What’s It Like To Fall in Love on a Long Hike?

Outside Magazine (February 13, 2021) by Grayson Haver Currin

The first night Magpie asked Constantine to make out, he demurred—at least initially. The two long-distance hikers had met ten days or so into a thru-hike of the remote Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT). For three weeks they burned through the miles and, that night, crammed into a double bed in a stranger’s house in Washington, they were much too exhausted—or so Ryan “Constantine” Bunting thought—for a first kiss. “We did make out,” remembers Dana “Magpie” Pica, with a laugh. “But we realized we were both so sore that we just went to sleep.”

Before beginning the PNT in Montana’s Glacier National Park in June 2019, Magpie had endured a breakup. She’d had on-trail romances before, and Constantine, she thought, was funny and handsome enough for a rebound fling—some “trail tail,” she kids. Their biggest challenge soon became privacy, or finding enough time and space away from other hikers to be like any other zealous young couple.

“There are certain things you don’t do after being on trail for six days—like, you don’t put your mouth anywhere interesting,” Magpie laughs. “But we’re both gross, so who cares?”

Indeed, love—or, at the very least, lust—is more common on long trails than guidebooks or the Guthook app comments section might lead you to believe. So long as it doesn’t get predatory, pink-blazing (when a hiker speeds up or slows down to hike with a crush) is a prime trail pastime. Rumors of romance and quarrels of trail couples become soap-opera fodder, gossip that allows people to while away hours of pointless ups and downs. I once watched a man pitch his tent at the bottom of a hill during a deluge because he was irate that his girlfriend had outpaced him. Later that night, delighting in schadenfreude, we marveled as he frantically scooped water from his flooded tent with a cook pot while she slept in the shelter. I laugh about it two years later.

Still, I’m not sure I’ve ever been asked more about my love life than of the time I spent on an Appalachian Trail thru-hike with my wife, Tina. We’d already survived a southern summer and a Wyoming winter in a van that sometimes felt tighter than our tent. But how can you have sex, friends would wonder, when you’re caked in blood, bites, and sweat? And how do you slide into side-to-side sleeping bags after quibbling about, say, where to make camp?

Maybe it means finding a restaurant bathroom, a trailside motel, or a hidden watering hole (but never a plywood privy). Maybe it means letting off steam with the lukewarm beer you’ve packed out of town. To bastardize the bands Pablo Cruise or Yes, love will always find a way. After all, who else is going to tote your tent while you mule the food?

Following their first bedraggled tryst, Magpie and Constantine hiked together for the next 700 miles. After, they pined for one another while he trudged across Wisconsin’s 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail and she tended to a dying friend in Montreal. They rendezvoused in October 2019 at the start of the Arizona Trail—an epic “first date,” as Magpie puts it, that lasted months and 800 miles. Along the banks of the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, Constantine handed her a crocheted heart he’d found on trail in Wisconsin.

“It was a physical way to define what our relationship had been growing to become,” says Constantine. “She carries it around to this day. That still feels like a big thing.”

When they’re not on trail these days, Magpie and Constantine live together in her home in the small British Columbia town of Pemberton. She plans to join him later this year for the North Country Trail, the 4,600-mile behemoth of the National Scenic Trail network. It will be the last leg of his quest to become the first known person under 30 to have hiked all of the network’s 11 paths.

Magpie, 28, and Constantine, 26, talk about their love, possible marriage, and prospective citizenship plans with delight. (She’s Canadian, and a visa only buys him so much time there.) They mention their next hikes together with the casual assurance of a couple planning a Friday night at the movies—the trail, after all, formed and fortified their relationship. With a catch in her throat, Magpie remembers the more perilous moments of their 2020 voyage on Canada’s treacherous Great Divide Trail, from water crossings to avalanche zones. She realized then that this was much more than trail tail.

“That hike was absolute hell,” she says. “And those challenges really solidified my feeling that I trusted him with my life. That accelerates relationships a lot more than if you’d just met in a bar.”

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