Aunt Polly Would Not Approve.

“Tom Sawyer’s Gang” is alive and well—in case you were worried.

I’m known as Tree Hugger on the Appalachian Trail, and I’m a little over a month into this epic adventure. As a high school English teacher, I spend lots of time around young folks. Their energy and optimism are contagious, and I’ve missed that part of my “off-trail” life.

I sometimes worry, though, at the ever-increasing amount of time youngsters seem to spend indoors in front of screens.

I wonder how able they’ll be to
function in “rl” when they can’t seem to
make eye contact with others or to socialize in appropriate ways.

What happened to teenagers playing flashlight tag? What happened to just throwing a ball around or going fishing or building campfires?

Recently, though, here on the Appalachian Trail, I had yet another eye-opening experience. To my great joy, I spent some time at a shelter with five young men who prove mischievous, Huck Finn-esque youths yet exist.

And I worry no more.

barefoot log walkers, fervent fire-builders,
and generous-hearted, creek-cooling beer
drinkers, these boys put the “wild’ in

And I’m here for it.

Put down the video-game controllers, kids,
because Tarzan, Chowder, Peter, Mash, and
Patches are here to show you how life-
before-adulthood is meant to be lived: with

I had had a light day—just five miles—and
arrived at the shelter just after they did. The boys had finished fifteen miles that day (ah, to be young again) before setting up at the CCC-built shelter smack-dab on the trail.

It’s been my favorite shelter to date, with a
running stream directly in front, a perfect
fire pit, and a privy rated above four on the
ten-point privy scale.

By far my favorite part of the shelter, though—as it is most nights—was the company.

They were clever, boisterous, uncouth, adolescent, and downright delightful.

Between singing quasi-harmonious
renditions of “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,”
delighting over the discovery of
marshmallows in the hot chocolate, and
scarfing down reconstituted cheesecake,
they helped this former Girl Scout leader
build an epic fire.

Using a tarp, they engineered a fourth wall
for the shelter to block the wind and stay

In addition to being insistent on
safety (they had several meetings about it) they were all courteous and indulged
my questions and my company. I’m not sure Tom and Huck would have been so tolerant of a middle-aged lady imposing on their fun. Despite some motherly behavior I just couldn’t help, they never made me feel as though I was intruding or unwelcome.

When the dry wood didn’t light particularly
well (I’m chuckling here at my hostel just
remembering it), their youthful dedication
refused to give up on my little teepee-style
starter. When blowing on the coals didn’t
work, they improvised with foam seat pads
and fanned the ever-loving hell out of those
little sparks until the flames erupted.

They gathered just enough wood for a
warming fire, and disturbed the woods as
little as possible.

Hikers’ days end pretty early, both for middle-aged folks and for twenty-something young men, so I was in my tent, and they were in their sleeping bags before it was too dark. But in the morning before I
headed out, I glanced around the shelter as I always do. The boys had doused the fire
expertly and cleaned every speck of micro-
trash from the whole place.

I’m not sure even Tom and Huck would have been such good stewards of the woodlands.

Wholesome, outdoor adventure was the order of the day, and the experience renewed my spirit and fed my soul.

It became one of the highlights of my own
adventure, and I’m supremely grateful for
the experience.

As they charged up the trail ahead of me toward (appropriately) Hobo Island, I hoped they would—for as long as possible—decide, as Tom does in Twain’s story, “it was worth being a pirate, after all.”

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Comments 2

  • Pam Phillips : May 6th

    I knew you would find the kids out there. You’re missing your students and the energy they bring you. The geography is entertaining but you need to feed off the souls you share this adventure with. There will be many more groups and individuals who will fill your spirit. Walk on my little adventurer. Find that trail magic and share with us the wonder of your journey.


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