What’s in a Trail Name

Next winter, I will depart from the distractions of this material world and embark on an odyssey that is the Appalachian Trail. I can’t help but wonder… What will my trail name be? I’ve felt thrilled to get a trail name, as it will mark the beginning of my journey as a thru-hiker. Like a dog waiting for a fresh bowl of kibble, I’ve drooled over it. 

My identity will no longer be Shilletha the Veterinary Technician. It will be my trail name that every hiker crossing my path will know me by. Maybe it will be something epic like The Prophet, since I am always speaking the truth. Or perhaps something related to my obsession with dragonflies. Whatever my trail name is, it will be a gift. 

Since March, I have been preparing for my thru-hike, sucking in information like a vacuum on steroids. The topic of trail names keeps showing its face on all the AT online groups I’m in as new members join daily. I have learned that trail names are given by others based on likes, hiker experiences, humor, and so much more.

For a long time, like many other hikers, I was merely waiting in anticipation for what mysterious name might be bestowed upon me. After all, our names will accompany us on our journey through the lush green forests and above mountaintops where fowl soar. 

One day my whole paradigm changed when I messaged an acquaintance who also intends to thru-hike in 2021. As two Black women, we have connected and discussed many issues in regard to thru-hiking while Black. The topic of trail names was no different. We started to get into good banter about trail names and I asked her if she was looking forward to receiving such an honor. Much to my surprise, she said, “No.” She then wrote these nine words: 

“Girl we taketh no more names from white people.” 

I was caught like a deer in headlights with my mouth ajar. I had never given any thought to what’s in a trail name. My eyes were opened wide like an owl’s, and now I was beginning to see why many Black hikers feel this way… but I was hungry for more. 

 As the glorious sun rose each day, the topic of trail names (and names in general) ate at me like tiny white termites on a dead tree. Out of the clear blue sky, two words shook me:

Jim Crow

After slavery was abolished and the 13th amendment was ratified in 1865, a new wave of vile laws began to segregate whites from Blacks in the south. These new laws had severe implications and created an environment of racial etiquette. White men and women were given the utmost respect and were addressed by social names like Mister, Miss, and Boss. 

“All Black men, on the other hand, were called by their first names or were referred to as Boy, Uncle, and Old Man—regardless of their age (…). In legal cases and the press, Blacks were often referred to by the word Negro with a first name attached, such as Negro Sam. At other times, the term Jack, or some common name, was universally used in addressing Black men not known to the white speaker.

Black women were addressed as Auntie or Girl. Under no circumstances would the title Miss or Mrs. be applied. A holdover from slavery days was the term Wench, a term that showed up in legal writings and depositions in the Jim Crow era. Some educated whites referred to Black women by the words “colored ladies.”

This practice of addressing Blacks by words that denoted disrespect or inferiority reduced the Black person to a non-person, especially in newspaper accounts. In reporting incidents involving Blacks, the press usually adopted the gender-neutral term Negro, thus designating Blacks as lifeless and unknown persons. For example, an accident report might read like this: “Rescuers discovered that two women, three men, four children, and five Negroes were killed by the explosion.” (Ronald).

“This long history enabled ‘wench’ to become a tool for dehumanizing Black women, insisting on their sexual availability to white men, and facilitating their exploitation.

Wench has its earliest roots in the Old and early Middle English “wenc(h)el,” which designated a servant or slave of any gender, or a child.” (Harris).

We Were Stripped of Our Names and Branded with Insults

The consequences of challenging these insults were severe. Black men and women were branded with the surnames of the slaveholder, and we no longer were deemed human but rather property. Our melanin put verbal targets on our blood-stained, tethered backs. It continues to do so on the Appalachian Trail.

I soon learned there have been no shortages of Black hikers who were given racist trail names by white hikers. One hiker who attempted a thru-hike in 2019 stated that even though she named herself, many people suggested trail names that referenced her skin color or mentioned the word Black.

 “Yeah, I don’t think white people suggested a name based on anything other than my complexion… whereas other hikers have trail names that seemed to have a little more thought put into them… at least that’s how I felt.”

Black Snow Bird was one of the suggested names, “because I was going to be hiking during the cold winter months.” To add salt to the wound, as she hiked southbound there were instances where people kept confusing her with another Black hiker who was hiking north. “Because she was Black, there were a handful of people that I met after her, that thought I was her. I feel like people only see our color.. not us as individuals.” 

This hit close to home, as I am planning a serene winter start in hopes of avoiding overcrowding. There is no basis to this trail name other than the ugly head of racism itself. Many white hikers may see this as trivial. They may be willfully insensitive to the emotional toll that this takes on Black hikers. If she had accepted this name, she would have carried this humiliation all the way to Katahdin.

Everyone she met on the trail would ask her the story behind her name and she would have to endure the pain of racial trauma for many miles. The implications of racial trauma are devastating. Medical and emotional symptoms include anxiety, hypervigilance, suicidal ideation, trust issues, social withdrawal, high blood pressure, and diabetes. 

In contrast,  Galaxy, a white hiker who I met overnight at Sunfish Pond on the New Jersey AT, stated he earned his name because he was using a Galaxy filter that gave him a run for his money. A few hikers who witnessed the ordeal decided to grant him the name of the filter and it “just stuck.” Can Black hikers have the same simple luxury of being named after a piece of malfunctioning gear? 

Chills ran down my arms even though I was out in the humid summer heat. I knew that racism was not surprising, but I honestly thought about giving white hikers the benefit of the doubt. As I thought about it, I had to ask myself if I really wanted to deal with the possibility of being given a name based on my skin color alone, or if I wanted to take that power back.

But in the same breath, would I be judged for naming myself when asked how I received my trail name? Lost as a lamb, I ran to the safety of the Appalachian Trail Women’s Group on Facebook to pose the question. Response after response was filled with reassurances that it was OK to pick my own trail name. Many people empathized and said they could understand why a person of color might make that choice.

Others were genuinely curious and wanted more knowledge about the history of why people of color may be hesitant about this harmful tradition. They have never considered what really goes into a trail name. Instead of defensiveness, they have responded with love and kindness. After gaining a plethora of support, I knew I had to do what my heart and knowledge lead me to. I had to take my power back and give myself my own identity.

Throughout my preparation for my first thru-hike and my odyssey to complete the Triple Crown, I am learning about how to own my identity and who I am. Because I can never forget where I came from and the person I am becoming, I will focus on that person and name myself. The name I’ve chosen is Dragonsky. Trust me, you’ll adore the story behind it.

The trail always provides. 

Works Cited

Davis, L.F, Ronald.  Racial Etiquette: The Racial Customs and Rules of Racial Behaviour in Jim Crow America. California State University, Northridge. Accessed August 12, 2020. 

https://files.nc.gov/dncr-moh/jim%20crow%20etiquette.pdf

 

Harris, Carrisa. A History of The Wench

https://electricliterature.com/a-history-of-the-wench/?fbclid=IwAR2TlCsKc5DUfSFM5B5656q4S7-2ImP-zPti9W5-RfY75yLizXh7guCKQbk

 

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Comments 11

  • Sir Renity GA-ME 95 : Sep 11th

    Congrats Dragonsky! Happy trails my friend! Always hike your own hike..one of my most important lessons on my thru hikes. Sounds like a lesson you already have a good grasp on. I wish peace and serenity on your thru hike (pun intended)

    Good luck,
    Sir Renity

    Reply
  • Stretch (chosen name for now) : Sep 11th

    I hear ya! Hope to see you on the trail but may be starting in VA so hike fast ! I’m 64 so you’ll catch up.

    Reply
  • Jhon : Sep 11th

    If you want to choose your own name, why not? Rather like Anish. She adopted the trail name “Anish” in honor of her great-great grandmother, who was of Native American Anishinabe descent.
    • Along the trail she picked up another name from hikers, “The Ghost”, she was so fast and seemed to appear out of nowhere.
    Anyways! Whatever you choose, or is chosen, hopefully it will be right for YOU.
    All the best.
    I will subscribe and looking forward to following your hike.

    Reply
  • Kimber : Sep 11th

    Thank you for truth in words. Your name is as beautiful as you. May you have safe travels, and great stories at the end. I am just thinking about embarking on a journey, so it may be next year for me, but I hope the trail is filled with kind people, and I hope I find a Trail name that fits my soul, not my skin color.

    Reply
    • Shilletha Curtis : Sep 14th

      Thank you so so much! I believe you will! I ttruly believe that!

      Reply
      • Copperhead : Sep 15th

        Dragonsky,
        Respect and Love to you on your trek ❤️

        Just wanted to share; did my first through hike on a piece of the Appalachian Trail three years ago ( I hope it won’t be my only ..). My 74 year old mother, and 62 year old mom in law were my companions. I was 45 and close to 300lbs. Our trek was short, but challenging, as well as incredibly beautiful. I was so proud of us when we finished. My mom and I thought about trail marker tattoos.
        However, upon returning home, and jazzed to start planning our next through hike, I posted pictures from our adventure on a Facebook AP forum. It all was camaraderie until I commented that we’d not encountered any hikers who are people of color the entire trip, and I asked if this particular segment of the trail was considered too ‘unfriendly’ for hikers of color to feel safe on it? Immediately the response was, “Oh not this sh*t again,” and “Why does this fat.b*tch think she can hike anyway,…”
        I wish I could say I stood up to them, but I immediately unfollowed the page. Dragonsky, your exploration and willingness to share what you’ve learned and experienced of Hiking While Black is so gratefully appreciated (even by this middle aged white woman).
        May you walk in beauty (Dine’h)
        ❤️

        Reply
  • Rochelle Huber : Sep 11th

    Love this so much! My brother was a thru hiker in 1989. Sadly, he died in a mountain climbing accident in 1990 at age 28. His trail name was Pancake Mike – I can only imagine why but would have loved to hear the story! We built a bridge in his memory in Virginia. Would love to know if you cross it and see the plaque with his picture and name on it. I hope the AT is as meaningful for you as it was for him! ❤❤

    Reply
  • Sassy Spider : Sep 11th

    Rochelle–where is the bridge in VA? When I pass through, I’d like to make sure I notice.
    Dragonsky–what an amazing writer you are and thanks so much for sharing your story. I’m in your FB group, read your original post, and can’t imagine anyone giving you grief about naming yourself. You seem very strong, determined, and wise. I’m confident you can crush miles and the few small minded individuals you’ll likely run into. You’ll find most backpackers are the best version of what people can be.

    Reply
  • Patrick Keller : Sep 11th

    Dragonsky; from “Retired, old, slow & steady 08” = Ross08 = Appalachian Trail name 2020; Blessings on you! Wear your name proudly!

    Reply
  • Sara : Sep 12th

    I love the name, but now I really want to know why!? Happy trails and can’t wait to see how your journey goes.

    Reply
  • Garth Tino : Sep 12th

    I love your story and your trail name. I hate that this continues to be an issue even on the trail. I shall pass this knowledge onto my outdoor recreation degree students. If you ever find yourself in Utah, you have a friend in me. Cheers

    Reply

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