The entirety of my inexperienced Appalachian Trail knowledge was contained in one notebook and one computer, complete with GPS coordinates of trailheads. I had the perfect amount of nervous exhilaration of spotting a black bear in the Smoky Mountains. One night, the theft of my backpack shattered the clear window of expectations I’d acquired over months of planning. I planned a brief exposure to the uncharted land under the vague assumption that the AT would change me. I hoped to meet interesting people and return home with a handful of stories to tell, but instead was enamored with the magnitude of this land. After briefly meeting only a few hikers, I was in awe at the connection shared among this wholesome group. Trailside shop owners spent significant time drawing trail maps on a pamphlet at the counter. A Virginia hiking group out for the weekend gave me a tour of their town from the top of a mountain (left). Other adventurers in shuttle vans suggest their favorite noteworthy miles of the AT. Each new town welcomed me with kind, trusting people that are far too rare.
The culture of the AT makes its way into the neighboring towns as the rugged footpath suddenly becomes downtown’s sidewalk. The trail markers, normally white, painted “blazes” on a tree or rock, become plaques embedded in the sidewalk to guide hikers through Hot Springs, North Carolina. Even in the developed land of the town, the gentle spirit of the trail is radiant. Both thru-hikers, those who hike the trail in its entirety, and locals carry a glimpse of the trail’s kindness into trail towns like Hot Springs. Silent Grace, trail name of a thru-hiker, embodies exactly this. On the trail just outside the town, I found a pair of “free shoes” and a note encouraging other hikers to take the shoes to shelters and resting spots, wishing “love and blessings for the rest of [the] journey.” The shoes and note not only personified the kindness of the trail, but also the thru-hiker’s tradition of the “trail name.” The name provides a brief insight to who the hiker is, something quick that can be conveyed in even the shortest encounter. It creates a community, something the hikers can share with whomever they meet. It takes the pressure off identifying exactly why they are on the trail; it keeps their reasons light.
Even the fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains along the Tennessee/North Carolina state line share a unique sense of community. The fireflies found on this section of the trail put on a synchronized light-flashing show because of an annual mating pattern. This spectacle is what brought Jody (left) and Joanna (right) to Charlie’s Bunion, a stretch of the trail named after one of its founders. We met as I crossed paths with a black bear cub on the trail, and they coerced him away with a cheerful “hey, bear, hey!” During our hike together, they told stories of their journey as small business owners and frequent adventurers. They shared with me their monumental decision to change careers and travel from town to town to experience more of the world. Somewhere in the 10 miles we shared, I came to understand a deeper sense of the trail’s community. For thru-hikers, any single area is just a point in passing, not unlike others. But for “weekend warriors” like Jody and Joanna, this part of the trail is a home. Having grown up loving the outdoors, the trail is a source of solace, its community extends to them. The trail creates an inclusive environment by giving people the opportunity to communicate in the most honest, human way.
Even more incredible than the community of the trail is how it fosters individualism. Hiking to McAfee Knob, I met a thru-hiker with the trail name JT, “Jim not Tim.” Immersed in the trusting nature of the trail, he ate some fresh fruit and vegetables I’d offered him, something he hadn’t eaten much while hiking. Jim was a NOBO, a thru-hiker hiking northbound from Georgia to Maine. He left his old identity behind, courageously embarking on a nomadic few months on the trail in search of solitude free of commitment. He was absorbed into the culture of the AT, which I believe is the reason for such meaningful, delicate introspection. Even being around so many other hikers at times, the trail serves as an escape into a profound silence. The trail serves as a venue for reflection. Hiking it anonymously within a trail name constructs a barrier between the trail and distractions of the outside world, igniting in hikers the power to create a change in their lives.
2,200 miles of mountains and forests string each hiker together. This footpath bridges the gap between people of different ages and origins. It is one of the few places where technology is not a barrier to connection, one of the few channels of interaction left that requires people to spend time with, talk to, and especially listen to one another. They walk as one, despite their diversity. The reasons for their journey are something I never directly asked, nor do I know specifically what they are. My own reason became increasingly evident with the growing number of people I met. It is the forgotten, peaceful simplicity of taking a walk or seeking a change of scenery. The only genuine reason anyone decides to hike the AT is simply because they want to. While on the trail, they are committed to nothing more than walking; they need nothing more than a trail name.
– Erika Burwinkel
Information sourced from hikers’ word of mouth, visitor center programs, and original text from “A Healthy Change of Scenery,” found at https://u.osu.edu/stepcreative16/2016/09/29/a-healthy-change-of-scenery/.
Jody and Joanna continue to explore trails all over the country with their dogs and camper, Miss Daisy. We plan to meet at Charlie’s Bunion this spring to revisit the trail together and see the fireflies’ light show. After meeting Jim in Virginia, he continued hiking until reaching Massachusetts before heading home for the year. This spring, he plans to continue where he left off before attending theology school, something the trail helped him realize he wanted to do.