My third night on the Trail I sat by a campfire near a lean-to shelter with a dozen or so other hikers, talking excitedly about the miles ahead. After the scotch ran dry, everyone got very quiet and stared into the flames in secret contemplations, watching ghosts of the old unwind and dissipate in the smoke as the fatigue of those first few days of hiking settled into our bones. Out of this silence, a woman began to cry.
Before I go, I’d better explain that one of the most cherished Appalachian Trail traditions is the adoption of a trail name. At some point early in their journey, all those who will hike any considerable length of the trail, will take on a new name. Ideally, this moniker is assigned by other hikers. Sometimes, a person simply invents one for themselves.
The tradition might seem silly for some, but it’s actually a pretty powerful little psychological tool. I took my name grudgingly, and only because some of the hikers I met insisted on calling me Notion for so long that I got sick of denying it. Yet, it did have affect me, all the same. A new name cuts you off from your old identity and allows you to inhabit a new myth.
Where some scoff at the trail name, others grasp its impact and potential intuitively. The woman crying in our midst was one of this sort.
Through her tears, she explained that throughout her childhood she’d suffered vicious belittling and mockery from her father. After she married at 18 she moved out of the house, and her husband quickly took over her father’s old self-esteem-crushing duties. She’d lived like this right into her early thirties, when she finally decided to leave the man and start a new life. The Trail was supposed to be the gateway into this existence.
The problem was that, after less than a week, she was ready to quit. Her backpack was too heavy, her feet were torn up, and she couldn’t figure out how to use her camp stove. Worst of all, in her mind, was the fact that she’d been given the trail name of “Nellie,” as in a “nervous Nellie,” thrusting her right back into the familiar role of unconfident incompetence. She hadn’t left the area of the lean-to since receiving the name, and had decided that she was going to get off the Trail in the morning and go home. Though she didn’t say it, we all got the impression that that mean returning to her asshole husband, too.
One of the other women by the fire put her hand on Annie’s shoulder and said, “There aren’t any laws that say you have to accept that trail name, you know.”
Annie looked up like a death row inmate that had just been informed that a loophole had been discovered in the law. “Really?”
We all broke up laughing and asked what she would rather be called, instead.
She was quiet for a moment, as though summoning her courage, before meekly piping, “Anne of Green Gables.”
“Anne of Green Gables it is.”
She wiped tears away and laughed.
We went to her pack and separated the unnecessary items from the necessities, dropping more than half the weight of her load. We showed her how to use her stove. A couple of the women donated pairs of high quality hiking socks to preserve her feet.
The next morning, I set out with a small group of early risers, Anne of Green Gables among them. We each quickly settled into our individual paces and began to separate.
I turned back to see Anne of Green Gables at the bottom of a steep rise, smiling brilliantly in her slow-but-steady stride. She flashed a smile at me that was both haggard and ecstatic. She looked very much like she was ready to hike about another two thousand miles.
I hope that she was.
“People Along the Path” comes in five parts, broken up mostly by the people I met while hiking the Appalachian Trail. I find it difficult sometimes to read long pieces on a computer monitor, so I’m experimenting with breaking things up in to smaller pieces. Feedback would be appreciated.