I didn’t know much of anything about the Appalachian Trail when I decided to hike it. This was the late 90s and I was vagabonding around the United States, so information wasn’t nearly as accessible at it is today. Someone had mentioned the Trail, it sounded like what I was looking for, so I did it. At 20 years old, my primary aim in life was to experience the sort of transcendent experiences that Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman, and Thomas Wolfe wrote about. I was a writer, and I wanted to be a Writer, and the first step, far as I could see it, was to see things worth writing about, whatever the hell that meant. I wanted starry mountaintops, unnamed lakes, and green-eyed vagabond girls. I wanted wildness and freedom and spiritual air. So it was that I hitched a ride with a trucker and headed to Amicolola Falls, Georgia, to begin my journey. I never did find any of the things I was looking for.
What I discovered instead was a patchwork footpath pieced together through east coast sprawl, a ragged trail populated by a part-time nomads armed with guidebooks that outlined in detail exactly what was to be found on every mile ahead. Few days passed where I didn’t cross at least one paved road. There were even fewer where I went more than a couple hours without crossing paths with another person.
At the time, the whole experience was one monstrous disappointment. I quit after a thousand miles because I got tired of hearing highway traffic in the distance. I went West, which was a mythical sort of place to a small town Pennsylvanian such as myself, to find real wilderness. Many more adventures ensued, but the funny thing is, as I look back on those early years now, the big adventures are foggy and distant and a bit cold. What sticks out much more brightly to me are all the people I met along the way to everywhere, and during quiet nights when I think back and reflect, the characters I met on the Trail are some of the most vibrant in my memory.
Ultimately–for me, anyway–the Trail is really about the people that hike it, while the Trail itself is just the stage upon which the hikers act out their parts. Every one of them has a story. Every one of them is a story. Each year, from early spring through autumn, you can find them strung out like some Dickensian procession of wayward characters, people with stories that can only be properly told within the context of a winding, two thousand mile long footpath.
I have no stories of defying deadly, hungry things in the Appalachian wilderness, no stories of powerful insight attained after weeks of literary solitude. What I do have are memories of great, funny, fascinating people, all met at a very special moment in their lives, when they elected to shed their old skin and step forward with blisters, aching backs, and persistent, pervasively bad odor into new ones.
It wasn’t exactly what I’d bargained for. When all is said and done, though, it was something better, and I aim to use this here little piece of wordsmithery to celebrate some of those beautiful souls and, by doing so, maybe celebrate the entire goofy-ass parade of itinerant humanity. What the hell…it beats ranting about politics.
“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.