Some people seem confused when I talk about my Appalachian Trail experience, that I’m throwing in lots of stories about community and the people I was hanging out with on the trail.
“Didn’t you go hiking alone?” they might ask.
So here’s the deal. Lots of people hike the Appalachian Trail. Some for a few days, some for a few weeks, and even some for a few months. There was only 1 night during my 23 days on the trail that I was completely alone at a shelter or campsite at the end of the day.
In the picture above, “May” was one of the people who joined our “shelter family” that first evening at the Stover Creek Shelter. I didn’t know it at the time, but he and I would hike together for a little over two weeks. His trail name was “May” because when he was 19, he shattered his femur in an accident and one of his doctors said “You MAY never walk again.” Over those two weeks, “May” and I got to know each other pretty well and spent several hours each day chatting about his life in Charlotte and my life in Cincinnati. So the relationships on the trail really became a substantial and great part of the experience!
Trail names are also an interesting part of the hiking experience and community on the Appalachian Trail. Some people can get a trail name when they do something weird or interesting. Like one thru-hiker we met was “Subway” because when he started hiking at the northern terminus, he had several Subway sandwiches in his pack so he didn’t have to cook anything for the first few days. Folks started calling him “Subway” and it stuck.
One of the other guys I hiked with (actually the first hiker I met when I was signing in at the visitor center in Amicalola Falls) whose real name is Jim almost got the trail name “Boyscout” because I noticed him wearing a Philmont t-shirt. But then I learned his nickname in the Navy had been “Catfish” because of his mustache…so we called him “Catfish!”
My trail name didn’t take long to stick because I woke people up each morning with the sound and aroma of grinding fresh coffee. “JAVAMAN” quickly became my moniker.
One of the younger guys we found ourselves trying to keep up for a few days was “Boots.” He seemed to be intent on experiencing maximum pain & suffering because he had a 50lb pack and boots that must not have been quite right. There were several times when I saw blood as he removed his hiking boots and socks to doctor the feet. But he was an ROTC-engineering student at Princeton who was just trying to develop his ability to withstand intense physical struggle in preparation for future military training. Super smart kid and fun hiker connection! Here he is with May & I shortly after (or before) we cross the state line from Georgia to North Carolina.
And there were lots of other hikers we spent time with along the way…like Sherpa, Smiles, Duct Tape, Veggie Delights, the Gossip Girls, another “Sherpa”, Stone Legs, etc!
The Appalachian Trail has this power to create community. It brings together a diverse group of people who share this passion to be outdoors and challenge themselves physically. Any amount of suffering (sometimes what hikers may call “embracing the suck”) tends to create some extra relational bonding energy that catalyzes community more quickly than what we usually experience in our normal day-to-day lives.