The stench of thru-hiking gets to you after awhile. All of your food has a distinct smell. All of your clothing has a distinct smell. Like old sweat meets forest meets new sweat. Not the food, of course. If your food starts smelling like old sweat, you should probably go home. Your food has a certain smell too though, like the contents have unified and mixed with plastic. One guy out here said that all of his food smells like BBQ sauce, and he doesn’t even have any BBQ sauce. I don’t know what mine smells like, it’s nothing in particular, but I would know it anywhere. It smells like trail food. This post isn’t about how I smell, or how my food smells. No, it’s about trail names, actually. In order to get to the part about how I got my new trail name, I have to tell you about the day I was trying to figure out what kind of stench a hiker has.
I was hiking up Mount Lincoln and I noticed a fly buzzing annoyingly around my ear. There are long hours to hike out here, up and down mountains, and sometimes the only escape from the isolation and physical challenge, are your own thoughts. So, when one single fly won’t let you have them, it’s enough to drive you mad. Van Gogh mad. The fly followed me for a long time; definitely a long time for the life of a fly. He must have relocated his whole family. That old sweat forest cologne put him in a trance. He was mine. Or more accurately, I was his. Just before I pulled out the knife, ready to prepare a package for my girlfriend, I got distracted by a thought about some cartoon character that embodied this fly attachment. I couldn’t put my finger on it. “Was it Pig Pen from Charlie Brown? That should be my trail name, Pig Pen.” “No, he had the cloud, but that’s not the one I’m thinking about.” “Was it a newspaper comic?” “Who the hell was it?!” “Well, whatever is it, that should be my trail name. So, when I explain how I got it, I can say that my smell is so bad that I get followed by flies.”
Eventually the fly moved on, and so did I.
Even though I didn’t come up with a trail name that day, I knew that I’d get one eventually. A few ideas had even been thrown around already. My friend Marge, who joined me for a few days on the trail, said it should be “Three Miles Left”, because I say that throughout the hike, to make myself feel better. If there are nine miles left, three seems more bearable. If there is only one mile left and you’re expecting three, that last one will zip by.
Then there was “Lipstick.” I’m a bit of a femme, or at least I used to be. I’ve always liked the outdoors; camping, and kayaking. Even hiking, I just didn’t feel physically capable of long distances. You were more likely to see me with bangles than hiking poles though, so when someone acted surprised by my love of the outdoors, I’d say, “don’t let the lipstick fool ya.” I guess I’ve traded in my heels for something with more of a tread, as of late, so it’s a little less surprising these days. Through my training, I started choosing the sporty or efficient over the flashy and studded, and Donna always responds the same way, “who are you and what have you done with my girlfriend?” I joked that I was still going to wear lipstick on the trail, and she said that should be my trail name. Yesterday I told her I tossed the lipstick at a supply stop 22 mountains ago and she said, “who are you, and what have you done with my girlfriend?”
Well, I guess “lipstick” is out.
That brings me to “Lightswitch.” Lightswitch isn’t my trail name, but it’s the trail name of a guy I have leapfrogged a few times out here. Marge and I met him at a shelter on a rainy day, and we shared a bit about our stories and what brought us on the trail. I told him about my Dad’s death and the transitions I’ve encountered since then, most of which have left me feeling fragile, and in search of some strength and adventure. It seemed as if he was in search of something too, maybe solitude; an escape into the wilderness. You meet a lot of people out here in passing. Most of the time you never really see them again, so I was surprised when I saw Lightswitch, about a week later. We both ended up at Birch Glen Camp, before Camels Hump. I was meeting my sister and her husband the next afternoon, and he was meeting his girlfriend, so we both had some extra time that morning. He told me he had a trail name for me, but it was going to sound worse than it was. That’s probably a metaphor for life in some way, but go on… “Grouse.” You know the birds that wait until the last minute, and bolt out of the the trees when you hike by and startle them? He said they were a symbol of empowerment. I said it’s also kind of fitting, because I too wait until the last minute to move.
Lightswitch and I hiked together, slowly (for my benefit, I’m sure), and shared some stories about our life and our trail expirience. It felt like the kind of interaction that was made for the trail. The one that pops into your journey, gives you some perspective, and leaves it just as quickly. I think I felt free to share my life or ask questions about his, because we both knew we’d be leaving it in the mountains.
We got to the point in route where I was meeting my sister, and we had a little lunch on a large trail rock, before he carried on. After he left, I kept replaying something he said, something about the happiest people being unapologetically themselves. It had me thinking about how that just might be the key to self discovery out here. You have no choice but to be yourself unapologetically. At least you dont if you’re an overweight girl who is hiking beyond her capacity in order to reach her goals. I can’t hide the sweat. I can’t slow my breath. This is me up a mountain. This is what you get. Grouse. As I sat there on the rock, I said to myself…
“Grouse. I like it.”
“It kind of reminds me of….
… OH MY GOD! IT WAS OSCAR THE GROUCH!!!”