What’s in a Trail Name?

What’s in a name? Is it just some random identifier applied to us at birth?

Or do we earn it?

Earning a trail name carries new meaning. I go by Black Beard because I carry a pirate flag around with me on treks. And yes, it is in fact the jolly roger of Black Beard, notorious pirate who terrorized the Caribbean and Carolinas.

My sons earned their trail names on hikes. They kept suggesting absurd ones for themselves, like “Mario” or “Luigi.” (Mental note: I need to put them on video-game timeout.)

“Now, just hold on a minute there,” I would say. “I’m handing out trail names, and you don’t have one yet.”


00_ToadstoolMy oldest, Aidan, received his trail name in 2011 on our first Appalachian Trail hike.

“Hey, dad! Look, a mushroom,” he squealed after just about 70 yards into the hike. We hadn’t even walked a football field and he’s suddenly the world’s foremost expert on mushroom hunting.

Toadstool on the hike where he received his trail name. AT on Peter’s Mtn., north of Duncannon, Pa.

We’d walk a little, then “OOO!”

I jumped right out of my skin the first time he did it. By the 20th time, my response was, “Let me guess, it’s a mushroom?”

“Yeah, but this one is red!”

“Awesome, buddy…” And then I trailed off into thought. Wait just one minute! Me thinks a trail name has bubbled to the surface!

“That’s it! Your trail name will be Toadstool!” I was really proud of myself.

“You mean like Toad, in Super Mario Bros.?” (Must – take – away – video games.)

The seasoned Toadstool on his first winter hike, March 17, 2013. AT on Blue Mountain ridge in Berks County.

“Sort of, but not really. A toadstool is another name for a mushroom because they look like a stool for a toad.”

“Oooooh.” He was reticent about the name at first because it wasn’t Toad but he came around.

I’m in the process of formulating another backpack for Toadstool, myself and my father, possibly in the Catskills since its so close to my parents home in Pike County.


Chipmunk makes his way to the top of Blue Mountain.

My youngest son, Owen, is three years behind Toadstool. So over the past couple years, it’s been difficult to see his pouting face as we walked out the door for a hike, leaving him behind.

I want to take him with us, but at 4 years old, he was not yet ready for an extended trip.

However, he has taken quite naturally to hiking when it’s he and I alone.

Last May, I took him on his first solo hike at Boyd Big Tree Conservation Area, a series of hiking and cross-country skiing trails in Dauphin County, Pa., just a short drive from our home.

Fungus stalks sprout from the leafy floor of the forest at Boyd Big Tree.

The goal was to hike to the top of the 1,200-foot Blue Mountain from the parking area, a 700-foot gain over about a mile of trails winding gradually around the tall oaks and maples.

Boyd is a nice little respite walled off by Blue Mountain from the politics, crime and murder of Harrisburg.

But the abundance of trash around the park also illustrates that highways made mountain barriers an insignificant obstacle for slobs.

Owen and I took our time hiking up through the trails and I’d stop occasionally to photograph flowers in the scattered May sunlight.

Believe it or not, I was unable to photograph any chipmunks on our hike. Did find this inchworm though.

We walked up the mountain talking about the trail blazes, the fungus, the flowers.

Then a fat little chipmunk scurried across the trail in front of us.

“Squirrel!” chirped Owen.

“No, buddy, that’s a chipmunk.”

“Oh, yeah. That’s right. I knew that.”

IMG_1640From that point on, it was like I was hiking with an alley cat. Every chipmunk, obese from munching on the trail mix and granola dropped by hikers, elicited a pouncing motion from Owen.

“Ooo! Chipmunk!”

WhiteBlossom2Five minutes later: “Dad! Chipmunk!”

In the approximately three hours it took us to hike to the top of the mountain and back down, I was made aware of every chipmunk on that stretch of Blue Mountain. I stopped counting after about the 20th chipmunk.

“That does it. Owen, your trail name is Chipmunk.”

“Why Chipmunk?”

Clover blossom.
Clover blossom.

He’s only four, he’s only four, he’s only four, he’s only four, I told myself.

“Seriously? Owen, what have we been seeing all hike?”

“Oooh-yeah! Chipmunks!”

Some trail names write themselves. And the hike proved to me that Chipmunk was ready for more. Maybe not full-on “misery of the trail” yet. But he’ll be ready soon.


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