Friday, March 20, 2015

4. Getting a Trail Name

Before I set foot on the Appalachian Trail, before I got on a train to Georgia, before I bought any gear, and before I understood what a cat hole was, I knew about trail names. For me, learning about trail names was the same emotional experience as going antiquing and discovering an accordion embossed with a portrait of Boba the Fett: I went from not knowing something existed to needing it.

Leading up to the trail I was wracked with anxiety about what my trail name was going to be. Don't worry, it was the fun kind of anxiety, like not being able to sleep the night before Christmas! It wasn't the un-fun kind of anxiety, like not being able to sleep at night due to guilt about that time all of your emus from your emu farm escaped and trampled your neighbor's shih tzu. If you don't know what an emu is, google image search it... and then I challenge you to try and convince me that birds aren't related to dinosaurs.

To be truthful, I was worried I might be bestowed with a "lame" trail name. But now I know the truth: there are no lame trail names! Unless your trail name is "Lame," in which case, I'm very sorry about your leg, and I hope for your sake that you aren't a horse. There are no lame trail names because if someone has accepted that moniker as their name, it's special and important to them. Just like at Hogwarts you can't be sorted into a house you don't want, you can't be given a trail name you don't want.

There's a general rule about the trail that you're not supposed to name yourself. You're allowed to veto a name that is given to you, but it's generally frowned upon to self-dub. The trail name must be earned. However, this makes for a series of vaguely awkward interactions for the first few days of the trail when people are introducing themselves, and there's an expectation that people will already have a super cool spy nickname. This causes a bit of unnecessary pressure to make something happen as soon as possible for a trail name to "naturally" arise.

But don't worry, no matter how long it takes, whether you're a section hiker or a thru-hiker, you will eventually earn a trail name. When it happens, it will feel a lovely little breath of euphoria. It's the last step in being accepted into the super cool secret society of hikers, and the only initiation is summarily destroying your entire body by hiking over mountains and eating horribly processed food. But you get a wicked cool nickname that makes no sense to the outside world! Worth it!

In regular life, when you meet someone new and exchange regular names, you go from 0 to 1 on a 100 point scale of potential friendship. Unless you meet someone with the same name as you. In that case you either go from 0 to 5 with the added bonus of immediate small connection, or 0 to -10, realizing that you will have to dance fight to assert your dominance. However, when you meet another hiker, and they introduce themselves as something like "Brik-a-Brak" and you respond that your name is "Fish Slap", you go from 0 to at least 35 on the 100 point scale of potential friendship.

The simple exchange of trail names brings with it a wealth of knowledge. There is the respect that the person you're speaking to has earned a trail name, and there is the delight in learning the story behind the name. Dumptruck found that his name was a good litmus test for who would make a good match in friendship for him. If the person heard his name and laughed or chuckled, they were a candidate for friendship. If they wrinkled their nose and looked smugly judge-y, they were likely not going to have a similar sense or humor or joy. It always made me happy when I would introduce myself as "Clever Girl" and the new person would respond with, "Oh, you must be very smart," and I got to respond with full honesty and a big dumb grin, "Nope, not at all. I'm named for the velociraptor in Jurassic Park."

Then I could make claw hands and high-kick away back down the trail while making screeching sounds. There's not a lot of adult interactions that are allowed to escalate in this way.

Even after you finish your hike to go back out into the real world and you're forced to go by your government name because of common decency or taxes or whatever, you still get to keep your trail name. It's a powerful secret super power you get to keep in your pocket for the rest of your life, but it's a secret that a lot of people know. It's a little bit like Kit is Bruce Wayne and Clever Girl is Batman.

Here's the list of 2000 milers for 2013, if you'd like to see some of the other trail names in my cohort!

If you haven't long-distance hiked yet, you already have a trail name. It's out there, waiting for you. Just waiting for you to find it.

Clever Girl

Before I started the trail I reaaaaally wanted to somehow sneakily maneuver myself into getting someone to give me the trail name Falcor (the luck dragon in the Never Ending Story). That would have been flouting the trail gods. Clever Girl fits me like a comfy sweatshirt, and I wouldn't change it for the world.


  1. Your minions are not looking forward to 1. That being said.......perhaps we should all place our bets now on what topic the last entry might be? Or at least make random guesses at it.......

  2. I love how there is a "Frodo" and "Mister Frodo" - Before I looked, I was thinking "I'd want to somehow get the nickname frodo! I bet there's a frodo on the list..." and there was!