A trail name is a nickname that’s either self-assigned, or given to one hiker by another based on a particular event, quirk, or a personality trait. Said to have started on the Appalachian Trail, the use of trail names not only made it easier to keep track of hikers, but also to remember them, as trail names can be much more unique and individual than one’s birth name.
In the three days I’d spent in Mammoth Lakes prior to beginning the John Muir Trail, I’d met a number of Pacific Crest, and John Muir Trail thru-hikers – some of whom had introduced themselves by their trail name. Coming and going so quickly from the hostel (many just long enough for a shower, feast, take advantage of laundromat services, and enjoy a good night’s sleep or a good party), that’s all I ever got to know about some of them. At the time, I found many of my interactions with thru-hikers to be quite impersonal. For many, I never learned their real names, where they’re from or what they do off the trail – they came and went so quickly. As intriguing as these people were, there wasn’t time to really learn much about them.
But later, on the trail, I found myself thinking about the people I’d met at the hostel, and considering the possible stories behind their trail names. As I experienced being a thru-hiker myself, learned the culture of the trail, encountered countless characters, and learned the trail names of some of the people I’d met along the way, I was able to imagine the stories of the people I’d met at the hostel that were far more interesting than knowing just their birth names would have allowed.
On the JMT, I spent a lot of time hiking by myself. Some of this time, I’d spent pondering potential trail names for myself, and for the people in my group. Emily, I would have called “Lolly”, as most nights after dinner, she’d pull out her bag of candies (which she called “lollies”) and offer them to a grateful group of people, most of whom were tired of their own resupplies. Catherine, I would have called “Sunshine” to honour the passion and enthusiasm with which she woke up with each and every day as we prepared for another day of hiking. For Randy, I searched for a name that captured his unfailing ability to find a spot to put his feet up whenever we stopped to rest. For Ted, perhaps something to capture his quiet elusiveness, his awesome storytelling ability and the fact that when Ted spoke, everyone listened. For Jarette, I wanted to honour his ability to say and do just about anything with an unforgettable degree of comedy.
I thought long and hard about what might describe me as a hiker. I looked for something that might capture my endurance and my ability to keep a strong pace for hours. I wanted to capture the momentum I can keep as I take on even steep ascents, and the way it feels to fly along the trail when it’s a little more tame. I wanted to capture my ability to quickly make my way to the front of a group, even when I started at the back. This is something that I’m proud of, and hoped someone would recognize. After a conversation with someone else, I’d decided that I liked the trail name “Rocket”.
But as aptly as I feel that “Rocket” might describe me as a hiker, I’d yearned for a trail name to be given to me. The way I saw it, being given a trail name meant that someone noticed me. It would have signified a connection made between myself and someone else – something I craved as I set out on this adventure, and shared this experience with so many people with whom I shared a passion for hiking. As silly and playful as they may be, it was for this reason that I saw a trail name to mean something in a way significant.
I don’t remember the first time I met Turtle, but I do remember the first time I noticed him. We were at the top of Muir Pass, 14 days into our trek. Caught between the desire to savour the satisfaction of completing another challenging summit and the urge to run as far down the other side before I got struck by lightning, I saw Turtle with his pack off and his feet up, totally unfazed by the impending thunder storm.
We chatted for a few minutes, and he told me that this was not his first time hiking the JMT (though he didn’t specify how many times he did hike it), and that he was hiking solo. He shared some stories about his trek so far, and told me that his trail name is Turtle because, when he’s hiking, he takes it so slow and steady, but always makes it to his destination.
Between Muir Pass and Reds Meadow, I’d seen Turtle every day. Waking up far before us, Turtle always got a head start, but we always caught up to him along the trail – we leapfrogged for several days. Each time I passed him, we’d stop and talk for a few minutes, about our hike that day so far, about the weather, and about trail names that he’d thought of for one or another member of my group. Henk, he’d named “Freight Train” for his tendency to barrel down steep descents and the fact that he never stopped. Lisa, he’d named “Butterfly” after the way she swam. Each time I caught sight of the back of his pack growing closer as I gained on him, I found myself in eager anticipation – in the hopes that it would be my turn to get a trail name.
My turn came on day 17. We were hiking from Lake Italy Trail Junction to Silver Pass Lake via Bear Ridge (the “Pre-Lunch Ass Kicker”) – a gruelling 1000 foot ascent over a short 2.4 kilometres followed by a 1700 foot plunge into the valley on the other side. I caught up with Turtle near the river crossing, where our group had planned to meet for lunch. We stopped to chat, celebrating finishing a tough first half of the day.
As we wrapped up the brief conversation, he said “You know, I see lots of women wearing earrings on the trail. When I hike with my wife, she likes to wear earrings, too. But never have I seen, on the trail, earrings as impressive as yours. I think your trail name should be ‘Bangles’”. He was referring to a cheap pair of leaf-shaped earrings I’d worn partly to keep my piercings from closing, and partly because I felt that a 23 day sans shower or deodorant warranted this one luxury item – which I’d chosen specifically because, out of all the earrings I own, I felt these ones best suited the trail.
Awesome is this fun tradition of giving and receiving trail names, and awesomely fun was receiving my very first own.