To the People Along the Path

NOTE: I’m breaking away a bit from the usual Northwest Nomad procedure here and writing about when I hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1998. It’s a piece I originally published in the Prague Revue, a site that has since shuttered its doors, and one that I want out there in the world, still. It’s relevant to Northwest Nomad in that it’s about travel, life, the outdoors, and the tribe of wanderers that has always felt like home to me.

To the People Along the Path

I didn’t know much of anything about the Appalachian Trail when I decided to hike it. This was the late 90s and I was vagabonding around the United States, so information wasn’t nearly as accessible at it is today. Someone had mentioned the Trail, it sounded like what I was looking for, so I did it. At 20 years old, my primary aim in life was to experience the sort of transcendent experiences that Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman, and Thomas Wolfe wrote about. I was a writer, and I wanted to be a Writer, and the first step, far as I could see it, was to see things worth writing about, whatever the hell that meant. I wanted starry mountaintops, unnamed lakes, and green-eyed vagabond girls. I wanted wildness and freedom and spiritual air. So it was that I hitched a ride with a trucker and headed to Amicolola Falls, Georgia, to begin my journey. I never did find any of the things I was looking for.

What I discovered instead was a patchwork footpath pieced together through east coast sprawl, a ragged trail populated by a part-time nomads armed with guidebooks that outlined in detail exactly what was to be found on every mile ahead. Few days passed where I didn’t cross at least one paved road. There were even fewer where I went more than a couple hours without crossing paths with another person.

At the time, the whole experience was one monstrous disappointment. I quit after a thousand miles because I got tired of hearing highway traffic in the distance. I went West, which was a mythical sort of place to a small town Pennsylvanian such as myself, to find real wilderness. Many more adventures ensued, but the funny thing is, as I look back on those early years now, the big adventures are foggy and distant and a bit cold. What sticks out much more brightly to me are all the people I met along the way to everywhere, and during quiet nights when I think back and reflect, the characters I met on the Trail are some of the most vibrant in my memory.

Ultimately–for me, anyway–the Trail is really about the people that hike it, while the Trail itself is just the stage upon which the hikers act out their parts. Every one of them has a story. Every one of them is a story. Each year, from early spring through autumn, you can find them strung out like some Dickensian procession of wayward characters, people with stories that can only be properly told within the context of a winding, two thousand mile long footpath.

I have no stories of defying deadly, hungry things in the Appalachian wilderness, no stories of powerful insight attained after weeks of literary solitude. What I do have are memories of great, funny, fascinating people, all met at a very special moment in their lives, when they elected to shed their old skin and step forward into new ones with blisters, aching backs, and persistent, pervasively bad odor.

It wasn’t exactly what I’d bargained for. When all is said and done, though, it was something better, and I aim to use this here little piece of wordsmithery to celebrate some of those beautiful souls and, by doing so, maybe celebrate the entire goofy-ass parade of itinerant humanity. What the hell…it beats ranting about politics.

Anne of Green Gables

My third night on the Trail I sat by a campfire near a lean-to shelter with a dozen or so other hikers, talking excitedly about the miles ahead. After the scotch ran dry, everyone got very quiet and stared into the flames in secret contemplations, watching ghosts of the old unwind and dissipate in the smoke as the fatigue of those first few days of hiking settled into our bones. Out of this silence, a woman began to cry.

Before I go, I’d better explain that one of the most cherished Appalachian Trail traditions is the adoption of a trail name. At some point early in their journey, all those who will hike any considerable length of the trail, will take on a new name. Ideally, this moniker is assigned by other hikers. Sometimes, a person simply invents one for themselves.

The tradition might seem silly for some, but it’s actually a pretty powerful little psychological tool. I took my name grudgingly, and only because some of the hikers I met insisted on calling me Notion for so long that I got sick of denying it. Yet, it did have affect me, all the same. A new name cuts you off from your old identity and allows you to inhabit a new myth.

Where some scoff at the trail name, others grasp its impact and potential intuitively. The woman crying in our midst was one of this sort.

Through her tears, she explained that throughout her childhood she’d suffered vicious belittling and mockery from her father. After she married at 18 she moved out of the house, and her husband quickly took over her father’s old self-esteem-crushing duties. She’d lived like this right into her early thirties, when she finally decided to leave the man and start a new life. The Trail was supposed to be the gateway into this existence.

The problem was that, after less than a week, she was ready to quit. Her backpack was too heavy, her feet were torn up, and she couldn’t figure out how to use her camp stove. Worst of all, in her mind, was the fact that she’d been given the trail name of “Nellie,” as in a “nervous Nellie,” thrusting her right back into the familiar role of unconfident incompetence. She hadn’t left the area of the lean-to since receiving the name, and had decided that she was going to get off the Trail in the morning and go home. Though she didn’t say it, we all got the impression that that mean returning to her asshole husband, too.

One of the other women by the fire put her hand on Annie’s shoulder and said, “There aren’t any laws that say you have to accept that trail name, you know.”

Annie looked up like a death row inmate that had just been informed that a loophole had been discovered in the law. “Really?”

We all broke up laughing and asked what she would rather be called, instead.

She was quiet for a moment, as though summoning her courage, before meekly piping, “Anne of Green Gables.”

“Anne of Green Gables it is.”

She wiped tears away and laughed.

We went to her pack and separated the unnecessary items from the necessities, dropping more than half the weight of her load. We showed her how to use her stove. A couple of the women donated pairs of high quality hiking socks to preserve her feet.

The next morning, I set out with a small group of early risers, Anne of Green Gables among them. We each quickly settled into our individual paces and began to separate.

I turned back to see Anne of Green Gables at the bottom of a steep rise, smiling brilliantly in her slow-but-steady stride. She flashed a smile at me that was both haggard and ecstatic. She looked very much like she was ready to hike about another two thousand miles.

I hope that she was.

Cowboy

I found Cowboy sitting in a shelter with his bare legs dangling over the side and the sun shining on his bare chest. Wearing a straw cowboy hat, boxer shorts, and nothing else, he cupped his hands around his mouth and boomed, “Welcome to paradise!”

The natural state of Cowboy’s face was a smile. He laughed madly throughout our conversation, even when nothing seemed particularly funny at all. He laughed at everything, and in those rare moments when he wasn’t laughing, he looked like he was just a moment away from exploding all over again.

Cowboy made sure I knew that he wasn’t in any hurry. Partway through our conversation he grabbed his wallet from his wadded up shorts and showed me a picture of himself, sans cowboy hat, dressed in slacks and a collared shirt as he stood grinning before an enormous house. “That used to be me,” he said, breaking into wild, rolling laughter.

He’d been a highly successful salesman of some corporate sort. He lived in one of the wealthiest areas of Atlanta, ate at all the best restaurants, and all that sort of thing. But, more and more, he found that he was just bored. “Stone bored,” he said, shaking his head with a smirk. So he decided to use up all his stored up leave time and hit the Appalachian Trail. That was the summer previous to the one I’d met him.

He returned to his old life after finishing the trail that first time, but nothing felt the same. After a few months of trying to get back into his old routine, he quit his job, sold his cars, and put his house up on the market. His friends, of course, told him he’d lost his mind.

“They don’t know, man. They just don’t know. They spend all their time thinking they got it made ’cause they live inside these giant boxes. They don’t realize the real banquet’s out here, and they’re missing it!” He laughed wildly for a moment before shaking his head in befuddlement. “I’ll tell you what, man, people are crazy.”

I nodded.

We sat there for a while in silence, legs dangling over the side of the shelter in the sunshine. Funny how such a simple moment can be branded so deep in my mind that I can feel that warmth on my skin as I think of it.

Heathen’s Haven

A sign pinned to the wall of a general store offered home cooking and beer to any hikers that would help move furniture. The beer offer seemed mighty intriguing, so Puck, Brother Jones, and I called the number. The next day a woman named Sarah picked us up and drove us out to the country to help them move things across town to her mother’s house.

Four people lived in the house, including Mom, who was recovering from cancer, and her three children ranging in age early twenties to early forties. All that we ever learned of Mom’s husband was that he was a rotten son of a bitch who didn’t live there anymore.

As the day progressed, Mom shuttled in whole carloads of campers from the general store. The furniture was all moved by mid-afternoon, so we moved onto yard work. As we worked, we drank. Rob, Mom’s oldest son, made rounds among the huge and growing workforce, taking beer orders.

By nighttime, everyone was very drunk and doing a lot of work that didn’t need to be done. Mom’s backyard looked like a refugee camp full of tents, dirty folks in drum circles, and laundry lines strung from the trees. At some point, the party had ceased to serve a distinct a purpose and evolved into a self-sustaining organism. Over the following days, the family drove in shifts, shuttling hikers back and forth. They ran it on a strict schedule.

One night as I gagged on apple moonshine from a mason jar, I noticed the words ‘Heathen’s Haven’ written into a large, concrete slab that had once been the foundation of an old barn or shed that no longer stood. I asked about these words and Rob, drawing seriously on his cigarette, imparted the legend of the place to me.

Outlaws had been using the land as a hideout and shelter since the first days of the state’s founding. By the time Prohibition came, the spot had already long been known as Heathen’s Haven, and when moonshiners built their facilities on that land, they scrawled the name into the very foundation upon which it stood.

Ray related the legend solemnly to a small crowd. The locals, who knew the story well already, listened intently, the way people do when any sacred rite is being performed. The other hikers and I sat in rapt attention, shaking our heads in pleasant wonder to find ourselves camped upon such hallowed ground.

What was supposed to be a single day of work turned into six days of festivities. Mom hugged me before I headed back to the Trail and told me that the house was visible from the first outlook that I’d come to. When I got there, the valley below looked like a patchwork quilt, with squares of cultivated and forested land and the thin, grey lines of stone fences stitched between them like thread. I scanned the scene until I found Heathen’s Haven.

I hoped that Mom made a full recovery. I hoped that that spontaneous gathering of hikers became an annual tradition. Most of all, I hoped that the outlaws, wanderers, and adventurers of the world would find sanctuary at Heathen’s Haven for a long, long time.

The Traveler

I heard about him long before I ever saw him: the Traveler, a globetrotting New Zealander with a mile-long resume of international adventures. He sometimes hiked thirty miles in a day, they said. He carried candles and exotic foods so that when he made a lady’s acquaintance (which he often did) he could treat her to a candlelight dinner. He was on the Appalachian Trail only because he had already done everything else in the world, and was running out of adventures.

I finally met him one day hiking a steep climb in bad heat. I always hiked fast because I didn’t have enough money to take my time, so it was very rare that somebody passed me on the trail. Yet, as I climbed, I heard footsteps gaining behind me.
I turned to see him, not much taller than my five foot eight, bounding up the trail in a slouch hat with a relaxed, unhurried stride.

“Would you like a fruit?” He stopped and produced a bag, as though from thin air, and dumped some fruits into my hand. They were somewhat like figs, only smaller and lighter-colored. He told me that he had a friend mail them from Africa. Everything about his disposition hinted at the easy confidence of great success.

He’d stopped in town for three days to hang out with a woman. This woman, he said, had invited him to her house all three nights, but each time, he’d refused. Now he was hiking twenty odd miles to the next town crossing to pick up a package containing a bottle of fifty year old Spanish wine. The woman was going to drive ahead to pick him up and take him back to her house, where he’d cook dinner and drink the wine.

I asked him why he had waited four days to go home with her when he could have done it on the first.
“My young friend,” the Traveler said seriously, “a good woman is like a good wine. You don’t just pop the cork and chug, you have to let it breathe to fully appreciate.”

I laughed. “And is she a good woman?”

The Traveler didn’t answer. He just rolled his eyes, as if to say she was so far beyond good that to even attempt to put it into words would be nothing but an exercise in the futility of language. He bid me goodbye and galloped up the trail.
I’d be willing to bet that by the time the Traveler finished the Trail, a long line of sad-hearted women waited behind, and not one of them ever regretted a minute of it.

On the Path Looking Back

Strange feeling, evoking these characters from my memory on this summer night, so many years later and looking back. My life has far more routine now. Chance encounters with remarkable strangers are far fewer and far longer between. I didn’t write this article to be a metaphor for anything, but it’d a lie to deny the obvious metaphor buried here. For the Trail is life, and the hikers are the people met along the path, all the people of my life passing between worlds.

I think back to these strangers and I feel grateful to have met them, to have lived a life, to have wandered a world full of such characters. Not only Mom and the Traveler, not only Cowboy and Anne of Green Gables, but all the others, too, both on the Trail and off, those scattered beings who’ve popped into my life momentarily like firefly lights to remind me that, far outside the coloring book lines, weird miracles can still occur.

Thank you all for being so completely and defiantly YOU, you crazy bastards. It was one hell of a trip and I hope that your own destinations have found you well. Somewhere between Tennessee and Virginia there is a shelter log with the scribblings of a hopelessly enthusiastic young man named Notion. The words were scrawled one night by the light of a full moon in a fever rush of passion. It was a hot night and the world croaked with insect songs. If you are ever in that area and you find that log, please open it and tell me what it says, because I no longer remember the words…only the writing of them.

Thank you, with all sincerity, anyone who has read all the way to the end of this sentimental letter. I started out with only a vague direction in mind, and have no idea where I’ve landed.  I hope, at least, that you smiled once or twice meeting the people along the path. If we ever happen upon each other, give me a wave. We can buy each other beers and toast to all the good ones out there. They make the walk worthwhile.

Good night from Tacoma, Washington, United States of America, planet Earth.

Your friend, Notion.

Reply