Dreaming about summer, I dug up this Chaplines from 2005:
Dog Boy* came trotting down the trail alongside his Irish Setter late afternoon on July 11. Brother Dave and I were staying our first night on the Appalachian Trail at Gooch Mountain Shelter. We shortened that day’s hike to five crow-fly miles due to the soaking rain, from tropical storm remnants of the two early season hurricanes. We had had an alarming experience at Gooch Gap, where lightning had us hunkered down for thirty minutes, after we had searched in vain for the shelter that used to be there.
We decided to stay at the Gooch Shelter a mile and a half farther after we finally found it. It was eight intensely hard miles to the next shelter, and tenting in a soggy campsite was no match for the dry shelter, even with its one side open to the air. Dog Boy explained that he was a trail runner, and his banter raced even faster than his scrawny legs.
“You got a cell phone? (Yes). Can you get a signal? (No.) If I could get a signal I’d just stay here all summer and work from my camp. I might just do that anyway. I live in Atlanta, but here is where my real home is. I’m camped up at . . . [Five minutes later.] Did you know you’ve got a Scout Troop coming, about an hour behind me? Three adults. Six tired and sore boys. They’ll probably sleep tonight . . . [Another five] You’ve got synthetics to wear? [Our wet synthetic clothes were stretched out on lines under the shelter roof to “dry.”] You can’t survive out here without synthetics. If I were teaching a course on hiking the AT I would just toss all the hikers, shoes and clothes and all, into a swimming pool, and then make ‘em hike for a week. That would get ‘em used to what it’s like. You never can dry out. Socks and shoes just stay wet all the time. . . [At one point I did manage to squeeze in a question about the river crossings that lay ahead of us; Dave and I both had imagined trying to cross swollen streams walking on a narrow slippery log.] They’re OK. Got a little foot bridge on one and some slippery rocks to walk across on the other. Just get your feet wetter, that’s all. I’ve got . . . .” [The Irish Setter listened more patiently than I.]
Forty minutes later, after his discourse on wilderness survival and environmental protection, the first instalment of Scouts arrived, and we moved our things aside. There would be plenty of room in the double decker shelter for all of us. Dog Boy stayed a few more minutes, then took off, saying he hoped to be back at his own tent camp, next to a Forest Service road, shortly after dark.
The next day we did indeed see Dog Boy in his camp, explaining the facts of AT life to two other hikers. We waved and slipped past. It was reassuring to know that he was not an apparition, since the mists and sounds of the wilderness made everything take on an other-worldly mantle. We met no one else until we came into the next shelter at Hawk Mountain.
Trail runners scout the trails regularly to make sure they are passable, to make notes of where fallen trees must be removed and paths restored, to find the lost and discouraged stragglers, and, obviously, they have other social or anti-social agendas as well. We didn’t meet another, but there were plenty of signs of regular volunteer maintenance on the trail. With the wash-outs and recent windstorms there was a lot to be done soon. We appreciated the warning about the fallen tree that was covered by a huge lush poison ivy vine. Climbing over it or through it was inadvisable. Climbing around it took us through more poison ivy, but we at least had a chance soon to wash the ivy oils off our legs.
With small captive audiences who really do need a lot more advice, and plenty of trails to maintain, and a wonderful, extraordinary environment in which to work, trail runners are an unexpected and unremarked feature of the trail experience. Not a bad job to have. Come to think of it, I think I had that job for a lot of years.
* An old Appalachian Trail custom is for hikers to adopt a “trail name” while hiking the AT. Nobody needs to know the name you use in the rest of the world. Dog Boy introduced himself with this trail name.