Trail names

We are in a motel tonight. Today we hiked ten miles, then hit the laundromat, dollar store, grocery store, hardware store (closed), and Mexican restaurant. By the time all this was finished, dark was falling, and our brains were fried. (It’s amazing how walking all day every day adversely affects one’s ability to make basic decisions about what kind of instant pasta to buy.) So we got a room, the last one left. Turns out Z, Chino, Smooth Sailing, Nomad, Paranoid and about a dozen other hikers had filled the place up.

Which might make you wonder: why does everyone out here have such odd names?

On the Trail, almost everyone uses a “trail name.” I’m not sure when or how this tradition began. It seems possibly redolent of the distasteful practice of renaming oneself in faux-Native American style at summer camp. But I can’t hate it too much; I’ve got to accept it. On the AT, you come to know a person as Sandman, Moonwatcher, Dixie Grits, so when you find out that it’s really Roy, Roy seems wrong.

J.’s had his trail name for years. “Zippy” has been his avatar whether in geocaching, online message boards, or hiking. It comes from a Vic Chesnutt song he likes, Zippy Morocco, which is the name of a one-time football player from the University of Georgia. Most people on the trail assume it is because he hikes quickly, which is not untrue.

My trail name took about 300 miles to find me. It had taken me years to like my given name. As a kid, and especially as a teenager, Ann was too short and plain. A famous actress could never be named Ann Karp. I indignantly pointed out to my parents that the only person in my school whose name was shorter than mine was Li Xing (but that sounded cool, so it hardly counted). I practiced my signature (including my long middle name, Elizabeth, of course) and changed its curves every year. I can’t believe I am admitting this publicly.

Ironically, I accepted my name while living at a commune in Virginia where people commonly renamed themselves. Leonard Earl Hapsburg, Jr., became Magnus Skyhawk. There was a list of people’s given names matched with their new names hung by the phone, so when family members called, whoever answered would know to fetch Opalflower when the caller requested Cindy. By contrast, using one’s given name seemed to be a vote of love for one’s past. Not turning away from what one had been given, but growing from it. So I was finally happy to be Ann.

Before beginning my hike, I toyed with calling myself Margo after my grandmothers, Marian and Marguerite. One grandmother knew and tried to teach me the birds and wild plants of northern Wisconsin. The other kept a beautiful garden each year, her flowers a proper rainbow rising from the hard Nebraska soil. It seemed fitting, because I am always trying to teach myself the names of the wildflowers along the trail. But much as I loved them and their love of nature, it felt strange. So I resolved to call myself plain Ann until or unless a suitable pseudonym came upon me organically.

And it did. Since the Smokies, I go by “Diddo.” It is a baby-talk pronunciation of “Little,” a name we used to call our pet rats. (Yes, it’s treacly.) Zippy called me that one day, as we descended a ridge down to camp, and I laughed. It fit. I am just another one of the vermin in the shelters around here. And it reminds me that I am a little thing on a long trail on a blue planet spinning in a vast universe. Much different from the girl trying to make herself bigger with a fancy name, Diddo reminds me daily that it’s not about me. It’s about being a conscious, grateful speck in a magical phenomenon much larger than any one ego.

Speaking of which, time for about sixteen hikers to be grateful for a bed and hot shower in town tonight.

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