What’s in a (Trail) Name?

I rolled into Damascus this morning, glad to have now finished with 3 of the 14 states that the AT meanders through.  It gives me the opportunity to reflect on exactly one month of being out on the trail.  Today a complete stranger gave me a ride to and from a Walmart 13 miles away so I could get my eyeglasses repaired.  This is typical of the acts of kindness that occur on the trail every day. All this guy would take from me in return was my heartfelt thanks.  But for me, it solved a big problem (being able to see).

This picture shows some of the folks with whom I shared space at the Greasy Creek Hostel last week as 5” of rain fell in less than 24 hours.  It was only my second rest day since starting my hike (tomorrow will be my third). The hosts at the Greasy Creek are really nice folks. Interestingly, they said that when they first started the hostel they had complaints from neighbors (yes, they have one) that landed them in court. It seems that the neighbors saw AT hikers coming to the hostel and thought that the owners were taking in homeless people. I’m not sure why that in itself is a problem but such is the impression that an AT thru hiker makes after weeks on the trail.

But the topic of today’s post concerns one of the more curious aspects of the AT hiker subculture – trail names. I emphasize that none of the folks in the above picture are associated with any of the trail names discussed below.

Despite that, let me assure you that the following conversation really did happen as I wandered about Hot Springs: “Hey Cur Dog, is that you?” “Gray Mountaineer! Good to see you again. Let’s get together for dinner tonight.  I’ll see if Witch Doctor can join us.  Tinkle and Doc might be around as well.” “Good, see you tonight around 6?” “Excellent.”

When I told the people with whom I worked that I was planning to retire and hike the AT, one of the first questions I was asked was “what’s your trail name”?  Honesty, I hadn’t a clue at the time that this was so important to thru hiking.  But I caught on quickly and learned that there are certain rules associated with it. For example, they are supposed to be given to you by another hiker.

I’ve now been on the trail long enough to get thoroughly acquainted with this aspect of AT hiking.  It is kind of like going into the witness protection program – at least for the period of time that you are on the trail you assume a new identity, tied up with your trail name.

It is just another aspect of thru hiking that seems pretty strange when looking in from the outside.  I mean, what is this phenomenon that leads grown men and women to clamor to be known not as Gloria or Jerry, not Brittany or Fred but instead as Zip Code, In Flux, Goddess or Thunderbuns?  I’m not making any of this up by the way.

Each name presents a mystery.  Did Gas Monkey get his name because of a propensity for flatulence? And does that make him proud of his name? What about Black Widow – certainly a disturbing name to be given. It turns out that she got that name when she discovered a black widow spider nest in a shelter.  Loyal readers of this blog, especially the recent Gimmee Shelter post, will understand that this is yet another reason that I am reluctant to stay in AT shelters. The etymology of Whistler seems straight forward enough but what do you make of someone named Drinkles? Ultimately, people don’t seem to really care about origins, just that they have a name.

Thunderbuns got his name for an act of heroism.  In the night, in the middle of a thunderstorm, he responded to multiple calls for help from fellow hikers who had not properly pitched their tents. Getting out of his own tent to help was noble but doing this dressed only in his skivvies bordered on the heroic.

Witch Doctor gets my vote for best trail name and the most interesting person that I’ve met so far on the trail.  Born and raised in Africa by missionaries, he returned to Africa as a missionary himself (and also played the role of physician’s assistant) before returning home to the US to retire.  His trail name is a natural.

At a trail magic event the other day the trail “magician/angel” turned to me and said “hey, are you Gray Beard”?  I was not amused.  Gray Beard is trying to set the age record for AT thru hiking – he is 81 (I hope I don’t look 81, at least not yet).   Putting that aside, Gray Beard has assumed legendary status on the trail. Most everyone knows of him and his record attempt.  I’ve run into him on several occasions.  His name is well deserved – he has a very full, very gray beard, kind of like what you’d expect to see on a California gold prospector from the 1800s.

But let’s talk about Tinkle for a moment. I met her and her newly wed husband, Doc, when I went out for dinner with Cur Dog and Witch Doctor.  Under what other conditions could you turn to an adult woman and say, perfectly innocently, “Hey Tinkle, how’s that double cheeseburger you ordered?” I mean, what makes someone willing to accept such a name and even freely introduce herself “Hi, my name’s Tinkle, what’s yours?”

In what other universe is this possible?  I’ll tell you – that universe is called the Girl Scouts of America.  Both of my daughters went all the way through scouts and are now life members. I am proud of their dedication to scouting and impressed with what the GSA does.  They take girls and foster their development into confident, adventuresome, independent thinking young women – tomorrow’s leaders.

Despite that, I am ashamed to admit, I relentlessly mocked their use of camp names – Cookie, Cricket, Sunflower, Chocolate Chip – I think you see the similarities.  As they would leave for girl scout summer day camp I’d tease them with something like “be sure to say hi to Turtle Fart for me today.” They did not find this amusing.

So here is true irony – not that many years later, I am sitting in a restaurant with a Witch Doctor, having a conversation with a Tinkle.  My daughters must feel that they have been vindicated.  At least my trail name isn’t Turtle Fart.


Yesterday I reached Hot Springs, NC.  It is at mile post 273 on the Appalachian Trail.  It marked the 19th consecutive day that I’ve been walking.  This in itself is odd, even by the standards set by AT hikers – a decidedly different lot of folks.  Most hikers will get off the trail every 3 to 5 days to resupply, etc.  Today is my first rest day – called a “zero” in AT parlance.

More to the point, I am exactly on schedule with an itinerary I made up, mostly out of thin air, about a year ago.  This kind of compulsive behavior (both making a rigid schedule and then sticking to it) runs against the grain of a core AT mantra – learning adaptability. As you might surmise, the AT has apparently met a formidable foe – my particular brand of psychopathology.  Whether I will eventually get beaten into an adaptable state of mind remains to be seen.

This brings to mind one of those idiotic internet surveys that popped up a while ago on my Facebook feed: “Which Big Bang Theory TV show character are you”?  I already knew that I had a lot of Sheldon’s characteristics (the problematic ones) so I was confident of the result.  Imagine my surprise when the survey spit out its conclusion – I was actually Bernadette.  I choose to ignore this obviously invalid output.

I can easily document that I have many of Sheldon’s “issues”, hopefully in a milder form, although you’d have to ask my wife to confirm that my condition is milder than his.  Sheldon has to have everything in exactly the right (same) place, all the time.  He has a schedule and a system and woe to you if you attempt to alter it.  Anyway, what does this have to do with hiking the Appalachian Trail?  A lot I tell you.

I’ll be honest with you. In the normal, non-AT thru hiking world some of my/Sheldon’s psychopathology leaks out at inappropriate times.  And, let’s face it, it is not adaptive.  We’ll be driving down the road and suddenly I’ll start rooting around in my pockets (by the way, my wife really dislikes the phrase “rooting round”).  I’ll check to see if I still have my wallet, or perhaps did I lose my phone, where did I put the house keys?  You get the idea.

The point is you can’t do this on the AT without going completely mad – you have too many things to check (in a real sense you are carrying your entire world on your back) and you can’t set your pack down every 100 yards to see if you still have your water filter, gloves, insect repellent, etc.

So, what happened when my compulsiveness met the AT?  Well, I sort of beat my sword into a plowshare, metaphorically speaking.  Meaning, I developed a bag system – 5 of them.  All labelled on the outside. Each bag also lists the specific items in that bag. If you take something out of one of the bags you’d best put it back in the same bag, immediately after use.  A fellow thru hiker saw my bag system – “food”, “kitchen”, “miscellaneous”, “clothes” and “bear”.  This obviously sadistic hiker thought it might be great fun to move things around in my bags when I wasn’t looking, just to see how I’d react.  I was not amused. Nor would Sheldon if he were in my place.

Anyway the point is that you need a system to survive on the trail.  Everything has to go in the pack and in a particular order.  Before I start walking for the day, I ask myself “what am I likely to worry about forgetting after walking 20 paces down the trail?”

So far this has served me well.  I have not lost anything, yet.  The point here is that compulsiveness has its rewards, at least when you are hiking the AT.  If you don’t believe me, just ask Sheldon. And while you’re doing that, I’ll get you a nice hot beverage.

Gimmee Shelter

Generally speaking, there are 3 options on the AT when it comes time to stop walking for the day.  You can pitch your tent, stay in a trail shelter or go off trail and book a motel room.  In the last 3 days I have sampled all of these major food groups.
Let’s  review.  Two days ago I walked 19 miles in continuous rain, periodically accompanied by thunder and lightening.  When I got to Rock Gap shelter it was still raining so I opted for staying in a trail shelter to avoid getting my gear wet while I was setting up.  Now AT trail shelters are rustic affairs –  basically wooden lean-tos.  Their claim to fame is that they have permanent residents – rodents (they like the food that hikers bring).  Ignoring this fact of shelter life, I bedded down for the night.   Somewhere around midnight, fast asleep, I was dreaming that someone was pulling or lifting me up.  Was I dreaming that I was a Hare Krishna and was being yanked into heaven by my hair knot? No, I don’t have enough hair for that, and when I abruptly woke from the dream I saw that a large rat, one that any maze running psychologist would be proud of, was actually trying to pull my wool hat off my head. I slapped at him with my pillow and he wandered over to my sleeping companion to my right. Now, did I remain vigilant the rest of the night for his return? Facing the alternatives I just went back to sleep.  In the morning I still had my hat so …

Flash forward to the following day.  This time it snowed all day with wind gusts and it was cold with a low predicted of about 23° F.  As I finished off another 19 miles day I pulled into the aptly named Cold Spring shelter. A hiker (trail name “cur dog”), was very friendly and invited me to share the shelter. Mindful of what had happened the night before, I politely declined and set up my tent in high winds and still driving snow.  It didn’t stop till early the next morning and I awoke to snow drifts surrounding my tent.  It was so cold that my water bottles had partially frozen.  My boots also had frozen shoe laces. But, after digging out the tent and packing up I was rewarded with a glorious day for hiking – still windy but also partly sunny with spectacular views of the mountains.

Finally, at the end of that day of hiking – a 12 mile day – I booked a room at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. I showered, washed my clothes and had real food in a restaurant. It felt completely decadent.

There you have it – 3 days, 3 different types of shelters.

I wonder what tomorrow will bring?