Some people escape to remote areas to get away from the scrum of society, to go incognito or off the radar entirely. And if they happen to be backpacking on one of the longer routes such as the Appalachian Trail, the Arizona Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail they might be walking for weeks or months. In recent years it has become the norm to shed your civilized, birth name and take on what is called a “trail name.”  

Trail names have become a fun part of the backpacking culture that can allow hikers to connect. For some, the trail titles become an identity shift, a form of escapism if you will.  The new name can signify starting over, stepping away from any baggage or escaping the routine of life.

No matter your gender, your occupation or lack of one, your hometown status, your physical abilities, the girth of your wallet or stock portfolio, the trail name is an identity that might render fantastical or whimsical powers to your self.

Early in our backpacking venture on the Arizona Trail, friend Nels and I came across our first weather-proof trail register. We lifted the rusted steel cover and discovered a ledger. Hikers sign in with the date of their passing, and whether or not they are a thru-hiker (one that is hiking the entire length of the trail in one season). They add their trail names, birth names or both. Leaving both names is a good idea. If trouble arises it is easier for people to locate which section of trail you are on. They might not have a clue of any association to your outside world identity if you sign only your trail name. We chuckled when we saw that “Sloop” and “Putt-putt” had signed in recently.

We headed down the trail after signing in with the nicknames we have called each other for scores of years: “Nels” and “Andy.” We reflected about the small town nicknames we lived with when we were kids. Many, like ours, were simply a a shortened version of last names. Some were simply intials like “BJ.” More imaginative, and not necessarily flattering, were others like Gooey, Pickle, Mouse, Gasser, Fig, Flakey, Punch, Buffer and so many more.

How does one acquire a trail name? Just as your birth name was given to you by your parents, your trail name is generally assigned by someone else. 

At first, Nels and I felt a little too old for such silly titles, but as the silent miles passed we found ourselves contemplating proper trail names. I wondered about Elder, Yonder, Poppa T-Bone (a playful name that my son-in-law knighted me with). How about Gulch Grinder? Or more apt, Gulch Shuffler? Is it too clever to go with D.Lite? Maybe Pathos. 

Or do I simply hijack the name that early North American explorer Pierre-Esprit Radisson was given by the indigenous he lived and traveled with: “Iron Legs.”

Day after day and mile after mile I considered a proper name for Nels. As a kid, he was briefly known as “Weasel” for his quickness (which served him well in high school basketball where he earned a college scholarship).

During one of our long climbs, I suggested he be known as “IthinkIcan” with a nod to the folktale The Little Engine That Could.

One day Nels took a tumble on the skittery rocks and skinned his knee. As we watched the shallow wound redden, I noted that over the course of our 65-year history of being buddies, it seemed he always had scabbed knees and shins. 

“Scabby would be a good trail name for you,” I declared.

His wrinkled nose, showing his lack of enthusiasm. 

One late afternoon we settled into our camp. I draped my silk sleeping bag liner over a bush. Unbeknownst to me this was the thorny catclaw bush. The sheer fabric was entangled in half a dozen places. I was trying to gather up the liner while freeing it from the short, curved thorns and it wasn’t going well.

 Suddenly a hiker came by on the trail only ten yards from us. “Hi,” Nels called, “Are you thru-hiking?”

The hiker lowered his pack and pulled out a water bottle. “I’m doing it all. I left the Mexican border three weeks ago.” He took a long swig of water before asking, “You two got trail names?”

We paused, almost awkwardly, before sharing, “Nels and Andy.”

With a broad smile he said “Right on! I’m Timber.”

It turns out he was christened by an old homeless guy in northern California known as Bucket (a former gold prospector). Over a shared campfire and a beer, the old man declared the younger right then and there as “Timber” and it stuck. It seemed perfect for his strong physique.

For 20 minutes, I continued my futile efforts of disentangling the liner and my skin from the cursed catclaw. Timber and Nels both chuckled at my predicament. I tried to remain calm and focussed but it was not easy when there was the distraction of company. 

Timber swung his backpack up. He hoped to get in another mile or two to meet his average of 20 miles per day. All I could manage was a head nod. A friendly farewell wave was impossible with my contorted arms still painfully ensnared.

Timber crossed the dried creek bed and was soon out of sight. Finally, I freed the liner and myself.  

“I’m a marked man!” I wailed as I inspected the thin bloody scratches on my arm and hand.

Nels giggled, then declared, “Catclaw! That’s your trail name!”

I wasn’t sure I liked the unwritten rule of trail names that you have to accept the name that someone titles you. 

The next morning, under a paint-smeared sky, I hoisted my pack and began to walk and muttered to myself, “Catclaw. Really? Catclaw.”

With any luck, Nels, I mean Scabby, and I will be hiking another hundred-mile section of the Arizona Trail next year.  Perhaps Catclaw won’t make that trip. There is another unwritten rule is that you can change your trail name with a new hike.

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