The hikers on the Trail are of all ages and from all walks of life. They are hiking by themselves and together. Some are hiking with dogs. There are parents and children hiking, grandparents hiking with grandchildren, seniors hiking with seniors. They are from all over the world and they are your next door neighbors.
Asking who is on the trail can be similar to asking someone to describe the clothes on the trail. However, if one proceeds to only describe all the colors of clothes people wear on the trail -- which could be quite accurate -- but neglected to describe the feel and texture of the fabrics of the clothes, the thread counts, the cut, style and design of the clothes as well, the account would be hollow and wholly inadequate.
So in the interest of providing you with the most complete account, I'll do my best to not only go over their colors but also thread counts, design and any other vital details at my disposal -- all gleaned from about a 30-minute stretch of time I experienced one rainy afternoon at a shelter on the trail somewhere in North Carolina. Then I'll share a few additional hiker notes.
I am sitting in a shelter talking to a young woman I've just met -- in her early 20s -- from Chicago who is just back from a two-year stint in Albania with the Peace Corps. I am taken aback. She learned the language there and worked in very remote areas teaching English. She didn't go with a group; she went by herself.
"It was a good experience" she said "but I wasn't prepared for the isolation" she reflected matter-of-factly as we sat there. She said she wasn't ready to return to "civilian life" as she put it back in the States and hoped that hiking the Trail would be something that she could embrace more than Albania. We talked about 20 minutes, then she thanked me for the conversation and headed back out on the Trail to get a few more miles in for the day -- in the rain. The kids -- as I call them -- never seem to be ready to stop for the day and always want "one more mile." I never got her Trail name unfortunately.
A few minutes after she left, the rain started coming down harder and a rain-coated man -- a Brit (actually an Aussie) -- stormed hurriedly into the shelter, soaked. He reminded me of a wet rat. One of my hiking buddies recognized him from the previous year on the Trail. Small world.
He looked to be in his fifties, thin, animated, and somehow I couldn't imagine him ever being still. His Trail name was -- don't ask -- "Wanjana."
We talk for a bit. He asked my Trail name. "Alpaca," I tell him. He thinks for a moment than says "I like your name. Alpacas are sometimes put with other herd animals to help protect them -- to help the herd stay safe," he tells me. Then he announces that he's hungry and heads back out of the shelter to a picnic table to eat -- in the rain. Why he didn't just eat in the shelter I have no idea. After he finished eating he just sat at the table -- still in the rain -- for what seemed the longest time deep in thought. Then, abruptly he too headed off for a "few more miles."
My friend later went on to tell me that the rain-soaked guy had had to leave the trail the prior year to go help oversee disaster relief in Nepal and was now back on the trail to finish his thru-hike. You just never know.
Danni and Matt were also in the shelter that afternoon. Danni (the mother) was with her university-age son for two weeks to see how they liked hiking the Trail -- with plans to return the following year if all went well. They were Canadian and lived, I believe, in Montreal.
It was obvious they had done their homework in advance. They had all the appropriate gear and knew where they wanted to hike and why. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and they seemed completely at home making everyone's acquaintance and conversing.
Our paths crossed several times in the weeks that followed which allowed me to watch the progress of their adventure. After the first week, they changed their plans, and with the car a section hiker had offered to loan them -- even though the section hiker never even knew their real names, just their trail names -- they drove to another section of the trail to hike. I ran into them again about a week later when I was trying to get a room or bunk at a full hostel. Danni overheard the clerk tell me there were no openings and offered me space in the cabin she and her son had rented for the night. I was floored as she really didn't know me from Adam, but that is how the Trail so often works. And, yes, she did return the borrowed car to the section hiker on time. The last time I saw her, she and Matt were giving out cold beers and fruit to hikers and preparing to go home.
Also in the shelter that afternoon were another pair of Canadians -- two women in their mid- to late 50s who as far as I could tell were thru hiking the Trail. However, neither spoke English -- only French. One spent much of her time doing crossword puzzles -- in French -- while the other always seemed to be studying maps and presumably a plan for their hike. They spoke to no one, although they would often exchange smiles with anyone who looked their way. I spotted them at various places on the Trail for over the next month, than ceased to see them more.
The final visitors to the shelter in those 30 minutes that afternoon were a group of "kids" -- late teens --who were just finishing up their extended weekend hike and had stopped into the shelter to get ready to go home. They were all tired but excited to have had the experience. They gave all their uneaten supplies to the other folks in the shelter as well as some of their equipment. That's not uncommon on the Trail -- this unspoken bond among both strangers as well as friends.
So in the space of 30 minutes in that shelter my Trail acquaintances ranged from kids to late middle aged adults -- some of whom didn't even speak English. The group was as eclectic as it could possibly be; you can't make this stuff up. All were wanderers with keen interests in new experiences and the most amazing air of self-confidence and childlike curiosity. What they all seemed to have in common was that in reality they had almost nothing in common.
Here is a supplemental profile of several other hikers - primarily just the color of their clothes.
"Roadrunner" - a 72-year-old retired public school administrator from Florida. He was trying to hike the remaining 500 miles of the trail he lacked from hikes in prior years. When I talked to him last I think he decided it was too much for him and was giving up in the next town. He asked me to email him photos of where we both hiked as his hands trembled too much to hold a camera steady. His hands have gashes from a fall on the trail.
Lou and Julie - retired pediatricians (husband and wife) from Utah in their late 50's. They alternate yearly, either hiking or bike tours. Organized, focused, on time. No trail names. They think those are silly.
Diamond Ears, Pack Rat, Huckleberry: Trail names of three hysterical moms in their 40s and 50s from Michigan who have met for the past 16 years to section hike a part of the Trail for two weeks. We shared shelters a few times and I loved their company and sense of humor.
Outback: A 28-year-old veteran (retired) who, upon getting out of the service, toured the country for almost two years on his bike, racking up something like 15,000 miles. After finishing his bike trip he decided to thru-hike the AT. There is a huge number of vets on the trail, many dealing with PTSD.
Sam Squared: A 79-year-old grandfather hiking the Trail with his 13-year-old grandson. Both of their real names are "Sam."
Mogley (like from “The Lion King”): Trail name of a young kid in his very early 20s who I will let represent that huge contingent of millennials on the Trail who typically have graduated from college with – frequently -- STEM degrees and worked a year or two on a career track and hated it and decided to hike the Trail instead -- instead of what?