Trail Names

Realizing that we have a mixed audience following this blog, I would like to use this first installment of Trail Talk Tuesday to discuss a concept that some of you unaccustomed to the nuances of long distance hiking may not be familiar with. If you read my entry from last Friday, you might have noticed that I referred to one of my friends by the name of Moose. That’s obviously not his real name. It’s actually Lucid Moose. The other hiking partner mentioned, Cole, sounds normal enough.  He’s however also been known to answer to Fatboy Short; and in some circles, TYBON- Ancient Space Wanderer.  Last summer I was married to a girl named Junkfood, and our good friend Melon Man was the officiant. Swan was the first person to offer support in commenting on this blog, and Tuff Guy is one of the gentlest souls I will ever know.

Hearing such bizarre titles tossed around might have you wondering exactly what kind of crowd I’m running with. A good one, I swear.  While these are designations that won’t be found on many birth certificates, they are extremely prominent in the long distance hiking subculture.  Trail names, as they are called, are essentially nicknames given or assumed and used amongst members of the hiking community. When a person embarks on a journey through the wilderness on foot (or through space as TYBON was apparently prone to do during ancient times) they often experience truths that make them want to leave parts of the known world behind. They can’t help but feel changed, to have their spirit awakened. They endure hardships and humility in exposing themselves to the often brutal realities of the natural world, and encounter absolute serenity in the very same. Strong bonds are forged between those sharing common tread and lifelong friendships are born out on the trail.

A trail name is basically a nod to that aspect of a hiker’s persona. It’s an acknowledgment of the spirit that lies within. Some are serious, others comical. Often times they derive from distinct events or misadventures that happen during a hike. Other times a hiker might choose not to take a trail name at all. That’s fine too. What’s important is that it’s an identity you can be proud of, that reflects something that is significant to you.

For a little additional background, I would like to share the story behind my trail name. The following is an excerpt from my trail journal, an entry written while introducing myself to online followers of my 2007 Pacific Crest Trail hike.

The tradition of adopting a “trail name” is common amongst long distance hikers. It’s an acquired identity, affectionately used amongst yourself and fellow hikers, representative of the journey you’re on. For most, the trail name is obtained during a hike, often created by other hikers and pertinent to on trail habits or experience. In fact, many would argue that this should be the origin of all trail names. That’s not where I got mine.
They call me Gesh. Pronounced Gesh. Several years ago, while attending college in Iowa, I found myself in a Spanish class with two Arabian fellows, Achmed and Mohammed. To say that these guys struggled with English would be a negligent understatement, so them trying to learn Spanish in an American classroom was simply beyond any realm of possibility. By mid-term even the teacher had given up on any hopes of communication with them, in any language. He allowed them to sit quietly in the corner, smiling politely, not quite certain as to why they were being ignored, but grateful all the same.
I felt sorry for these guys. I could only imagine what apprehensions they must have had coming to class each day, probably quite similar to those I felt entering an Algebra lesson. Taking pity, I fell into the daily routine of greeting them with a smile and nod, saying hello as I took my seat. It was usually an awkward interaction, one that seemed to simultaneously delight and confuse them, but I hoped the gesture would alleviate some of the isolation they must have also felt.
One day, after leaving class, I heard a strange commotion rising above the din of the crowded hallway.
“Geh… geh…” The noise seemed to be following me, getting closer.
“Geh…sh… Geh…sh… Gesh! Gesh!” I felt a tap on my back, and turned to find Mohammed, grinning from ear to ear. A timid nudge on my other shoulder revealed Achmed, following suit.
“Oh, hey guys. How’s it going?” I asked.
“Gesh… Gesh…” they replied. Apparently they were trying to say my name (Josh) and this was as close as they were gonna get.
“How about that class today?”
“Gesh… Gesh…” said Mohammed. Achmed, the shyer of the pair, chimed in with a “Gesh.” They followed me down three flights of stairs, patting me on the back and exclaiming “Gesh” all the way. Judging by the looks on the faces of all who witnessed this, it must have made for quite the spectacle. I humbly played along, humoring them with “Yeah… Alright… and Okay…” as we made our way from the building. Ultimately, I was left with no choice but to make a mad dash for my car. Cries of “Gesh!” still echoed from behind.
Some weeks later, while on that Yellowstone trip I mentioned in my profile, I relayed this story to my friends. It was really just a passing thought one night, sitting around the campfire. My buddies, who are all too familiar with my uncanny ability to find myself caught in such bizarre scenarios, and are always far too eager to find humor in this, thought it only fitting that they start calling me Gesh as well. The name stuck.
In 2004, I set out on my first backpacking trip, a three month section hike of the northern Appalachian Trail. Through research I was vaguely familiar with the concept of a trail name, and went into that walk with an open mind. I gave it a chance, gave it some time to see what other hikers might come up with. A few suggestions were offered, but nothing I cared to use. I was hiking solo, southbound, so most of the brief interactions I had came with northbound hikers who didn’t have the time to get to know me anyhow. So I decided to go with Gesh. I like it. It’s original. It’s unique. It fits. It means something to me.
Like I say, some hikers would disagree with adopting a nickname for on trail use. That’s fine, they don’t have to. However, most hikers will take a trail name on their first long distance hike, then continue to use that on subsequent journey’s. It grows in significance to encompass the essence and spirit of every undertaking. That’s how I feel about mine. It was given to me by my closest friends, well, that and a couple of Arabian guys I never saw again, at a turning point in my life. A time when I was learning to take the path less traveled. To me, rather I’m hiking or cycling, bailing hay in Iowa or working the ski lifts in Montana, it’s not a singular event but another step in my journey. This isn’t a vacation. This is my lifestyle. You can call me Gesh…

                                                                                                                                    April 2007


So there’s your “the more you know” moment of the day. For further examples, I would love if any hikers reading this wanted to take a moment and share their trail name and how they acquired it in the comments section below. They usually come with a great story attached. For others, maybe now the strange character mentions you will stumble across in my writing from time to time will make a little more sense. I’m not calling names, but rather referring to friends based on the times we’ve shared; and the identities I know and love.


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