The backpacker looked up from his reverie, saw me and jumped. “Whoa! Didn’t see you there,” he said.
Our paths converged a little after 9 Tuesday morning, on Section 9 of the Appalachian Trail midway between Rock Gap and Albert Mountain in western North Carolina. “Country,” as he soon identified himself, was why I was on this particular trail at this particular time headed this direction, south. The reason Country (pictured) didn’t notice me was he had other things on his mind. Like Maine.
Country was an AT thru-hiker, one of perhaps three dozen I ran into during two days on the trail. The AT thru-hiking season – for northbounders headed from Springer Mountain, Ga., 2,178 miles north to Katahdin, Maine – officially launched March 15 and the bulk of the class of 2010 was now hiking into southern North Carolina.
Country, for instance, had started March 19 and had so far covered about 110 miles. Not all of those miles had been fun.
“The 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th days, it was bad,” the Alabaman said as he leaned on an impromptu hiking staff. “Rain, cold and a little snow. Since then it’s been great.”
Country admitted he had come into this six-month journey ill prepared, a fact I’d gathered by the tennis shoes he was wearing. “Had a guy quit and give me his tent, a Wenzel. I’ve gotten a lot of compliments on the tent. I say, ‘Thanks!’” He shrugs, then adds, “I don’t have to tell ’em the whole story.”
I asked Country how he got his trail name. “There were two of us with ‘Country’ early on. The other guy wound up being ‘Country Gold.’”
Trail names – the adopted names thru-hikers go by — are a curious thing. It’s not a Vegas “what-happens-here-stays-here” thing. Nor is it a witness protection deal (though in some cases … ). It’s your trail persona, who you are on the trail, not who you are back at school or at work. It has to fit you for the six months or so you’re on the trail, so it has to be just right.
Two twentysomethings I met a while later were so far nameless. “Nobody’s given us one,” said the one guy, from Alabama. “I feel funny giving myself a name.” We talked a few more minutes – they started March 27, were two of about 20 who signed in that day, and made note, twice, of the heat – as I mulled names for the pair. But if it was presumptuous to name yourself, it was even more so for a non-thru-hiker to assume christening honors. I wished Alabama and Ohio a good trip.
(I don’t like saying “good luck” in such situations; It suggests the person won’t be able to do whatever it is they’re attempting without the help of external forces.)
Entrusting your naming rights to others can have have its downside. Wednesday, I met a thru-hiker wearing a yellow cycling jersey for the Mexico-based Bimbo bakery. “I was wearing this jersey and some little kid, who I don’t think was familiar with the term, said, ‘Bimbo, that should be your name.’” Thus, at least one Bimbo is thru-hiking the AT.
Shortly, I ran into three guys, two in their 20s, one likely close to 60. None of them knew one another before they set foot on the AT March 24; today, they seemed destined to stay together. They were from Nashville, Minneapolis and Goldsboro, and they were not the only ones to say they were glad to be out of Georgia.
“This is beautiful country,” said – I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your names.
“Gonzo, LB and Country Gold.”
“Country Gold!” I barked. “I just ran into Country up the trail.”
The three chuckled. “Country’s a character,” LB offered, with what seemed a hint of diplomacy.
There was Matt from Greenville who I met at the fire tower atop Albert Mountain. Fresh from a five-year stint in the Marines fixing jets, he was hoping to thru-hike the AT before starting classes this fall at N.C. State in aeronautical engineering. Alas, the Marines weren’t quite done with Matt.
“I’m doing two weeks,” said Matt. “I hope to come back some day and do the whole thing.”
There was John, who I met motoring up the four-wheel-drive backside of Albert Mountain. “I have until Labor Day,” he said. “That’s 15 miles per day with 21 zero days.”
There was Testosterone (maybe his actual trail name, maybe not), who said he had started last Tuesday.
“Wow!” I said. “There are people just up ahead who started two weeks before you did.”
Testosterone looked up the trail. “I gotta go catch ’em and reel ’em in.”
There was a woman in her 20s who asked, “I just want to make sure I didn’t get turned around. I’m still headed north, aren’t I?” (She was.)
There was the man I met at the Carter Gap Shelter who asked if I’d lost a 20-year-old boy. Turned out the boy had become separated from his dad two days earlier. “We’re keeping an eye out on him.”
My paternal instincts kicked in. “What’s the kid was wearing?”
“White and blue checked shorts down to his knees,” the man replied with a slight grin. “He’s got a steep learning curve.
Twenty minutes later I was approached by a young hiker who thrust a Gatorade bottle in my direction and asked if I could spare some water. He was wearing white and blue checked shorts down to his knees.
There were two women pushing their late 60s hiking together, two women pushing 20 on spring break. There were two father-daughter combos, there were two families. There were young people in their 20s who likely realized that if they didn’t thru-hike the trail now it might be a long time before the could again, and there were older people who probably did have to wait a long time, but were finally getting their chance.
Not all were thru-hiking the AT. Some were taking advantage of spring break, some were taking advantage of unseasonably nice early spring weather. But it was relatively easy to tell the ones who were on the trail for the long haul: They were the ones in a slightly pre-occupied, “Whoa! Sorry I didn’t see you!” state.
“Maine,” Country said as he prepared to push on. “That’s all I’m thinking about, is Maine.”
Tomorrow: Trail magic, Chicago style.