educated to become curious, generous, tenacious, dedicated, kind. I rarely saw these traits that I now value so much while I was growing up, and I always assumed that my community - poor, uneducated, immigrant - somehow can’t produce people with these traits. But this is not true; these character traits can be found everywhere - among the Bay Area tech people, the Eastern European immigrants, the Sierra hillbillies. But no matter where you look, these traits are rare, incredibly rare. These character traits are the best America has to offer - and the best is rare. If you’re lucky, you’ll stick your thumb out hitchhiking and run into the best on a quiet, rarely traversed country road.