Man Hiking the AT with a Leafblower: Mascot Hikers and Why They Do It
Every few years, a hiker will appear on the trail carrying an uncommon item. Often, these items come in the form of lightweight musical instruments: plastic trumpets, guitars, ukuleles, and harmonicas being most common. One year the Purple People, husband-and-wife musicians of the band The Mailboxes, carried a ukulele and a xylophone that they used to entertain hikers at every opportunity. Heck, I even met a hiker once on the way up Snowbird Mountain who was carrying a plastic trombone! Then there was the guy who reportedly carried a heavy, cast-iron Dutch oven, although I heard later reports he didn’t make it very far.
But what you don’t often see is someone who carries an odd item that doesn’t really serve any practical purpose.
This is the story of two of them: Leafblower and Champ.
Interview with Leafblower
The first time I heard of Leafblower was back in late February in Georgia, when Fresh Ground, the legendary trail angel who drives his white Ford van up and down the trail doing large roadside hiker feeds, featured his pic on his Instagram.
From the moment I saw this thin, youthful-looking blonde man, who goes by the trail name “Leafblower,” proudly holding up his bright green and black cordless electric leaf blower, I had wondered the same thing that everyone else was asking in the comments: WHY?
All that Fresh Ground (aka Tim Davis) would say on his post about him was a simple, cryptic answer: “He says he wants to get the leaf blower to Maine.” That’s it.
Not satisfied with that answer, I was determined to meet up with this guy who calls himself “Leaf Blower” to get to the bottom of the mystery.
The Mission: “I gotta get this leaf blower to Maine.”
Fortunately for me, when I reached out to the hiker known as Leaf Blower on his Instagram, leafblowersleafblower, he answered right away. He told me he was getting ready to enter the Smokies and that he would be at my sister’s hostel, Standing Bear, in just five to six days.
Nearing the end of that period, with an unusually powerful winter storm bearing down on the Smokies, with heavy snow and single-digit temp’s expected by Saturday, he got out of the Smokies and on to Standing Bear in the nick of time, before the worst of the wintery blast hit.
When I arrived the next day on a snowy, cold Sunday morning at Standing Bear Hostel, Maria invited us into her house so we could have some warmth and a little privacy.
As we sat down at the big wooden dining room table in Maria’s house, I began the interview by asking the one question that seemed to be on everyone’s mind. “Why? Why are you hiking with a leaf blower?” With a sheepish smile, he answered “It’s a hard question to answer, but the main reason behind it is to get the leaf blower to Maine.” That’s all he would say on the subject.
Since it didn’t seem like he was going to budge or elaborate on his answer—the same answer he’s been giving everyone else—I asked him, “Why a leaf blower; not a rake, or something else?” He told me that he chose the leaf blower because he used it on another job he had in the past, and from the moment he picked it up, he thought to himself, “I’m going to carry this on the Appalachian Trail someday.” He added, “Then there is the element of putting something super weird on your back just to do it”.
Being an admitted introvert, Leafblower said that it’s not that he doesn’t like people. “I really enjoy being around people, but I value my alone time a lot.” He said he’s always been a solitary person, which works just fine for his adventurous lifestyle. The cool thing is, since he started hiking with a leaf blower, it has become sort of a mascot; a representative of his quirky personality, and a real conversation starter, which allows him to break the ice with new hikers and get friends faster.
I asked him if he gets tired of answering the question WHY so many times, but he smiled and said, “Not yet, I don’t get tired of people asking about it.” He does feel the frustration people have with his standard answer and says, “I don’t like letting them down with my answer,” but hints at the possibility that one day he might reveal the full reason behind his mission. (Note: he did confidentially share the real reason with me, but all I will tell you is that his intentions are rational.)
He said that since he bought this used leaf blower from Facebook Marketplace, the first challenge of hiking with something as odd-shaped as a leaf blower was finding an efficient way to carry it where it didn’t get in the way of hiking. Initially, he tried lashing it to his pack in different positions with a variety of straps that didn’t work very well. After many tries, he finally rigged up two straps: one from his chest strap and the other from the back of his pack. Using these two points of contact kept the right amount of tension on the blower to both keep it in place and to keep it from swinging. Now when he hikes, he barely notices it’s there.
Leafblower said that the reactions from other hikers to him carrying a leaf blower are mixed. Though he has encountered a few snide remarks and weird stares, and sometimes gets criticisms from ultralight enthusiasts, by and large people love what he’s doing.
I asked, “How do you protect it from the rain?” He explained that while he’s hiking in the rain, he drapes his rain jacket over the motor, and when he’s camping, he keeps it underneath the rain fly.
At the time of this interview, he still did not have a battery and charger, but I discovered later that Fresh Ground was waiting for him further up the trail with a battery and charger! Since he purchased it used on Facebook Marketplace, he doesn’t even know if it works. Leafblower says that if it does work, he might actually get some practical use out of it. He said he wants to help hikers start fires and blow leaves and debris out of shelters. He even quipped that he could turn it on and aim it backwards to help propel him up hills!
At five foot five inches and 135 pounds, Leafblower doesn’t have a lot of bodyweight to carry, and even though the leaf blower with battery and charger will weigh a little over five pounds, he plans to offset this weight by getting rid of cold-weather gear when the weather warms, so he doesn’t expect it to be much of a burden.
The Life and Times of Leafblower
To start with, 28-year-old Leafblower, who added to his mystique by not giving me his real name, said he grew up in Connecticut and, after high school, attended college for a year, focusing on wildlife biology. One of the main reasons for this course of study was so that he could work out in nature. However, he said that since this degree came with a lot of hoops to jump through and would take him a long time before he would be able to actually work out in nature, he decided that going on the road and taking seasonal work would allow him to get out there right away.
So, in 2016 he started a life of working in the winters to earn enough money to fund his hikes in the summers. He said he got most of his seasonal jobs through coolworks.com and has since traveled to Alaska, California, and, most recently, hanging Christmas lights in Salt Lake City.
But his favorite place so far was Truckee, California, where he said he spent three years working at the Red Light Hostel.
One year, while out in California, he decided to hike the PCT. One day, before his hike, while he was in a hardware store, his eyes fell upon a 15-foot coil of garden hose. Suddenly, an idea popped into his head. “I’m going to hike the PCT with this on my pack.”
Starting at the Southern Terminus, he began hiking with the garden hose hanging loosely on the back of his pack. After a while, the noise the hose made while flopping around on his back irritated him and he figured out a way to tie it down so it stopped doing that.
When he got four days into his hike, while staying at a campground for horses (he forgets the name), he met a former AT thru-hiker, Lorax, who named him “15-foot;” a fitting name indeed.
As he made his way up the trail, he got the usual attention; the snickering comments and stares that you’d expect to get when hiking with such an odd item. It didn’t take long for the word to make it up and down the trail about a guy hiking with a garden hose.
He didn’t intend on using his hose for any practical purposes, but because his worst fear was a dangerous encounter with a mountain lion, he often stuck his coiled-up hose beneath his tent flap in hopes of tricking any nearby mountain lions into thinking it was a snake. One hiker suggested he use it as a hookah hose, while another suggested using it as a water siphon. Someone even thought it was a political statement on the politics of water management in California.
Regardless of what people thought of him, he kept on hiking, eventually getting a pic of himself at the northern terminus with his 15-foot hose.
He said the hose is put away in storage at this moment.
The Future of Leafblower
He admitted that he hasn’t been back to Connecticut in many years and, although he misses family and friends a lot, he likes being away on adventures more and plans to continue traveling, at least for the foreseeable future.
I asked him if he has any doubts about making it all the way with his leaf blower, and he assured me, “I’m 100% sure I’m going to make it,” though he does worry a little that someone might steal it along the way.
As for future hikes, he told me that he will always carry something unusual; it’s just his thing.
Bon Voyage, Leafblower!
Interview with the Champ
Back in 2019, a 38-year-old Army veteran started his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. What set him apart from all the other hikers on the trail was that he was hiking with an enormous, WWE-style wrestling trophy belt and went by the trail name Champ.
He first caught my attention after I saw many pictures of him on Facebook holding the shiny metallic buckle of his wrestling belt above his head. I was instantly intrigued with Champ back then and always wanted to someday get his story. Since I was already doing a story on Leafblower carrying his odd item on the Appalachian Trail, I thought it would be a fitting companion story.
It didn’t take long for me to track down Japheth Hester, aka Champ, on Facebook. From there, all it took was a short phone call for me to meet another one of the more interesting hikers ever to hike the Appalachian Trail.
So, one recent evening, I gave him a call to find out about his life.
Who is the Champ?
In 2002, like many young men in rural America, Japheth Hester, of Shallot NC, joined the Army right out of high school. Without knowing what was ahead of him, he found himself participating in the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Although he was trained to be part of a tank crew, he ended up in the infantry, as he calls it, “a TWAT: a Tanker Without A Tank.”
What he saw and did on his one and only tour there, I will leave to his memory. He told me that “I grew up in the military,” meaning he went from a boy to a many in a hurry.
Over the years, the toll it took on his body and mind left him with injuries that followed him everywhere he went.
Japheth told me that ever since he did a shakedown hike in 2018, “Hiking became a part of me.” He craved getting away from the Lowcountry of North Carolina to be in the mountains.
In early February of 2020, when he was 38 years old, Japheth embarked on his northbound thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. He told me, “Hiking was always on my bucket list. It’s like everything lined up; like it was a calling. Then I snapped and started my thru-hike.” Because of his PTSD, and joint problems from carrying heavy gear in combat, Japheth credits his VA benefits for making it possible for him to take time off to thru-hike.
Plus, he had no wife or girlfriend, no kids; nothing to tie him down. About the only relationship he valued was with his mother, but otherwise, there was nothing holding him back from his thru-hike.
Hiking with a Wrestling Belt
About why he chose to hike with a wrestling belt, Japheth told me that as a kid, he was a huge fan of WWE. He loved the NWO (New World Order), with its pomp and showmanship, and seeing these larger-than-life male figures strutting around flashing their huge wrestling championship belts had a big effect on him.
When he was getting his stuff ready for his thru-hike, Japheth said that he remembered back to when he wore a WWE-style belt as a part of his Halloween costume when he was a kid and how good that made him feel; like he was a champ.
When he thought about hiking the Appalachian Trail, he realized that his thru-hike represented him overcoming a lot of difficult issues in his life, and he thought that wearing a wrestling belt would be the perfect metaphor for overcoming these issues, allowing him to become, as he proudly states, “the champ of my life,” a mantra he would tell people over and over again.
He thought, “How cool would it be to take a pic of me standing on top of every mountain holding up the belt,” (which he did).
The Champ hits the Appalachian Trail
Just like Leafblower, when Japheth set foot on the Appalachian Trail, wearing his flashy wrestling belt, which he affectionately named Goldie, he caught a lot of online ridicule, especially from older hikers. But as he progressed up the trail, he said that though some gave him strange looks, nobody he met gave him a hard time. The longer he hiked up the trail, the more love and acceptance he got from other hikers, many of whom had already heard about him.
Japheth said that since the trail helped him heal from his internal issues, “there was no way I was going to quit because of the haters.” Instead, he used this hate as fuel to keep him going. He didn’t want to make the same mistake as Jay Hiker, who had been posting his hike a lot, then suddenly dropped off the trail somewhere in the Smokies, never to be heard from again. He didn’t want to end up being ridiculed for quitting like that. In the end, he said, “the belt helped me become friends with a lot of my haters.” He added, “by not saying anything to my haters on my hike, I felt it was a big achievement in self-control.”
Japheth told me that “while at home I was Japheth Hester, but on the trail I was different.” He told me that being The Champ became his alter ego: a better version of himself. The belt became his identity and a way to stay focused on that. “I liked being The Champ on the trail. At home I’m just a normal boring person, but on the trail I’m the f**ck’n champ!”
While on the trail, he learned to overcome many things and the belt represented the overcoming of all kinds of difficulties. At one point near Killington VT, when he hiked into the Twelve Tribes, he said, “I was feeling pretty f**k’ng vulnerable. The day I walked into the Yellow Deli, I was the most vulnerable I’d been in my whole life. But thank goodness they never got to the Champ! Though he did jokingly add, “I’m not gonna lie: the girls there were very pretty.” Around that time, when he was posting on Facebook about quitting, he was so heavily criticized and shamed by his online admirers for thinking about quitting that it made it too hard for him to quit. After all that backlash, he acknowledged, “if I’m going to hike on the trail and call myself the Champ, I had better not quit.”
Due to Japheth having to leave the trail for several months to take care of some personal matters, he said he finally went back and completed his flip flop, finishing in March of 2021 at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, where he said Miss Janet made a special trip out to see him finish, which he greatly appreciated.
Since then, he has made plans to hike the Mountains to Sea Trail in a few weeks. He told me that since his original belt, Goldie, has taken such a beating, and is now just a cracked, broken piece of hiker trash held together with duct tape, he thinks it is time to retire it. However, he said he’s going to start the MST with a brand-new belt! From now on, he said every long-distance hike he makes will be with a new belt.
Lately, he’s been pretty disturbed by the war in Ukraine and admits that “there’s a big part of me that wants to sign back up and go over there, but I know if I do, I won’t be coming back.” He’s hoping that hiking the MST is going to help him clear his head of these kinds of thoughts.
He said, “the trail was good to me and the way it ended (with Miss Janet’s visit) showed how, one last time, the trail provided,” and Japheth continues to look to long-distance trails to help him cope with his issues. That’s why in the future, he plans to do a triple crown, hiking the AT, CDT, and PCT in a calendar year.
Different is Good
Though hiking with odd and unnecessary items will probably continue to be a thing on the nation’s long-distance trails, hopefully, this insight into two of them will help us all understand that there is more going on with hikers than meets the eye, which hopefully and will lead us to support, rather than ridicule them.
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What a great article! I had the pleasure of going with Japheth and his mother(one of my dearest and oldest friends) when he began his first thru hike of the AT! It is a memory I will always cherish! I am so proud of him!!! This sweet guy actually called me a few weeks ago and asked me to please ride with he and his mom again, to Jockeys Ridge for his sea to mountain hike which he began on Saturday, April 2, 2022! He said, “We should just make this a thing, the 3 of us, each time I start a new hike!” I was so happy to be included as I know his struggles and again, am so PROUD of him! Way to go, Champ!!!
Regarding the vacuum guy, stupid is as stupid does.
Regarding Champ – PTSD is a rough road to travel.
Good luck to both and happy trails.
My buddy Commando thru hiked the AT in 2016 and the PCT in 2017 carrying a wrestling belt the whole way. I did my thru of the AT with him in 2016 carrying my trusty plastic lawn flamingo, Gary.
I carry a pack and stuff…just saying.
In three end to ends I’ve seen a lot of odd stuff. Best was TubaMan. He played his tuba every chance he had. Even had a wad of Tuba sheet music. Nice guy too. The people who just carry junk don’t add much to the trip for other people.
I really enjoyed this article! I’m so glad I found your posts! I will be following!
My son, Letters, is hiking the AT right now. He has met up with Fresh Ground several times for meals. He was very grateful for the food!
Thanks for sharing!!!
I met Letters around Neel Gap. Is he still carrying his ukulele? I was lucky enough to hear him play it one night. He’s a far faster hiker than I so it’s been awhile but I wish him well!
Wow! So much hate towards people just trying to eke out a little spot of happiness in their lives.
“John Muir rolling over in his grave,” and
Super happy to hear our Truckee pal is still out there creating his own (and no one but his own) journey. Anyone who stumbles across him can attest to that brilliant mind. Keep spreading the wack, Ham!
The Champ always seemed good natured and good humored.
Most older hikers I knew didn’t have ant problem with him.
Seems a bit odd. Maybe the leaf blower and the belt buckled champ could better equip themselves with something more practical for the task at hand. Perhaps a hiking stick that they could carve trail experiences into. As a career US Surveyor now retired I had to be mindfull of what I packed daily especially in remote country out here in the West. Just saying…be prepared. Stuff can happen. Bring useful stuff. Take care.
I thought I was the only one to have a leaf blower on a trail I put mine to use blowing glass off so no one would get a flat .
As I was about to comment on the idea in general I heard a sound. Oh! it was John Muir rolling over in his grave.
I think this is just great! As long as you are kind to your fellow hikers and not placing yourself in situations where you have to continuously be “rescued” – who cares?!
It’s fantastic that you are out there doing what you love, and particularly you Champ. Good on you both! Never mind the haters, you’re both living your best lives and asking for nothing. Keep it up and happy trails to ya!
Hi Bloodhound-had the pleasure of meeting you, Caroline and Beau Diddley a few weeks back at a shelter just north of Hot Springs. In true trail angel form, you hiked in with a cooler of ice cream, cones, and a box of wine. All were thoroughly enjoyed. Loved the article and sharing a little time on the trail with you and your dogs. Thanks again. Rod