“One can acquire everything in solitude – except character.” Stendhal
Anyone who thru-hikes the Appalachian Trail, 2,200 miles through fourteen states along the eastern Appalachian Mountains of the United States, is gifted a Trail Name.
The bestowing of a Trail Name is akin to breaking bread, a way to establish community and culture in a forest wilderness at the frontier of civilization.
I say “frontier” because although the long-established path (completed in 1937) cuts through small towns, it is wilderness. And you become wild while hiking it. Wild to push through and expand your frontier. Literally, moving mile after mile, and conceptually, pushing through physical and emotional boundaries.
This need to expand is deeply embedded in the American psyche, but these days we push boundaries to comfort our souls—not for survival.
When John Muir said, “The clearest way to the universe is through a forest wilderness,” he meant nature brings clarity by removing what is extraneous. Similarly, novelist Annie Dillard heard “God’s voice speaking from the whirlwind” in the emptiness of nature.
There is a space in nature—in all its jumble and confusion, noise and incident, there is space for us. There is often no space in civilization, everything is precisely owned, marked, measured.
Before the Trail, I was living in a studio in New York with my husband, in a building designed as a vertical space where people can sleep horizontally. We were compressed into stasis by people and boundaries.
I recall Emma Bovary, in the height of her unhappiness, who spent profligately to cure her kept state and expand her space. I did the same. With each purchase, my space wasn’t just this room and these walls, it became this new ironstone pitcher from eBay. It became this belt. This book. This new table, which doesn’t fit but will somewhere else. We lived in a state of hope of what might be, but that hope was dying each day under the truth of what was.
Trail Names are a welcome package, a witness, a testament to the attempt, if not the feat.
They could be anything. Animals are popular—Gopher, Bobcat, Moose. I met a guy called Blueberry Pie—he bought a full blueberry pie in town and carried it for miles. I came across two Crickets and one Spider. Cricket for size and swiftness and Spider because his tent had squatters.
“What’s your Trail Name,” people ask when your paths cross. A generality designed to ennoble your mutual place in the community, and so people can warm themselves at the fire of human connection. Forest solitude can drive one mad, and it did. Hikers were ravenous for connection. They see you coming and size you up, wanting to devour you whole.
They destroyed my silence and in turn, destroyed my experience. Interrupted my ongoing conversation with nature, with myself. I lived in fear of interruption.
I would hear people coming—people make so much noise, needing to be heard—and I’d hide or cut breaks short to outwalk them. I glared, growled, grimaced, making it clear: no conversation. Once, I pretended I didn’t speak English.
Hikers are fierce if you don’t feed them conversation. One woman spoke to me when I was 40 feet away, lacerating the peace with her voice. When I didn’t interact, she tore into me. How dare I ignore her, how dare I not talk! I simply said, “I’m not here for you. Wait twenty minutes. Someone else will come.” She was afraid of being alone with herself, afraid of the silence.
You don’t choose your Trail Name, it’s given to you.
By people you meet and quickly befriend in this new community, this frontier. By the second week, everyone has one.
I didn’t have a Trail Name. Not the second week, not until I was no longer counting time by weeks but by the number of states I had walked through. I slept in the woods, avoided shelters, and didn’t chat. How could I be named?
Then I met Sunshine.
Well, to be fair, I met her, lost her, re-met her. Lost her again. Finally, re-met and walked with her.
Sunshine drew small suns in the Trail’s sandy patches. Whether she was named ‘Sunshine because of that or drew because of her name, I don’t know. I imagine the latter; she was a bright, warm ray of light.
Sunshine was eleven, hiking with her father, aiming to be the youngest person to finish the Triple Crown—all three long-distance U.S. trails: the A.T., the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. Which really needs to be visualized to be appreciated.
Sunshine was lovely.
She had a kind of prepossessing nature that was a bit shy, very kind, and completely uninhibited. She’d ask questions, seek answers, listen. She was an observer, she reminded me of whom I wanted to be, who I at one point might have been.
I ran into them a few times, chatted (even I couldn’t be dismissive to an eleven-year-old), and then figured out how to avoid them. The last time I saw Sunshine and her dad, I couldn’t avoid walking with them, or maybe I didn’t want to. So we hiked together for a day. Her father led, then me, then Sunshine who occasionally hopped to keep up. I talked the most, Sunshine asked me questions. We bonded about not being morning people and many other things. Ultimately, they stopped to camp and I continued for another hour or so.
Bestowing a Trail Name is an act of great kindness and intimacy.
It is saying, “I see you, I notice you.” As I lacked a name, I was without that witness. Truly, truly alone. The kind of alone that makes you question your existence—if you die in the words and no one knows you exist, does your life matter? I had gotten what I wished for, but it wasn’t what I hoped for.
It’s also the foundation of friendship: noticing, listening, seeing, caring and holding a sprig of empathy for others.
Before I left them that night, Sunshine asked me, gently, kindly, pausing out of empathy that it might offend me, if she could give me a Trail Name.
Sure, I thought. Why not?
“Well,” she said, thoughtfully, “you walk faster than anyone. So… what about Zippy?”
She offered it to me, I liked that. I loved it. Walking fast was something I was proud of (also because it let me sleep in longer). I smiled. “Yeah, I like it!” I assumed I’d see them tomorrow again so didn’t make a deal out of saying goodbye.
That night, I realized I had always walked fast in order to avoid them. And everyone. I felt solitude and guilt completely. I think I stayed up until six and slept until noon. And I didn’t see them the next day, or the next. Miss each other by seconds, lose each other for eternity. Such is the nature of humans.
When I met people, I led with my trail name. “I’m Zippy because I walk fast.” And then I talked about Sunshine because that was easy and I was thoroughly proud of her.
A few weeks later, I left the Trail, saw my generous husband, and together we drove to Maine, so I could pick up the Trail again and head south. I ran into Sunshine and her dad in the Maine wilds, in a torrential rainstorm, the kind that tears through the canopy like it’s tissue paper. Sunshine, always lanky, was now thin. She recognized me. Hugged me. We took a photo and then, just as quickly, walked on in different directions before the cold set in.
The rest of my hike, I was “Zippy. Because I walk fast. What’s your name?”
Even those of us who travel miles and miles on our own frontier need something that can reel us in, something we can tug for assurance. I needed it more than I knew, and this young girl, in giving me a name, gave me that.
I can’t express how special she is. To have accomplished what she did. The following summer, she became the youngest person to hike the Triple Crown. And to have, despite all exhaustion and exertion, in those wilds, she recognized a human in need, and responded with “Hey, I see you.” She reminded me of who I wanted to be, how I wanted to act. Kind, noticing people, seeing people.
Nature can bring peace and quiet, but it can’t fully restore your better self. Only people can.
People like Sunshine.
The Appalachian Trail is a source of regular inspiration, but since hiking it, my experiences have only slowly coalesced into posts. I address why it’s so difficult to write about here. I am also a bit snowed under, presently, with a notion of “seeing” other people, what it means, how we do it. I’ve addressed how to “see” differently; the perils of mis-seeing others when we cannot imagine ourselves, and the sacrifice, the withholding of self, it takes to let someone else’s ego enter the space and been seen. Living connected and being seen is central to writer and actress Anna Deavere Smith’s indispensable advice for a rich, creative life.
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