I Hear America Slogging

Outside magazine, May 1996

I Hear America Slogging

Who are these rough, smelly pilgrims, fueled by ibuprofen and Snickers, shuffling toward Katahdin? Appalachian Trail through-hikers, of course--wayfarers on a classic holy road that's big enough to embrace rattled urban refugees, Walden-toting aesthetes, and a 300-pound creature named Beorn.

By Brad Wetzler

"We've gotten word that the big man has lost it, that he's spinning out of control," says Wild Goose, a fiftyish man who himself seems on the verge of throwing a rod. His feet, bloated and stained yellow with iodine, are tattered masses of flesh, and his bloodshot eyes squint from behind a pair of photochromatic sunglasses, which have turned the color of Kentucky bourbon in the twilight.

Wild Goose is sitting on a park bench in downtown Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, a kitschy tourist burg about 60 miles west of New York City. Today the place smells vaguely of funnel cakes, but it was once the site of big geological doings. Some 15,000 years ago, a juggernaut glacier stopped its southward slide, perhaps sensing balmy Virginia ahead, and did an about-face back to the Pole. The maneuver knocked a hole in the Appalachian range big enough for the Delaware River to pour into New Jersey, and sycamores and elms eventually took hold. The net effect is a dandy spot to rest your feet if you happen to be hiking from Georgia to Maine on the legendary Appalachian Trail, which passes right down Delaware Avenue about 100 yards from where we're sitting. The footpath--the longest path in the United States after the recently completed Pacific Crest Trail, but by far the more celebrated of the two--begins precisely 1,267 miles to the south of here, atop Springer Mountain, Georgia. The end of the trail, at the top of Katahdin in upstate Maine, is 892.2 miles--about two months' worth of hiking--to the north.

To say the least, the trail is not wearing well on Wild Goose or on the other 35 or so hikers with whom I'm camped in a churchyard. It's an odd assortment of buzz-cut Green Berets, batik-wearing hippies, retirees, rowdy college kids on summer break, and a preponderance of earnest young Nature Boys. Many of them Ivy Leaguers, they talk softly, wear wire spectacles, and carry dog-eared copies of Walden in their back pockets.

The church is named, appropriately enough, the Presbyterian Church of the Mountain, and its mostly elderly parishioners are known far and wide for throwing homey all-you-can-eat potluck banquets for hikers on Thursday nights. Those stuck in Wind Gap, a few days back on the trail, hitch rides to the Water Gap for hot dogs, mashed potatoes, and corn on the cob and then thumb back to resume their hikes. If you time it right, you can attend consecutive banquets by hitchhiking south from New Jersey or New York seven days later.

Tomorrow most in this crowd will resume their six-month slog northward, dodging hubcaps and empty Big Gulp cups on the shoulder of Interstate 80, which serves as the trail across the Delaware River, but tonight it's pure R&R. A couple dozen tents have rendered the churchyard a Hooverville of ripstop nylon, and everyone's sprawled about the lawn, telling stories and attending to various chores. A skinny, shirtless man with a Walt Whitman beard scrawls the day's recollections in a small leather-bound notebook. A Hacky Sack bounces from one bare foot to another, and a pack of muscley young men with shaved heads schemes about meeting girls, possibly by hitching to Manhattan for the night. As usual with the through-hiking crowd, a stench has descended--a neutron bomb of sweaty socks and moldy sleeping bags. And everywhere you turn, people are talking about feet. On the wooden floor of a gazebo, hikers are picking dead skin from one another's toes, arches, and heels.

"How're your feet?" someone asks. "Ripped up," another voice responds. "Dude," says the first. "I feel for you." The scene could easily pass for a twentieth-century sequel to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, that classic "road epic" in which a motley flock of pilgrims hits the trail for spiritual enlightenment and old-fashioned seat-of-the-pants fun. Pilgrims and through-hikers alike seem to understand better than the rest of us that things fall in place when you put one foot in front of the other. As one AT hiker puts it, "The best part of being on the Appalachian Trail is that every single morning I wake up and get to go for a hike."

From the churchyard, you can see the Appalachian ridgeline rising in the distance to the north and south. Somewhere out there, 1,500 or so other pilgrims are camped, attending to chores and pastimes, scrubbing pots and pans, writing in their journals, getting situated to view the sunset. Most won't get close to the end of the trail. For a variety of reasons--injury, depression, fatigue--only a tenth of those who start each spring make it to Katahdin. Wild Goose is hanging in there, but he's definitely proof of the ugly toll the trail can take by the time it reaches the Mid-Atlantic States. He's a retired air force lieutenant colonel, and his T-shirt displays the gung-ho hiking slogan "No Rain, No Pain, No Maine," but his gaunt countenance screams, "Get Me Off This Bataan Death March." As the sun sinks behind the church, he continues to mumble about the prodigal hiker. Others in camp are deriding the same man, who even in this less than exclusive-looking cast of characters seems to have "the wrong stuff."

"I ran into him back in Carolina," says one hiker, a military-school dropout whose crew cut has gone to seed and whose boyish face sprouts 63 days of uncadetlike growth. "I thought he was an amazing guy, a role model ... at first," he says. "It's too bad about him."

"Him" is a six-foot-two, 350-pound hiker named Woodrow Murphy, but in the longstanding tradition of trail names, he is known as Beorn. According to talk on the trail, Beorn is chugging northward like a tugboat without a captain. The stories speak for themselves: A bon vivant in every sense of the term, Beorn is the author of a most unusual hike, one that doesn't register as legitimate with some of his more self-righteous companions. On his back he carries 80 pounds of food and supplies--mostly candy bars and macaroni and cheese--in contrast with the 40 pounds typical for most hikers. At the end of the day, he prefers a belly flop into a mountain pond over a soothing dip. He bellows poetry--some of which he writes himself--from mountaintops while others ponder Thoreau, Emerson, or Whitman in the cloister of a tent. Above all, he adores the taste of lobster, which is scarce in the craggy knolls and hollows of Appalachia. Let the word "lobster" slip from your mouth, and Beorn is suddenly lost in a how-do-I-love-lobster-let-me-count-the-ways soliloquy.

It seems to be his mission to enliven the natural world by adding to it the one thing that it otherwise sorely lacks: his 350 exuberant pounds. Somewhere near the Mason-Dixon line, however, where the trail comes down off the Blue Ridge and the rhododendrons give way to rusty Pennsylvania ironworks, Beorn began to grate on nerves. In Virginia, he fell over drunk while reciting Marcus Antonius's eulogy from Julius Caesar for a small audience. In Pennsylvania, he frequently rendered whole mountain valleys sleepless with his snoring. But the most troublesome development, in the eyes of the Appalachian Trail's catty army of hiking purists, was a disturbing change in the big man's hiking style--or lack thereof. Beorn recently quit hiking altogether, they say, and is now hailing rides from one shelter to the next by standing on the roadside and sticking out his enormous thumb--a transgression known as yellow-blazing, in reference to the centerline. After leapfrogging ahead of everyone at 65 mph, Beorn hoofs back in a mile or two to the nearest shelter, makes camp, and waits for his fellow hikers to catch up. Sometimes he greets them with a smart-alecky grin: "What took you so long?" And that, explains Wild Goose, is over the top.

"It's unfortunate," he says, "but he's giving us all a bad name. And we're going to have to ask him to leave."

Benton MacKaye, the granite-jawed Harvard man who first conceived of the Appalachian Trail around the turn of the century, couldn't have predicted the throngs that now descend upon the AT every summer, but he did have some pretty elaborate plans. A forester living in Massachusetts, MacKaye was a disciple of the left-wing utopianism that was so popular among New England intellectuals of the time, and he saw the rambling ridgeline as the perfect setting for a giant wilderness commune, a rustic escape hatch for those trapped in the predictable and maddening geometry of the big cities. The mountain valleys and hollows, he dreamed, would be host to community farms and learning centers, and members of this mountain society would walk from camp to camp via a single path that granted abundant views of the sprawling eastern seaboard. It was completely impractical, a classic Rousseauian vision, but part of the plan, an Appalachian Trail, stuck in the minds of some important people. In 1922 trailblazing began, with a troop of about two dozen volunteers felling pines and birches and leveling weeds. Finally, in 1937, a band of trail workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps cut through a stand of brambles on the western slope of Maine's Sugarloaf Mountain, and the Appalachian Trail was complete.

Immediately the trail saw moderate use, but it was 11 years before anybody succeeded in walking its entire length in a single year. Earl Shaffer, a navy sailor from Pennsylvania, arrived at Katahdin in August of 1948, having navigated the then poorly marked path using road maps and a compass. With Shaffer's long walk a pastime was invented, and by 1995 about 3,500 hikers would complete the trek, 90 percent of them heading from Georgia to Maine.

Perhaps no through-hiker was more celebrated than Emma "Grandma" Gatewood, a 67-year-old grandmother from Ohio, and the undisputed patron saint of trail eccentrics. On her first try, in 1954, Grandma started hiking from the summit of Katahdin and promptly got lost. She stopped to take a bath in a mountain pond and stepped on her glasses getting out of the water. She wandered for three days before park rangers rescued her.

The next spring she was back on her feet, this time starting in Georgia. After 148 days--wearing high-top Keds and carrying a home-sewn denim duffel that held a cotton blanket and an old shower curtain for bedding--she summited Katahdin. Not knowing how to celebrate, Grandma sang a round of "America the Beautiful" and spoke the following words: "I did it. I said I'll do it, and I've done it." A few weeks later she was flown to New York City to tell her story on Today.

The hike hasn't changed much in 40 years. In order to get to Maine before the snow flies, one has to leave Springer Mountain around April 1 and average 15 miles a day. Come out of the gate too fast, and the anterior tibialis muscle, which does a lot of the heavy lifting when you backpack, might tear from your shins a couple hundred miles down the trail. Dillydally, and you'll be caught in knee-high drifts atop New Hampshire's Mount Washington or, just as risky, in Maine's deserted 100-Mile Wilderness, where it's ten days to the next town. As for the southern end, says one hiker, "You don't expect mountains in Georgia to have such a mean bite." In spots, the Georgia section feels like the breakdown lane on a Los Angeles freeway. Hikers rub their feet under the yellow blooms of tulip trees, in disbelief that blisters--a potentially hike-ending malady--have already set in. There's little chatter, just huffing and puffing and cursing that last pack of cigarettes.

By the time you reach the Smoky Mountains--"tourist hell," as it's known for its thousands of bumper-stickered RVs--you should be in full stride. Your views, however, are shrinking. You're staring down a leafy green tunnel that won't open up much till Pennsylvania, and diversions are few. "I used to like to go to Seventh-Day Adventist churches," says one hiker. "I watched a woman speak in tongues once." Occasionally, locals will throw beer cans at you from pickups. "One night," says the same hiker, "someone fired a shotgun over the top of my tent."

Virginia, famous for the smell of fresh tobacco and the sprawling Shenandoah Valley, is infamous among through-hikers for the Virginia Blues, a form of depression that strikes the hopelessly fatigued and is characterized by uncontrollable crying. But as spring turns to summer, usually about the time hikers reach the Mason-Dixon line, the blues fade--or else you quit. West Virginia and Maryland, each of which has less than 40 miles of trail, pass by like roadside rest areas: You're in, you're out. Pennsylvania bogs down, however. Saber-toothed rocks, dragged in from the Adirondacks by glaciers, litter the trail and occasionally slice their way through lug soles. "I'm only a size-nine foot," says one hiker, "and there's not one spot in Pennsylvania where I could step without landing on one of those damn rocks."

New Jersey, New York, Connecticut. The Appalachians shinny past New York City and then hopscotch the Hudson to the Housatonic River Valley, which for some is a low point. "Henry Kissinger has a house in Kent," says one hiker. "Doesn't that say enough?" Another complains, "Connecticut is the only state where I couldn't hitch a ride into town."

Seven hundred miles to go. The homestretch. Adrenaline surges. Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire disappear beneath your feet. And then you reach Maine, waterlogged and blackfly-infested, and at long last the base of Katahdin. Stories abound about hikers actually calling it quits here, afraid to put the finishing touches on their summerlong work of art. The trail climbs steeply over Fiat-size chunks of granite and then dead-ends at a simple wooden sign: Katahdin, 5,267 feet. Northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, a mountain footpath extending south 2,000 miles to Springer Mountain, Georgia.

To pilgrimage, to put troubles behind you and hopes ahead by walking somewhere. Canterbury, Santiago, Mecca ... Katahdin. But some people take the conceit a little too far. One of the more renowned AT hikers, Warren Doyle, director for outdoor education at Virginia's George Mason University, has walked the trail ten times, once while rolling a measuring wheel dubbed Mr. Yuk. He ended that hike by declaring that the trail was exactly 20.2 miles longer than everyone had originally thought.

Doyle is outdone by Ward Leonard, known to some hikers as Spooky Boy. A 35-year-old from Ledyard, Connecticut, Leonard has reportedly hiked the trail continuously for the last seven years. Once, he says, he covered the 2,000-plus miles in a mere 60 days. Spooky Boy's obsession is beginning to cause problems. While on the trail last summer, he tried to set the record for most consecutive climbs of New Hampshire's Mount Washington, which stands at 6,288 feet. The record attempt came to a swift conclusion when Leonard was asked to leave Mount Washington State Park for, according to one ranger, "making unwelcome advances to patrons at the snack bar."

"Some day that guy's going to snap out here on the trail, and it's not going to be pretty," says Mr. Miserable, a former Wall Street communications specialist who is considering hiking full-time himself. "I guess the Trail is cheaper than locking him up."

A more subtle brand of fanaticism can be seen in the dozens of college students, some of them former through-hikers, who return summer after summer to work as caretakers in the shelters, cabins, and campsites. Views often consist of bark and leaves, and the bugs tend to be bad, but the fresh air and camaraderie with others who happen to share a passion for hiking brings them back. A curious fondness for rustic deprivation also seems to be involved. "Look! Look! The sunset," said the caretaker at New Hampshire's Liberty Spring Campsite one evening, in an urgent, come-hither whisper. Most campers couldn't spot the orange and red hues through the dense and overbearing pine forest, but almost everybody oohed and ahed anyway. Indeed, it was getting dark.

"I think Beorn cheapens what it is we're all doing out here," says a radiantly tan woman in a spandex halter top, blue gym shorts, and black, anvil-size hiking boots. Her name is Bloodroot, and her long, stocky legs are gobbling up dusty trail.

I'm in a field of wildflowers in northern New Jersey, about 60 miles uptrail from Delaware Water Gap and still 829.4 miles from Katahdin. Beorn tramped through here two weeks ago, judging from his signature in the logbooks that we pass every ten miles or so.

As we walk, Bloodroot lectures me on one of the Ten Commandments of hiking: "No matter what, you've got to hike your own hike," she says, sounding a little like Woody Hayes. "I don't consider what Beorn does to be hiking."

Bloodroot is a 25-year-old graduate student in social work from Gilford, New Hampshire. For her, the trail seems to be one long group-therapy session on lug soles. "I saw this flower poking through the snow back in Georgia," she says explaining her trail name. "It was so powerful. When I learned that it was called bloodroot, Ripple and I agreed that it was me. I'm already getting ready for when I reach Katahdin. Bloodroot will die, cease to exist. And like the flower pushing through the snow, Kendra--the other me--will come alive again!"

Ripple, Bloodroot's somewhat henpecked boyfriend of seven years, and Houndog, a 22-year-old Citadel dropout, are listening intently and nodding. Ripple is a thin, quiet 26-year-old who wants to open a shelter for troubled teens with Bloodroot some day. But for now he seems to have his hands full just keeping all three of this trio's wheels on the road. Whenever Bloodroot starts talking, Ripple seems to brace himself. At the moment, he's mediating a lively discussion about Beorn. The topic: Is Beorn a disgrace to AT hikers everywhere? Bloodroot votes yes, he's a slob, though she admits she has never met him. Houndog drank a beer with Beorn back in North Carolina. "He was an inspiration," he says. "I see it as sad, what has happened to him."

Houndog introduced himself to the couple back in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. He was recovering from tendinitis of the knee, which nearly knocked him off the trail, and the three hit it off. Now they're inseparable. His boyish face is roughed up with whiskers, and the crew cut he got last March has become a stringy mop. When he smokes cigarettes, he looks like a teenage runaway on a milk carton. Someday, he says, he hopes to wallpaper his bedroom with "50 or 60" Appalachian Trail maps.

"Out here, it's all about hiking your hike," says Houndog. "If you're thinking about somebody else, like a girlfriend or boyfriend, you're going to wind up in trouble. In a way, you've got to be selfish. It's the only way to get to Maine."

Indeed, the pitfalls are many and varied: infected blisters, shinsplints, broken bones, giardia, snakebites, hypothermia, Lyme disease, lightning. A few hikers over the years have fallen victim to serious crime--theft, assault and battery, rape, even murder. One case still haunts hikers who overnight near Vandeventer Shelter, outside Watauga Lake, Tennessee. In 1975, a through-hiker axed another through-hiker to death after inviting her to his camp for a bowl of cornflakes. In all there have been seven murders on the trail since 1975--not a lot by urban standards, but hikers think about crime nonetheless.

While the trail has a wilderness feel for most of its 2,000 forested miles, the "real world" obviously does leach in, especially at the hundreds of places where the trail crosses a county road or sashays down the main street of a small burg. It's at these junctions where the AT works best as a sort of foot-powered information superhighway, with data riding the path at a hiking pace, answering key questions. Where's the nearest laundromat? What restaurant has the fluffiest pancakes? Is there a cheap motel to grab a shower and a real bed for a change? Where are the blackflies biting? Who's starting a romance with whom? Know any good bars? The logbooks are the terminals, in which elaborate stories about adventure and love are displayed for all to see in hundreds of haiku-length entries. This summer, the saga of Trooper and Nugget, a couple that split up somewhere in Pennsylvania and were avoiding each other by hiking a few days apart, could be followed in the pages of the logbooks. In the Bear Mountain log, for instance, a lovelorn Trooper pines for his girlfriend. "July 21. Trooper. Hi, Nugget. Miss you much. See you soon. AT Georgia to Maine."

"I told that girl, 'Forget about this romance crap and just hike your hike,'" blurts Bloodroot with proud anger. "As for me," she says, looking at Ripple, "after I walk 18 miles and crawl into a smelly tent, I don't want anything to do with lovin'."

After ten miles, we cross the Warwick Turnpike, a busy two-lane road one mile shy of the New York state line. We stop for a breather, eating melted chocolate bars and drinking lukewarm water from squirt bottles. Houndog, sitting shirtless on a birch log, is deep in thought, as he often is. The other two don't know it yet, but Houndog has decided to leave the trio. "It's fun hiking with these guys," he tells me in private. "In fact, Bloodroot's like a mother to me, but I need to log some miles alone. That's the only way your hike is going to sink in."

The trail is something of a magnet for people whose lives, for one reason or another, are a little out of sync, victims of automobile accidents, bad relationships, corporate downsizing. One of 1995's hikers, a 22-year-old named Screaming Coyote, had suffered a stroke the previous winter and was told he'd never walk again. He wound up trudging--and occasionally crawling--all the way to Maine.

Houndog's story lacks a certain drama, but it's more typical. The middle child in a well-to-do family in Greenville, South Carolina, Houndog says that poor grades and a low tolerance for "cocktail" talk made him feel like an outsider. He left the Citadel, from which two generations of his family had graduated, after his junior year, depressed and confused. The Appalachian Trail, which was a two-hour drive from his parents' home and had always loomed large in his mind, seemed to be a good option. "I remember being on hikes when I was nine or ten," he says, "and being amazed by the thought that these mountains ran all the way to Maine." Houndog's father helped him plan the hike and drove him to Springer Mountain. Houndog says he calls his dad once a week and reports on how things are going. "He wishes he were out here with me."

He continues, "I saw a side of the South I'd never seen before. Tonight I'm going to New York City. I can already tell I won't be the same when I go back to Greenville. I can just tell."

Suddenly, in what seems an apt celebration of life on the trail, the hiking equivalent of a bebop sax solo, Bloodroot leaps to her feet and begins jumping up and down on the shoulder of the highway, coaxing truckdrivers to honk their horns by pumping her right arm. Onnnnnnnnnnkkkkkkkkkk.

"Weeeeee!" she shouts over a semi's receding rumble. "Let's go to town!"

It's a little-known fact that you can attend stock-car races at just about every major stop along the trail: Asphalt ovals are to the Appalachians what basketball hoops are to schoolyards. On this Saturday afternoon in North Woodstock, New Hampshire, brawny race cars with amateur paint jobs are fueling up outside Wayne's Market and Deli for a twilight 25-miler.

Inside the white clapboard store, through-hiker Charlie Wood, aka Boogie, is buying supplies. In his arms he balances boxes of Pop-Tarts, macaroni and cheese, and instant noodles with pepperoni sticks, cheese, and candy bars. "I try not to carry fewer than 20 in my pack," says the 30-year-old, whose ample chestnut beard, if shorn, could almost stuff a pillowcase. Boogie explains one of the rules of nutrition on the trail: fat, fat, fat. If you're going to be carrying your breakfasts, lunches, and dinners on your back, he says, they might as well be high-octane. "A guy I know named Ultralight was on an all-Snickers diet," says Boogie. "He figured that if he ate 26 Snickers a day--and carried no other food--he'd only have to carry a 20-pound pack. PowerBars are handy, but you have to slather on peanut butter to make them worth eating. And if you do that, you might as well eat a Snickers bar."

Despite the high-fat diet, Wood has lost 40 pounds since leaving Springer Mountain. His head, which he shaved back at the terminus, sports an inch and a half of puppy fur. "Shaving my head," he says, "symbolized my freedom from the workaday world, freedom from the Man. And it's also a good visual aid. When someone asks how long I've been out here, I just grab a lock of hair and say, 'This long.'"

"I'll have two smothered Philly cheese steaks," he tells the waitress behind the counter, "heavy on the mayo. Plus two pints of Guinness Stout and a pint of Cherry Garcia ice cream.

"Lunch," he explains. "You think that's a lot? I ate a whole tray of lasagna back at the Bear's Den in Virginia."

Until February of last year, Boogie was an up-and-comer at a large Washington, D.C., consulting firm, earning decent money and living in suburban Arlington. But to him it felt like nowheresville. "The way I looked at it, my standard of living could only go up if I quit my job to go hiking." So Boogie gave two weeks' notice, put $500 worth of camping gear on his credit card, and explained everything to his girlfriend. Then he talked a buddy into driving him to Springer Mountain.

He discovered early on that hiking, a mild-mannered sport when practiced for a few hours or even a few days, becomes a war of attrition when stretched out over months. The feet, he learned, are the first things to go, but weight isn't far behind. The best strategy, Boogie says, is to try to put on 20 or 30 pounds before you hit the trail. "I added 30 before I left," he says. "I've already lost that, plus ten more."

Boogie spoons the last bite of ice cream out of the carton and downs the second pint of Guinness. He then steps to the shoulder of Route 3 and hangs a thumb into traffic. Despite his shaggy mien, he quickly catches a ride and in minutes is standing in front of a cathedralesque white pine stamped with the familiar white blaze, a two-inch by six-inch smear of paint that marks the Appalachian Trail. Boogie touches the blaze with his right hand, a ritual he adopted in Georgia so he'd be sure to not miss a single foot of the trail. Then he starts walking. His gait looks like the sad shuffle of an arthritis sufferer; his feet barely leave the ground. But it's not as painful as it looks, he says; shuffling feels good to the knees, and it taps less energy. Twin walking sticks and a morning dose of ibuprofen--Boogie calls it "Vitamin I"--absorb the trail's bumps even more. "Vitamin I every day keeps the inflammation away," he quips.

The trail steepens into a staircase of cold, gray-green boulders and enters a damp-smelling thicket of pine branches. A voice tumbles down the rock. "Step aside! Step aside!" says a man with a thick Boston accent.

A dapper family appears through the trees, the father, a fiftyish man wearing pressed khaki shorts and a madras shirt, barking at his two sons to show respect for the man walking toward them. They hurry off the path and Boogie passes, nodding in appreciation. The clan turns in unison to watch as he recedes achily into the distance.

Boogie crests a ridge in the heat of the day and gazes to the west at a valley that is unfurling green corduroy waves toward Vermont. He slings off his pack.

The Appalachians used to be a lot bigger than they are now--bigger than the Rockies and possibly the Himalayas. But time has worn them down to a rocky skeleton, and while you don't find much pure wilderness up here anymore either, there are still patches of thick, empty woods. You can spend days at a time by yourself.

"Obviously getting to Katahdin is a goal," says Boogie. "But that's not why I'm on the trail. I came out here to camp and hike--to create a different reality from the one I was inhabiting back in D.C. I don't know why, but one of my favorite things to do is set up my little kitchen on a different log or rock every night. Sure, I get lonely, but how often do you get the chance to feel lonely and yet have so much fun doing it? Thoreau said something like that, didn't he? There may be a lot of people out here, but you can still find big windows of solitude."

Then he reaches into his pack and takes out a plastic bat. "Wiffle ball?" he asks. Boogie has carried the Wiffle ball set all the way from Georgia, recruiting hikers and townspeople for a game whenever he finds an "outstanding ballpark." According to Boogie, the best park on the trail is in the Shenandoah Valley. "You have mountains along both first and third baselines," he says, "and a center field that goes forever."

This park seems a little tougher on the hitter. Boulders booby-trap the infield, and a large green water tank serves as a towering left-field fence. A small crowd of day hikers gathers as Boogie swings at pitches and sends line drives toward the Connecticut River. Watching him play Wiffle ball on a mountaintop is a little like watching an Amish man hustle a game of one-on-one--it doesn't add up. Suddenly, plastic squarely meets plastic and a pop echoes across the valley. The white ball soars toward the tank. Boogie lets out a war whoop and lifts his arms in celebration. Then he shuffles around the imaginary bases.

Boogie leaves me after the ball game. Thanks to an early starting date at Springer and a no-nonsense pace, his hike is winding down. In three days he'll cross into Maine. In another three weeks, he'll stand atop Katahdin for an abbreviated game of Wiffle ball, cut short by gusts and, as he will put it, "the inability to control my curveball."

I head back south, following the mountains from the highway. The road unravels into a sea of sod farms, cow pastures, and one-stoplight towns. Occasionally I pass a white blaze or some longbeard with a backpack, sitting in front of a five-and-dime, sipping a Coke, and reading mail from back home.

In northern Connecticut I pull over at the Cornwall Package Store, famous for bestowing free cans of beer on AT hikers who stop in and sign the register. I page through the tattered book, filled with sloppy scrawls in blue and black ballpoint ink. Boogie was here. Mr. Miserable. Squirrel Fight, Little Wing, and Scooby--a man who never dressed in anything but a Speedo. And Beorn. He stopped by two days earlier and ordered a 25-ounce Foster's Lager.

I drive on to a trailhead not far from the Massachusetts line, park the car, and start hiking. About two and a half miles south of Lee, Massachusetts, I spot a shiny disk of mountain runoff called Upper Goose Pond. A knotty-pine cabin with a steeply pitched red tin roof sits at the pond's northern end. The covered front porch is tailor-made for playing cards or flipping through field guides, and that's just what a few day hikers are doing.

There's a man lying supine on the floor next to the card game, his gargantuan feet propped on a chair. He is easily the size of two hikers. His trunk has the girth of a sycamore, his legs are slender and strong. He is reading, occasionally out loud, from a book selected from the cabin's small library. The book is about an American Indian shaman named Mad Bear.

"Beorn?" I ask.

"You got the man," he responds.

He's wearing black spandex shorts, pulled high above his basketball-size paunch, a gray T-shirt, and a red bandanna tied around his balding pate. Between lines from his book, he tells jokes to the other guests with a Rodney Dangerfield delivery. His camping gear, which could fill a car trunk, is everywhere. A lumpy nylon drawstring bag holds 22 pounds of peanut butter, candy bars, and oatmeal. "Mostly I just eat the candy bars," he says. "I try to keep several in my pockets so I can eat them on the fly. I can maintain a faster pace that way."

"Are you aware that you're a pariah," I ask, "that people are unhappy with the way that you hike?"

"Everybody's a critic," he says, seeming to know about the groundswell against him but not really caring. "Now I know why artists don't let anyone see their canvases before they're done. People just want to criticize. It don't bother me none."

Beorn has been on the Appalachian Trail for 113 days, and by all indications he is having a ball.

"I don't know if I'll ever be able to sleep in a bed again," he says in a rumbling voice. "I may never leave the trail. When I finish in Maine, I'll take a few months off, and then I'm going to hike it again. Besides, I knew this one trip wouldn't be enough for all the weight I have to lose.

"Next year," he adds, "I hope to do it without cursing. Are you hungry? What do you say we get some food in our stomachs? Did I tell you that I once ate 35 lobsters in one sitting? But they have to be prepared correctly, because I'm wicked picky about my lobster. You've heard about meat and potatoes people. I'm strictly a meat person."

With Beorn bellowing about crustaceans, the two of us start down the mountain and into downtown Lee. I watch as he lumbers and talks. He seems to drag all 2,159.2 miles of the Appalachian Trail behind him like an overstuffed suitcase. Occasionally he pulls out a story about an outstanding all-you-can-eat brunch in Spivey Gap, Virginia, or a sunset in Bear Mountain, New York. "Oh, let me tell you about the hot tubs at Hot Springs, North Carolina--one of the highlights of my trip. They were so soothing. Of course, I got my backpack stolen while I was in that town. At the post office. They eventually got the guy for grand larceny because my pack had more than $1,000 worth of stuff. Getting my pack stolen, that was probably the low point of my trip."

We make our way to Rossi's Grill, where Beorn orders three lobsters. "I'm wicked picky about lobster," he reminds me. "But these are very good." After dinner he stands up and stretches, seeming to fill the dining room with his arms, legs, and belly. To my amazement, he then begins to work the room like a politician, going from table to table, explaining to strangers that he's hiking the Appalachian Trail and that it's the best thing that's ever happened to him.

Eighteen years ago, Beorn tells an elderly couple slurping corn chowder, he was in a nearly fatal car wreck--"they took the car away in three pieces," he says--and after that he pretty much quit living, parking himself in front of the television and waiting for the mailman to bring his disability checks. The trail has paid off. He's lost 51 pounds and is committed, he says, to ending the old couch-potato ways. "The AT is the best thing that could ever happen to somebody," he says. "Tell that to your grandkids." As we leave, two tables give him a standing ovation, and he marches proudly into the night.

Back at Upper Goose Pond, Beorn declares it time for a swim and lumbers down the steep mud bank to a smooth boulder. Perched on the rock, still wearing his hiking clothes, he pans the ridgeline. With a gasping breath, he takes a long-jumper's leap and explodes into the water. He rises to the surface, and his 350 pounds come to rest on his back. He floats peacefully, looking into the night sky and listening to the gentle clicks of the forest. Then, in a voice that could shake the bark from a tree, he lets loose a roar: "I looooooooooooove summer." The words seem to take flight, crossing the valley and climbing the ridge that overlooks Upper Goose Pond and all of western Massachusetts. And I hope--inasmuch as sound waves never stop traveling--that they eventually make it to Maine.

Epilogue: By the time the snow began to fly on Katahdin late last October, more than 225 hikers had arrived from Georgia. Houndog reached trail's end on October 2. Bloodroot and Ripple broke up outside Stratton, Maine, in late August but reconciled five days later near Monson, just before entering the 100-Mile Wilderness, and summited together on September 24. Wild Goose left the trail near Bear Mountain, New York, and caught a ride to Katahdin, where he started hiking south. This maneuver, known in Appalachian Trail parlance as a flip-flop, allowed him to complete the Maine section of trail before the weather turned cold. He finished in Pawling, New York, on September 17. As for Beorn, he made it to Katahdin on October 13, after 201 days. True to his word, he hit the trail again at Springer Mountain in March, this time promising not only that he would walk all the way to Maine, but that he would do so without cursing.

Brad Wetzler is an associate editor of Outside. He wrote about fishing for the world's biggest bass in the May 1995 issue.

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