While in Hot Springs on a day off from hiking, we stayed at the historic House of Jane Gentry, now called the Sunnybank Inn. It couldn’t have been more delightful. Jane Gentry was famous for her collection and preservation of Appalachian folklore in stories and songs. During a resurgence of interest in country folklore, Cecil Sharp came upon Jane Gentry singing, while she worked, her unique versions of familiar ballads and stories. He would return again and again to hear more tales from this Appalachian matriarch who would became the most significant contributor of folklore in his study. This felt very relevant on our hike as we have begun to be fully immersed in an oral culture of storytelling ourselves.
The Appalachian Trail has a real community aspect uniquely formed by a a fairly large group of people all walking in the same direction. Give or take a day or two, you will end up running into the same people over and over as everyone is hiking at differing speeds and miles per day. It almost has a small town feel to it, that is if a town kept moving north steadily as the weeks went on. When you spend the majority of the day on your own hiking through nature everyone gets excited to talk and swap tales when they meet up; all sorts of stories get told and retold.
Some of the stories are little more than gossip. You see someone you know and touch in to let each other know where everyone is if you can. It’s all about trying to figure out if people are ahead of you or behind, if they have gotten waylaid or injured. You start to really care about the other people on the trail and if you haven’t seen someone in a while you get worried. Rocket Man so far has become the best source of gossip on the trail that we know. He is an older gentleman who used to work on rockets, hence the name. He isn’t speedy but his pace is steady and he almost never takes a full day off from hiking. This allows him to see people up and down the trail. Whenever Sean and I have met him, we ramble through all the small talk stuff but Rocket Man gets right down to business. He’ll list off who is ahead on the trail, who is taking a day off in town, who has blisters, who has had a bad fall or has started to question why the hell are we all doing this. We always have to think about the last we’ve heard from people and compare notes. It’s little more than gossip but it gives you an idea of where everyone is at both physically and emotionally. It is a way of keeping tabs on each other even if you hadn’t crossed paths that day.
Probably the best people who help facilitate this oral update of the location of everyone on the trail are the very fast hikers that cruise by. For instance we met Impala the other day, an experienced hiker from England who has a list of long trails he has completed and walks an average of 20 miles a day. He started more than a week after we did but had no trouble catching up. He was great about telling us everyone he had seen on the trail so far and asked us if we knew who was ahead. It was a great way to find out where everyone we knew was after the snow in the Smokies. Some people got stuck in Gatlinburg and others even further back at Fontana Dam. He told us all he knew and we traded with the names of people he might meet in the future. Because Impala started later than we did he also got to experience a little of the crowds that started at Springer on the 1st of March. With a few horror stories about the amount of people on their way, he encouraged us to stay ahead of the encroaching horde.
After the gossip comes the most popular of stories because it is still so early in the trail: Dropout Stories. Now, I have always loved folklore and ever since my mom gave me an illustrated book of Greek Myths I have been hooked. Stories are a way for a community to hold onto information and disseminate it in a time before print… or the internet. They allow you to remember things, heed warnings, and pass the time. It’s the same here on the trail. There are stories for all occasions and the ones about people abandoning the hike seem to be important now but will probably fade as we progress. These stories are the ones about people who have realized that hiking day in and day out is not what they want to be doing. There are some good ones out there: One guy apparently made it to Amicalola Falls where the approach trail starts. With 7-8 miles of hiking to go before he even started the trail … he stepped out of the car, put on his pack and almost immediately lost his footing because of his pack weight. He toppled into the reflection pool at the base of the falls and looked up at the six hundred steps remaining before saying “No way I am doing that!”. He then stood up, walked back to his car and drove off. Quit before the trail even began.
The drop out rates of AT hikers is fairly high. Apparently (and we’ve heard a range of numbers), 25% of people drop out by Neel Gap which is within the first 40 miles and the first major resupply point. Even more drop out by Woody Gap, one of the first major crossroads. Then 40% by the Smoky Mountains National Park and 50% by Hot Springs. All of this is less than 300 miles in. Sometimes it’s because of finding out hiking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, or injury, or something happened off the trail but there are a significant number of people who leave in the first couple of weeks. So these tales act not only as way of letting people know who is still on the trail but also invite you to reaffirm that you aren’t going to drop out yourself. You hear stories and say, “that would never be me” and keep hiking the next day. It’s easy to think you won’t be a statistic but by their very nature they are daunting. A lot of people drop out and one of them could very well have been us. Hearing why people quit helps you remember that you don’t want to be off the trail and to keep on walking even when it’s hard. Another good Drop Out Story was told to us the other day: Apparently, while sitting at Neel Gap and going over his resupply, Impala looked out into the rain and saw someone stomping down the trail. When he got to the parking lot he ripped his bag right off his back and threw it in the trash can as he made his way to the road to stick a finger out. Hiking in the rain clearly wasn’t for this guy.
One part of the trail that fosters storytelling is Trail Names. I have no idea where this idea came from, possibly an idea of escapism from regular life and becoming a new person. However, it is pervasive. Most people have a name of some sort. Now, I am not totally sold on them, there is something mildly infantile about a bunch of adults insisting on nicknames, but they do make remembering everyone’s name really easy. I have met a handful of Dylan’s in my life and so now being introduced to one, the name doesn’t always stick. However, meeting someone named Slug is a first for me and it sticks in my memory easily. The stories that build up around names can be really great and travel up and down the trail faster than the person can walk. For instance, we heard about Bear Spray probably a week before we met him. He got his name from when he was staying in the Top of the Georgia Hostel and was trying to get something from inside his bag. He had a bottle of bear spray and something caught on the safety and released it. He accidentally sprayed bear spray all over the top floor of the hostel! They had to close the whole floor and he had to be washed up and aided. When everyone else at the hostel heard what happened they dubbed him him “Bear Spray” instantly. The story and the name circulated pretty quickly and because it was so good, when Sean and I finally met him it was like meeting an old friend. We were already fond of him and it was a great conversation starter.
Trail names have a way of making people more familiar and informal and the stories that go along with them help with introductions. They aid in the community aspect of the trail and help pass the time with quick storytelling. It reminds me of the Iliad really, where ever anyone on the battlefield meet each other, they give a litany of their family history and story. It’s a way of identifying yourself to people who might have heard about you even if you haven’t actually met yet. We heard a good name story today that I liked. One of the first nights on the trail there was someone who left their bag open while sleeping in a shelter. The next morning he went to grab something and pulled out acorns. After closer inspection he discovered that during the night a squirrel had cached away a plethora of nuts and seeds in his backpack. His name is Squirrel Nuts. Which I think is just wonderful. Hopefully we will meet up on the trail someday!
Probably the most important stories that people tell are the ones that warn about the dangers of the trail. And warning stories are prolific in every culture. If you put warnings into stories you can talk about what you shouldn’t do, and the consequences of what might happen if you do. All the stories on the AT involve ways that you can get hurt, like when Uncle Bob fell off Blood Mountain. It’s easy when you are going downhill too fast to lose track of where you are going. Uncle Bob did just that when he was going down a mountain made mostly of granite cliff faces. The white blaze markers were on the stone instead of eye level on trees and there were some turns that you had to keep your eyes open for. He ended up going too fast and slipped off one of the rocks and scraped up his legs and backside something fierce. It looked like he had road rash all up his back. It must have been so painful! Now, I know Blood Mountain is infamous for people getting lost on. Before I even started the trail Tom and Gisela told us a story about a cousin (second cousin once removed… I think…if I am going to be specific) who ran down Blood Mountain and ended up in the middle of the woods, lost. All these stories are good for reminding us to take things slow when we are going downhill or at the very least, to watch where you are going because accidentally running off the trail can lead to some real issues!
There are many cautions about injuries on the trail and how to prevent them. We definitely jump into this conversation quickly with the story of Sean getting hurt in England and what we did about it. Injury is probably one of the scariest things to face out here because it is such a real threat. It can knock you off the trail and can happen in just a second. Sometimes you can do everything possible to avoid injury but it just takes one loose rock. However, there are some hiking styles that are more reckless and more likely to end in injury and hikers will tell stories about those. We met a man named Naked Savage who has become infamous for what can happen when you are reckless. It helps that this man is a character in every sense of the word. He recently had a brain tumor and during the removal lost all of his sense of temperature. Therefore he was consistently wearing only his very short shorts and a leather knife belt. If some stories are a stretch to be believed, sometimes he even forgoes those as well. He takes 40 pills a day and when we met him he was talking about every shark encounter he had ever had. The list was not short. All in all this man is made for tall tales and big fish stories especially as he loves to tell them. When he started, his approach was to get to the top of every mountain and then run down the other side. Now this can be effective but when you have a heavy pack and are doing it consistently it wears on your body. Additionally, he would climb trees to hang his bear bags. When we met him before the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) he couldn’t stand without help from his hiking poles and even so his knees trembled with the effort. He thought he had torn both tendons in his knee and had to go back to Cape Cod to see a doctor. He wasn’t even forty but watching him stand you would think he was in his late sixties. While we were all sitting and talking in NOC he stood thigh deep in the freezing river to ice his knees. It was a good warning that your body can only handle so much and knowing your limits is important.
Finally, the last stories I will talk about are the ones that I love the most; the stories about how ridiculous things can be out here that we all tell just for the sake of entertainment. Whether they are good stories or just so absurd they pass the time when you are catching up with people at the end of the day and rubbing your sore feet. Stories have a way of bringing people together and keeping you engaged. Especially in places where there just isn’t a whole lot going on. There was one guy section-hiking who would watch Netflix at the end of the day while most of us out here have data caps and have to amuse ourselves. I loved it though. It creates a community aspect when you might not have one otherwise and helps you feel like you aren’t doing this alone. Everyone generally spends the day walking through the woods alone but meeting up for meals at the end of the day can really add a lot. This is true for us at least, I am sure there are people who love the solitude of thousands of miles in the woods.
A story that always gets a good reaction is what happened to Iron Lungs coming out of the Smokies. So the Great Smoky Mountains were trial enough with the snow and road closures. It made for rough walking but stunning days, and you were usually very tired by the end of the day. So, Iron Lungs, Nosebleed, Million Bucks, and Torch all arrived at a shelter at the end of the day. And in the Smokies you have to stay in the shelters – if there is room. The shelters are built to house 12 due to their double decker system. Six sleep on top and six beneath. The four of them found spots in the lower bunks and prepared for bed. In straggled two hikers, one looking fine but the other looking like he had been through the ringer. He was wearing multiple layers, zipped all the way up but was sweating profusely from the hike up the mountain. Another hiker had seen him earlier in the day and asked why he didn’t take layers off while he was going up the mountain and he said he thought he’d get too cold. Clearly, hiking in the snow was not a common pastime for him. When he got to the shelter he crashed his things down and climbed into his sleeping bag. The sun went down and everyone was trying to sleep when Iron Lung woke up because something was dripping on him. It took him just a little bit longer to realize that the guy above him was vomiting from exhaustion and dehydration. They, being the good people they are, first made sure that the other hiker was alright even though there was vomit on all of their things. They made sure he was getting water and his friend was caring for him before figuring out what to do. They were 6000ft high in the Smokies and nearly all of their gear was covered in spew. There was really only one thing they could do. So setting off shortly after midnight they hiked the 20 miles out of the park to the nearest hostel. In the snow and in the dark. They made it at first light and the hostel owners gave them their best cabin and free use of the laundry. It must have been a long night but they felt really good to be there.
I have always been drawn to stories. A culture’s folklore gives it such depth and creativity. It reveals what is important to them and how they amuse themselves. I feel like our culture has lost some of this, all our stories are written in books or on screen. We don’t tell each other nearly enough stories orally. Therefore it’s been really amazing having become part of a group that relies on stories for information. There is obviously still a lot of checking the weather on our phones and text messaging if you have someone’s number but the majority of what we hear about how people are doing is through speech. So I hope you have enjoyed these stories and we can’t wait to share more of how our epic adventure is going as we steadily move north.
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