It was August 31st, 2015 when I jumped off an Amtrak bus at a rest stop on Interstate 80. My Gossamer Gear Gorilla pack was full to the brim with too many warm clothes and I was ready to hike all the way through the Sierra, again. After hiking only 5 miles I crossed another highway, filled up my water bladder behind an abandoned ski-school building and made my way down a gravel road to continue on the PCT. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a group of four grungy hikers sprawled on some rocks behind a tree.
One of them looked at me with a mixture of recognition and surprise. I gave her the same look in return and veered left to greet them.
“Hi! Are you guys headed south?” I asked her.
“We sure are, you?” She asked. Her shirt was three sizes too big and swallowed her whole and her ponytail flopped insistently on the right side of her head.
“Yep! I’m Bug.”
“Hi, I’m Mart.. I mean, Huck,” Said a bearded man in a familiar Danish accent.
“I’m Harpo – want some Sour Patch Kids?”
“Nice to meet you, no thank you…” Sour Patch Kids aren’t vegan, I thought to myself. Little did I know…. “I actually just started my section hike, I convinced the bus driver to drop me off at the rest stop which I guess is technically against the rules.… I told him I wouldn’t tell anyone…”
“Well you just told us,” Groucho pointed out. Touché.
I liked them all immediately. But I liked them even more the next day when I found out that half of them were vegan!
Meet Harpo and Groucho – lightweight backpackers extraordinaire and committed vegan thru-hikers. These two have successfully completed both the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and are on the way to the Triple Crown this year with the Continental Divide Trail. They’ve had some awesome life adventures (that I’ll let them tell you about, down below) while discovering and living their own personal truths. They’re artists, nomads, yogis and professional house sitters who have lived without paying rent for years. They've got some really great perspectives which they share in the interview below as well as on their blog. It’s impossible to cross their paths and not feel energized and inspired to shine a little brighter. So, without further ado, I give you Harpo and Groucho: two more vegan thru-hikers, changing the world one cheese-less pizza at a time.
How long have you been vegan and what drew you to this way of eating?
Harpo: My first radical act was picking the pepperoni off my pizza when I was 11. I've been vegetarian since then (26 years) and mostly vegan the last 4 years. I felt uncomfortable with agricultural processes related to animal treatment and their (lack of) personal sovereignty. In school, we had just learned about First Nation's peoples and their diets - I was struck by the respecting/blessing of the hunt, and using every part of the animal. My mom subscribed to a vegetarian magazine to learn recipes for me. The magazine was full of advocacy articles describing the industrial food processes, the negative impact of the system on the environment, and also the nutritional benefits of being vegetarian. I did more research and found so many reasons to continue on this path.
My father grew up in a rural area where they grew their own food. They even churned butter when he was a kid. He passed along this respect for food - a love of whole foods, an ethos of using up leftovers, and a practice of composting any waste. I woke up to the way that America had strayed from these practices... and although I appreciate that industrialization has made food cheaper, I have issues with the compromises in quality, nutrition and the treatment of animals in factory farming.
I couldn't eat meat anymore.
For a few months in my early 30's, I tried eating meat again that was more consciously produced, i.e. hugged to death in an idyllic pasture where it is eating freshly sprouted grass. That diet didn't make me feel any better about killing animals to continue my own life. Then I met Groucho, who is a great chef, and it was easy to be vegan around him.
Groucho: I started as a vegetarian in high school - I never had much of a taste for meat and was inexplicably drawn to drop it, also prolly because all the cute artsy girls were veggie. Years later managing Elliott Bay Cafe I had a lot of conversations about veganism with my friend Pol and the bakers at Flying Apron, the vegan/gluten free bakery in back. I conditionally switched to veganism in 2004, with a 3 month hiatus eating cheese while cycling thru France, and a 1 month stint eating sashimi when I returned. When I initially switched to a vegan diet I found that my stomach didn't hurt every time I ate - something that plagued me since my youth - that's how I found out I was lactose intolerant. I've been 100% vegan since 2005.
What kind of travels and adventures have you been on since being vegan?
Harpo: I have thru hiked the Appalachian Trail (2200 miles), the PCT (2650 miles) traveled to Austria and Guatemala.
Groucho: I have hiked the AT and PCT (with Harpo-mane), prepared food for a company of 23 dancers and actors in Austria, performed in Toronto, been an artist in residence in Costa Rica, worked and played in New York, received yoga teacher training in Guatemala, cycled thousands of miles and run hundreds, worked on a weed farm in Northern Cali, painted quite a few murals and had a couple museum shows - all while happily eating vegan.
Do you always stick to a vegan diet while traveling/hiking, etc?
Harpo: Mostly. I have "hospitality flexibility"... i.e. if someone is trying to do something nice.... like give me trail magic... I will sometimes accept it... if turning them down would complicate the human interaction. For example, accepting a homemade muffin from a car camper around Old Station California. It's really hard to say "no" to someone who is trying so hard to participate in my journey by paying me a kindness.
Groucho: Always. Unless I misread a label. There's no going back at this point. I started as a comfort/health/fashion vegan but over the years have become more aligned with universal consciousness and animal rights - I can't see any justification for changing my diet, only more opportunities to talk about positive change via food.
Can you describe a story or two about some challenges you face in dong so?
Groucho: In Austria people literally eat only sausage and ice cream. Implied Violence - the theatre company I work with - initially performed at a festival in Krems (outside of Vienna) in 2009. We ate only beer. When we returned as a new company - Saint Genet - in 2013, we were determined to provide healthy, sustaining food for the performers so we cajoled the producers to put us in a venue with limited cooking facilities. This turned out to be a museum, which was awesome. But our group had extremely varied dietary limitations - the opera singer didn't eat beans, someone was gluten free, someone was allergic to celery and apples, and the choreographer tasted cilantro as soap. All this while contending with the fact I can't speak German, and we were preparing for a show that required 3 hours of setup, 5 hours of performance, and 2 hours of reset every night. I was literally at the grocery every morning at 7, and finishing the performance at 10pm - basically incoherent because I got drunk on stage during the show. It was trying, but I think the healthy food helped everyone sustain during the extremely difficult and rigorous performances. The dancers were the biggest fans since meals were often just grain (quinoa or polenta) and various cold salads and dressings, with fruit and nuts always available in between - super high energy and easy to digest. Also, there was a copious quantity of gruner veltliner - a regional white wine...
Is it worth the social and logistical challenges to maintain this diet on the trail?
Harpo: Absolutely. It helps, actually. When hiker hunger kicks in, and you feel entitled to eat anything you want, being vegan makes you think a little harder about what you're putting in your face. For example, I never once have eaten a whole stick of butter in one sitting. I know many non-vegan thru hikers who have committed such atrocities. Also, I have never eaten a whole large pepperoni pizza topped with french fries and ranch dressing... and people say vegans are crazy!
Groucho: I don't see it as any different than any other thru-hiker diet. Everything we eat out there is weird and sometimes disgusting. I echo Harpo's comment - the vegan diet has kept me from many regrettable transgressions. Tho I'll still eat a whole large no-cheese pizza (add veggies and cashews), no problem.
How do you get enough calories?
Harpo: I have a snack every two hours at least. If I'm feeling extra hungry I load up on carbs and sugar, and fats like olive oil and nuts. In town I eat avocados and hummus as much as I want.
Groucho: It's easy to get enough calories. I think because we eat more whole, unprocessed food during our town days that we're less inclined to have crazy hiker hunger. I basically eat oats, 3-4 bars, some nuts, maybe one sweet (like chocolate or oreos), and a dinner type meal like ramen or polenta.
What is your favorite trail food?
Harpo: Currently I'm really into Luna Bars. They are like candy bars but vegan and gluten free! I love powdered hummus (from any co-op bulk section) with olive oil. Also that dehydrated nut cheese you shared with us last year was the bomb.
Groucho: Justin's dark chocolate peanut butter cups. Cold hydrated miso ramen with hot sauce, powdered coconut milk, nutritional yeast and fresh sprouts. Polenta with olive oil, parsley, black pepper and fresh garlic. Avocado. Bananas, cashews, apples, and always parsley. I used to carry a little aluminum ginger grater to use with garlic, which I'll probably continue on the CDT. Also, eating fresh food on trail helps quell cravings because you get more complete nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, which is why Harpo and I have been into trail sprouting since our AT adventure.
Can you relate any health benefits (faster recovery, less injuries?) to your diet? Any other (non health) benefits?
Harpo: Being vegan on the trail makes us healthier than some other hikers because we think more about nutrition while we're thinking about food. It's funny talking to an 18 year old who can't believe we survive as vegans... but meanwhile they only eat ramen, snickers and pop tarts. We were inexperienced backpackers starting the AT... and I think having good nutrition helped us survive it.
Groucho: I rarely get sick - maybe once a year if that. I also feel better in my body, and when I want to alter my diet towards higher mental acuity or increased physical output I know how to make changes to facilitate better performance. Basically, thru learning how to eat vegan, I have developed a much better (and healthier) relationship with food.
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