It’s A Wonderful Life
Or “We Are. The Class. Of. 2016!”
The Hiker Yearbook.
It’s that time of year again—decorations are hung, cookies are baking and I’ve watched the classic 1946 Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life for the zillionth time.
Yuletide arrived early this year. My copy of the 160-page Hiker Yearbook was delivered in last month’s mail. I shredded the package and spent the next few hours eagerly cracking open that glossy cover searching for familiar faces and names, thumbnail images documenting incredible people met through chance encounters.
With roots founded in trail magic, the Hiker Yearbook is the passion project of 2013 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker Matthew “Odie” Norman. This is the third one-of-a-kind directory Odie has produced, an annual photographic record of individual Appalachian Trail hikers. Whether parked at Trail Days in Damascus, a hostel in New Hampshire or zigzagging across the eastern seaboard in his distinctive reconditioned yellow short bus, Odie scoured trail crossings and hiker hangouts photographing every hiker he could find—and soliciting submissions from those he didn’t. The 2016 edition contains unique stories and 1600 photos of fellow hikers, trail angels, A.T. clubs and organizations.
I admit that I was on the fence about buying a copy of the Hiker Yearbook. As a flip-flopper starting in Shenandoah National Park, I hadn’t found myself part of a trail family “tramily.” Until my last few weeks in Maine, when I hiked with a group of NOBOs, my interactions with other hikers typically endured only a few days. Most weeks, I felt like spawning salmon. Each of us traveling hundreds and thousands of miles, most struggling up hills, while a few heroically leaped by, our paths momentarily crossing before one surged ahead or fell behind. We’re all attempting to reach a final terminus that only the fittest and most determined make.
“See, I know I’m going to make it, but even if I don’t,
don’t feel bad because honestly, all these times that I had,
those will be the best memories.”
— Said A Kid In Every High School Yearbook. Ever.
High school is long gone, but I still recall adults assuring me it would be the best time of my life. When else will you be able to hang out with your friends every day, spend time exploring new interests and be readily forgiven for making mistakes? Um, well for starters, how about college? And now that I’m reaching another milestone, I might also ask—retirement? But, I digress.
For many people, hiking the Appalachian Trail, like high school, has the potential to be either the best or worst time of your life. Like it or not, even if your thru-hike ended prematurely, it likely helped shape or is shaping you into the person you are today. There were mountaintops of sunrises, testaments of success, miserable days of character-building cold and rain and countless hours or even weeks spent together with people that providence planted in our path.
From casual acquaintances to the kindness of strangers, our connected stories are woven through each annual migration. Our collective experience binds us together, even as we graduate and move off into separate directions the moment we step off the trail.
Thank you, Odie.
While phone numbers, email addresses and Facebook connections were exchanged with a bunch of this year’s class of hikers, it was still a sweet surprise to rediscover a few more faces in the Hiker Yearbook.
Thank you, Odie, for reminding me about chance encounters with Giggles, Spacious, Cive, Solar, Savage, Future Dad, Rootbeard, Turtur, Tuna Roll, Cold Taters, and Chex and Splendid Monkey King. And Sister, (of the excellent calligraphy), I never met you, but I met your mother. Twice!
By my estimate, the directory could easily be twice the size it is. Sure I found photos of these people whom fate had introduced—and seeing their friendly mugs conjured up memories of unbearable days of heat, and rocks, interactions with good dogs and bad dogs, shared pizzas, shared pains, quiet swimming holes and crowded shelters. But there were many more hikers I had met that were missing from the shiny pages.
Dorothy of the Red Shoes, we only spent a few minutes talking somewhere in Shenandoah National Park. We were heading in opposite directions. Where did you end up? Like George Bailey’s alternate world in It’s A Wonderful Life, did we miss an opportunity not knowing each other? You seemed fun and that short exchange, whatever it was, lifted my spirits. While I was hiking in a skirt, you were rocking a dress.
Box Turtle, Nova, England, Uncle Stash and Johnny Walker, we spent a few hours or overlapped a few days with ongoing and unfinished conversations. Where did I lose you? Did you make it all the way?
Just Gary—did your blisters finally heal?
What happened to Step-And-A-Half, Solid and Mika, Johnny Cash, Scorched Heels and Survivor Man all of whom had made it very far, but the journal entries I had been following stopped or somehow I managed to get ahead of you.
And there are others whose wakes I crossed: Hannah Solo, Biscuit, Cosmos, Atlas, Dark Waters and Wishing Bone. Retainer, Prophet, Bangles and Night Reader, none of you appear in the yearbook.
I remember each of you for some little story, some shared experience, some exceptional highlight. Or low point.
So, future class of AT hikers, even if you think you have enough pictures and addresses of your cohorts and acquaintances, you probably don’t.
If this essay still isn’t enough to convince you, here are five more reasons to buy a yearbook:
- Absolute proof you hiked the same year as someone famous and you now have their email address.
- To give your future self or future family something to laugh about when they get a load of that legendary bushy Amish beard.
- So that one day you can look at your trail name and think what was I thinking?! Then look at the person next to you and wonder, what were they thinking?
- Years from now you will look at it and find someone that makes you smile.
- Because the trail was the greatest thing you probably did that year, maybe your entire life, and you want to hold on to those memories and the many people whose paths you crossed.
The Hiker Yearbook is a gift to help keep in touch and remember. Do yourself a favor and get a copy. As an angel of the trail, Odie certainly deserves to get his wings for this remarkable project.
And as guardian angel Clarence states in the book inscription he leaves behind for the star of our nostalgic Christmas movie:
“Remember, George: no man is a failure who has friends.”
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