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.

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