The Psychology of a Trail Name
Twelve Percent. Kickapoo. Aviator. Sparky. Iron Chef. Bobcat. Sloth. The Pope. Rain. Lotus. Einstein. Jersey Girl. Bama. Egret. Tum Tum. Hard Times (San Quentin). Robin Hood. Cartwheel. All In. Mama Bear. Ginger. Gilligan. These are all trail names of people I have met in 29 days on the Appalachian Trail – and this is just a fraction of them.
For most of these people, I have no idea what their real name is, nor where they are from, what they did in the real world, why they’re out here, or what they plan on doing when they’re finished. There are simply too many people to get to know every single one very intimately. What has intrigued me, though, is that 99% of the people I’ve met go by their trail name only – and being a psychologically conscious person, I got to thinking about what these seemingly playful, innocent names represent for hikers.
Quite obviously a trail name represents a new identity, a new beginning, and a chance to leave everything that was once represented by “John Smith” or “Jane Dougherty” behind. People don’t come out here to talk about their jobs as lawyers or bartenders or car salesmen; they come out here to leave the hassles of everyday life – the stresses of rent, insurance, bosses, student loan payments (and rightfully so, those things suck).
So doesn’t it seem fitting that, in escaping all these discomforts modern society loves to bombard us with, we should form a new identity, a new perspective, and a new way of approaching this adventure we call life? All this would seem, to me at least, a healthy psychological process which a trail name is a merely a vocal signifier for.
But let’s go deeper: names are simply that, names. Human vocalizations afforded to us by the movements our mouths and vocal chords are capable of. That is all. Nothing actually has a name. In Spanish exist the words “un arbol” and “un calle” – different names to portray what we call a tree and a street, respectively. But again, they are just that, human names for things; human attempts at labeling and simplifying and explaining. Really, we are nameless, no true label exists for anything. There are easily a million “John”s, “Brian”s, and “Sarah”s each. These names do no service for each individual, apart from giving other humans a way to get their attention and getting in the way of explaining their unique story, their passions, their history. The things that have shaped them to be the person you see standing in front of you.
Eckhart Tolle tells us that, for a split second, when you look at something, you see it as it really is. You look at a tree and before your mind jumps at the chance to label it, to make it known, to explain it, there is a gap: there is a moment when you see just a form the universe has created, and it is in this gap of thought that the key to presence, awareness, and peace exists. In this gap lies an acceptance of the universe completely as it is – nameless, formless. The trail allows this gap to be extended, if one is aware of it, because, at least for the first few weeks, you know no one’s name. You see a person and you have no thought of “oh that’s Stephanie” or “look at Jacob’s pants” – you have a formless, thoughtless gap in which you don’t label or identify with anything. Cultivating and becoming aware of this gap can be opening the door to a beautiful spiritual journey.
But when you do finally discover someone’s trail name, it is, for the most part, a completely new name to you. No more “Rebecca”s, no more “Luke”s : true individuality becomes easier, more accessible, and easier to associate. Trail names often describe a quirk, a habit, or a comical mishap of a hiker, adding to the sense of uniqueness of each one, to the sense of escape, personal discovery, and soul searching each of us is out here to experience. We are no longer confined to the shackles a “normal” name places upon us from birth. We are given new life and opportunity by the simple act of changing our namesake, and the psychological implications of such freedom seem to be incredible.
Famous hikers over the years, for the most part, are known only by these names in the hiking community. This, I feel, is not only a true testament to the lasting effects the trail has on a person, but the closeness and communal nature of hikers in general. We know we’re different. We know we’re weird. That’s why we take these odd names, use them, and keep them. We’re different now, forever, and we’re all in this together. We’re hikers of the Appalachian Trail.
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Part of the reason leaving your “real” name behind has such appeal has to do with how our “real” names have been linked to our legal profile. Most people are not aware that there is a difference between themselves as a person and the legal representation of themselves that is created when they are registered with documents such as birth certificates. These legal profiles may be necessary for our society to order itself properly. But it is the legal profile, created for us, which must accept the weight and responsibility of every law, debt, and requirement of our society. Because our legal profile usually shares our given name, we associate all those weights with our name. Taking a new name helps to distance us from that legal profile.