When you get on the AT, I’m told the first thing you do is send back all of the stupid stuff you realize you didn’t need or want. Far easier to shed those extra pounds at the beginning than the ones on your bones in the first few miles.
The second thing is to pick yourself up a trail name. Or, depending on if something cool, embarassing, or stupid happens, you’ll be assigned one by a fellow hiker.
Poo-Bear. Lead Feet. Cheetoh. Dumpster. Blackberry.
The variation is endless of what thru hikers decide to call themselves, or the names they've been assigned by fellow hikers in a moment of mischievous glee. Slip and fall in the wrong field? Suddenly you’re Cowpie for the next 2100 miles.
Jokes aside, your trail name is an important part of your identity on the trial, and can mean more to you than your actual name while you wander along the ups and downs of the mountains. While I’ve been preparing for the trail, one thing that has flashed through my head is, “Don’t I already have one?”
I couldn’t remember where, but I got the feeling that I’d gotten one before. Through 13 years of boy scouts and beyond, I’ve had a lot of dumb nicknames: Waterboy, Fire Ant, Crick, Rosie, but one has stuck in my mind.
When I was about 12, my Boy Scout troop did a weekend trip hiking part of the AT. Not anything serious, just 12 to 15 miles or so. On that hike, we stopped for lunch in a clearing and, after we finished, we had some time to goof off and walk around. At some point while I was climbing boulders, and shedding extra energy I would probably need later, a Stickbug decided to attach itself to my thick mop of red hair and I didn’t notice until a friend picked it off the back of my head and showed it to me. One of those thin brown critters that you might pick up for your fire only to have it moving in your hand. For the rest of that weekend though, I was Stickbug.
Though I’m double the age I was then, and different in so many more ways. Stickbug still matches me to a T. At almost six feet and between 110-125 pounds, I am beyond lean. Forearms like twigs and a torso on a set of stilts, it’s easy to see why Stickbug is a perfect name. And one that I’m going to continue using for my upcoming through hike.
My weight is a weird part of my identity as a person. In my own mind, I’ve always considered myself a “skinny” person. I’ve never worked on keeping myself thin, and have even worked on gaining weight before, but I just seem to shed pounds as soon as they’re on. Though it’s a fun and funny nickname, Stickbug has a strange meaning to it in that my weight may be my greatest challenge on the trail, after the mental. Making sure that I’m not only eating enough, but eating right is paramount for me since I have zero wiggle room to negotiate. I suspect that there will be a couple of early resupplies for extra food so that I can make sure that I’m staying healthy and consuming as many calories as possible. My weight will likely be my biggest physical challenge on the trail, and it feels good to have a trail name centering the challenge. That doesn’t define who I am, but does acknowledge my own personal challenges, as well as my own identity.
Ever since that brief jaunt on the AT as a kid, the shadow of the AT has lingered in my mind. In a way, sticking with Stickbug feels like I’m re-asking a question I never got the answer to. Who am I? What did years in NYC mean, or the year break in the middle east, or really even anything that came before. To look at myself, up until that point, somewhere on a wooded path, and see it all. Like a swimmer breaking the surface to take a breath of air and wipe the water from their eyes, I want to turn towards my future, and meditate on what it could hold. To be on the trail, to exist in that place, and think about that big , evergreen question, What next?
Hiking is an escape. While you’re on the trail, you are no longer bound by the constraints and habits of everyday life.
There are all sorts of oddities on the trail. Half Gallons of Ice Cream, Trail Magic, Trail Days. Trail names are just one, but an important one. The AT is a world all its own, and your time can open yourself up to an entire new person that you hadn’t really known existed before. Much like the trail itself, you don’t know how you’re going to get your trail name until you have one. Just trip on a log and then you’re Falls for the next 2200 miles.
A trail name is also a license to hike in a way. You flash them to people you meet along the way, a secret handshake for the privileged few who are sharing your journey. The ones in the club who will understand, the ones in town selling you supplies will laugh and grin at them. Thru hiking is one of those oddities that exists within our culture that resonates in us from some long ago, almost primeval instinct. The innate need to move, to migrate, to discover. And to disappear.
Trail names also allow us to lay down the mental burden of being the mask we call us. On the trail, you won’t see most people for more than a few moments so there’s no reason to be anything other than completely sincere. If you feel like talking, strike up a conversation; if you don’t, keep your silence. Either is fine and perfectly natural as far as anyone around you is concerned.
And if you’re going NOBO in Spring of 2020, make sure to say hello!