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The Onion vs. Mr. Magoo

On your mark, get set ... hike. Inside a 5,600-mile footrace on the country's hardest trail.

It was awkward. Here were two men who had, for half a year, literally shared the same ups and downs, the same wonderful and miserable outdoor experiences. Yet as close as they got on the trail, it was now Tapon getting the attention. He closed with an update: He had recently been hired to help launch Booknolia, a Bay Area social-networking startup with a focus on books and authors. His next travel and self-help book, The Hidden Europe, will be out in 2009. Then there would be trips to Asia and Africa, and books following those adventures.

After the presentation, Christensen stood up and thoughtfully stroked his beard. Like most of the small number of ultra-distance backpackers–people like Tattoo Joe and Trauma–he was destined to remain anonymous. But Christensen didn’t seem to mind too much. In the wake of his 5,600-mile therapy session, he had changed specialties within his PhD program, and seemed mildly excited to have swapped "labor economics" for "law and economics." Christensen was volunteer-tutoring school kids. And he was hanging out with Mormon pals without apparent conflict–happy hiking, he says, confirmed to him that his decision to leave the Church was the right one. His thinking had already drifted to his next adventure, a cross-country cycling trip planned for 2009.

The crowd at REI that night couldn’t possibly have known that there were two CDT record-setters in their midst. Nor that the pair had come within three days of finishing simultaneously. Only a few friends and thru-hiker obsessives even knew there had been a race, of sorts.

In the future, of course, who was first and who was fastest will matter hardly at all, as each hiker contends with his own measure of success. Will Mr. Magoo prosper? Will the Onion remain content? As with all of us, those questions can have no final answer. And that’s something to ponder on a good, long hike.

Andrew Tilin insists he has hiked more than 10 miles in a day. But only once.

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