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Bob Peoples: ‘We need change in the whole democratic system’

A legend of the Appalachian Trail calls on his generation to hand over power.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
30 October 2020
Bob Peoples' Kincora hostel
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Bob Peoples

Bob Peoples is a legend of the Appalachian Trail, a hero among US long-distance hikers, the kind of person you don’t forget. The kind of person who, when you ring him up to request an interview, is confused about what ‘Zoom’ is, says he doesn’t have a computer or internet or cellphone reception – but who does have three pet racoons, a warm voice and a lifetime of wisdom.

The racoons are fat, he tells me cheerfully, due to all the cat food he gives them.

Peoples owns the Kincora hostel in the hills of Tennessee, deep in Scotch-Irish country. When I stayed there while walking up the US in 2004, the saltire flapped from his roof, he was hosting a Beltane feast and provided a rare connection to rural reality for thousands of passing hikers. And he offers a rare bed, shower and lift to a shop, in exchange for just a donation.

When a colleague asked who I’d like to interview about the US election, that memory appeared from somewhere. What does Bob Peoples think? It turns out Google has his phone number.

At first, he was maybe a little confused about why I was ringing. “I’m not interested in politics,” he said.

“That’s perfect,” I replied. Those of us who are, are usually bores. He was definitely voting, though.

Over the phone, he sounded about as far away as he was. But the planned video interview was clearly impossible, so I grabbed my laptop and typed his answers.

The election’s all been about Trump. What did he think of Biden?

“We need change in the whole democratic system, so it’s not run by a few people, dark money, lobbyists… we don’t need career politicians, we need politicians who represent the people.”

How does he think the rest of the world sees the election? “America has an inflated ego. People are concerned with their own government – when I was hiking in Spain I didn't find out who won the World Series until I got home!”

What message do you have to people outside of the US?

“I think the media needs to represent the world, not what sells news. No matter where you go, you meet people that help you. Hiking restores your faith in humanity. Hiking the Jesus trail in Israel, or in Egypt, there is nobody better than the back-country Arabs to help you out. Why can’t they be on CNN?” Most people, he says, are good people. “Why do we always get the other 5% on our TVs?”

peoples bob.jpg
Bob Peoples | Appalachian Trail Conservancy

In the election, he just hopes that voters “are not duped, and I hope it’s a pro vote, not an anti vote like last time” – 2016, he says, was a vote against Hillary Clinton, but meant voters put a person into office who was deeply unqualified.

And after the election, he hopes “new people rise up – not always politicians – [people] like Obama”. Obama, he thinks, brought new ideas into the system “some good, some less good.” But at least they weren’t just the same old suggestions from the same old lobby groups.

And that’s what the US needs again: “new ideas, not just someone who has sold themselves to the interest groups.

“Why do we always have to elect someone who’s been 35-40 years in politics? There are 30, 40-year-olds with much better ideas, who are much better with technology. The generations need to change. I’m 77 years old. I’m basing [my understanding] on experiences from the ‘50s or ‘60s.” These, he said, aren’t relevant anymore.

“I don’t think career politicians are adaptable, they are stuck in the past where they came from… The stuff we’re doing now was science fiction in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it’s an age of development, it’s come fast, it’s going to keep coming fast.

“My mother used to say they would let them out of elementary school to see an airplane fly over. What we take for granted now didn’t exist thirty years ago.”

He says technology has even transformed hiking – these days, he doesn’t see anyone with maps or trail guides, just apps and Kindles.

Trump will carry Tennessee, he says, because of the National Rifle Association, because people think that something which ought to be a privilege is a right.

And he’s deeply sceptical of the modern media. “It used to be when you heard something on the news it was the news – I’m not sure that’s true any more.” When politicians answered a question, they used to say what they thought. These days, he said, “what matters is what sells”.

Bob didn't say who he was voting for, but he did say the US "needs a change".

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