The apparitions of the Appalachian Trail

| 27 Jun 2012 | 12:52

You’ve probably glimpsed them emerging from the woods in search of food and shelter, skinny people with big packs and an abundance of facial and body hair. If you’ve gotten close, you’ve smelled that lusty odor that can only emanate from healthy humans who haven’t bathed in a long time. With all their worldly possessions on their backs and nothing but time to ponder, they call to mind the wandering monks of ancient India. Who are these apparitions that pass by on the Appalachian Trail, some of them walking over 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine, others just … walking? What are they walking for, or away from?

I called Francesco, the only photographer I know whose equipment is older than the Appalachian Trail itself. He’s one of about 100 people in the world who still uses a Civil War-era wooden camera with brass lens, portable dark room and hand coated plates. Together, we staked out a cabin in Unionville NY, right on the border of New Jersey, whose owner welcomes hikers to spend the night, refill water, and take a hot shower. It was the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, a day when most of us have cut out of work early to be with family, a day when these hikers seem particularly lonely figures.

There was a chance no one would show up on the evening we chose – it was late May, too early for most thru-hikers to have made it all the way up here from the south. When one hiker mentioned to me that he almost didn’t stop by for water, and then I might not have had a story, I said that things always seem to work out. He nodded knowingly. Hikers have a name for that. They call it trail magic.

Jim Murray Trail name: Shooter

Age: 74 Hometown: Sussex, New Jersey

Hiking history: Hiked from Georgia to Maine in 1989 in exactly four months. When he got back home, he bought this 85-acre farm right on the A.T. He has refurbished the old ice house into a simple cabin that’s open for free to hikers.

Why do you open your place up, free? I like the stories. Anything that makes my life interesting, I do.

Characters who’ve stayed at the cabin this season: A guy carrying a blue kids’ swimming pool on his back like a turtle shell, taking bets that he’d carry it all the way from Georgia to Maine. A guy doing the International Appalachian Trail, which starts in Key West, Florida, and ends in the Gaspe Peninsula, Canada. A grandmother and her six-year-old granddaughter. A guy just out of Riker’s Island; three businessmen from North Carolina. A homeless guy who lost all his toes to frostbite and whose single daily meal, purchased with food stamps, is beans he softens in a bottle in his backpack. Celebrity appearances: Jennifer Pharr Davis, who set the speed record for thru-hiking the trail, stopped by on her historic trip in 2011.

Why do most people hike the A.T.? Too much of America. They want to get loose.

Luxury: Two pet Sicilian ponies that graze inside electric fencing in the pasture. “Easiest pets in the world. I can go away for six months.”

When not hiking: “I walk all the time. I done more miles than anyone I ever met.” Takes pictures – hence the trail name.

Robbie Gottlieb Trail Name: The Senator

Age: 20 Hometown: South Orange, New Jersey

Started hiking at: Delaware Water Gap

Destination: Vermont, maybe Maine

Motivation: “Just to run away, I guess. We are suburban kids who love nature and idealize it. How could you not?”

Go-to trail food: Textured vegetarian protein, a soy product

Favorite spot on the trail: High Point monument, New Jersey. “We walked into a wooden structure. It was the foggiest it could possibly be. It looked like the edge of the world, like where you would have a really deep conversation. Then the fog cleared and we could see the tower.”

Reading material: Plato’s Republic, a book on trees that’s getting mailed home. “You’re so tired at night you don’t want to do anything but sleep.”

Luxury: Journal and space pen that can write upside-down. “Our lunches are like siestas. We just relax.”

Achilles heel: A bum ankle, sprained during a basketball game, that’s causing a noticeable limp

When not hiking: Studies economics and philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri

Connor Houlihan Trail name: Shamwow? Hooligan? It’s a work in progress

Age: 31 Hometown: Dublin, Ireland

Started hiking at: the Kirkridge Shelter, Pennsylvania

Destination: Maine Hiking history: Has done similar walks El Camino in Spain and the GR70 in France

Motivation: “I just love being out in the countryside”

Go-to trail food: Ramen noodles

Favorite spot on the trail: “Here, actually. I swear to God, the last few hours, just coming through these fields, and the sun came out, was really, really beautiful. To be honest the last few days have been really miserable and wet in the forest.”

Doing without: A tent, book or map. “I’m just relying on people to give me the information I need. I prefer to be reliant on people than a book or map. I met some guys who told us about the water at this place. A guy finishing up gave me gas for my cooker. I think they call it something like trail magic. Everything you need will be there for you.”

Luxury: Digital camera. Achilles heel: Blisters. His cotton socks are from Salvation Army, boots were given by a friend.

When not hiking: “Before this, I was doing yoga and construction in New York City.”

Greg Tuttle Trail name: Green Turtle

Age: 20 Hometown: Maplewood, New Jersey

Started hiking: Delaware Water Gap

Destination: Vermont, maybe Maine

Go-to trail food: Lipton rice dinners

When not hiking: Studies history education at Montclair State University, New Jersey

Rookie mistake: Too much stuff. You don’t need a water pump, water filter, or water jug. Rip out the part of the book you need and “bounce box” (send ahead to yourself) the rest. Jettison Nalgene bottles for lighter plastic Gatorade bottles.

Luxury: Chess board Reading material: Thoreau’s Walden

Doing without: Meat. Robbie’s vegetarian, so Greg is joining him for the trip.

Pet peeve: When people talk on the cell phones in a shelter in the middle of the woods. Cell phone etiquette is akin to bathroom etiquette: go where you won’t be seen or heard.

By Becca Tucker Photos by Francesco Mastalia