Backpacker - - VIEW WITH A ROOM -

In one, he works as a cos­tumed his­tor­i­cal guide on a cruise ship ply­ing the Mis­sis­sippi through the Big Easy. He’s 37, bearded, and used to be a lawyer, which be­comes clear when­ever he opens his mouth. But in this crowd, Charles Ch­est­nutt is Dis­ney, has been ever since he hiked the length of the Ap­palachian Trail in 2005. And Dis­ney is a fun-lov­ing guy.

At the mo­ment, around 10 p.m. on a steamy night in May, as hun­dreds of AT afi­ciona­dos are gath­ered a few miles from the trail at a sprawl­ing camp­ground in tiny Da­m­as­cus, Vir­ginia, Dis­ney is stalk­ing a wind­ing path and tow­ing a boom box that blares elec­tric through the nearby scrub pines. “I’m sexy and I know it,” come the lyrics above a puls­ing techno beat. A high, glee­ful wail of syn­the­siz­ers en­sues, and Dis­ney re­sponds with a sin­u­ous swirl of his midriff. He’s not svelte, cer­tainly, but he is peacock proud. And he’s not alone. Be­hind him in a loose conga line are two dozen other rev­el­ers, each one bear­ing a bright-green glow stick neck­lace and a plas­tic cup of cheap beer, each one mouthing the lyrics of LMFAO’s 2011 hit. I got pas­sion in my pants And I ain’t afraid to show it (show it, show it, show it).

The line snakes its way into the crowd, in­ject­ing its en­ergy into the al­ready rau­cous scene. This is Trail Days, a yearly com­ing to­gether of the hiker tribe for four days of fun. The fes­ti­val draws thou­sands of trail lovers and boost­ers—from new­bie day­hik­ers to griz­zled Triple Crown­ers, from gear com­pa­nies to this mag­a­zine—to the south­ern Vir­ginia burg for clinics, gear re­pair and prizes, and mu­sic. At­ten­dees di­vide up by al­le­giance, join­ing one of the long- es­tab­lished “camps” or, for the un­af­fil­i­ated, set­ting up in Tent City. By day—and es­pe­cially by night—it’s the big­gest party on any trail.

Dis­ney rep­re­sents the faction that comes here to go harder than any­one else. He’s part of a crew called Riff Raff, a loose con­tin­gent of 80 or so hik­ers who do Trail Days with un­com­mon verve. Riff Raff is a rowdy bunch, es­tab­lished 11 years ago and roughly 75 per­cent male. Mem­bers gather en masse but once a year, at Trail Days, and they sub­ject their novi­tiates to a for­mal­ized ini­ti­a­tion rite. Each wor­thy Riff Raf­fer is in­ducted at a “shirt­ing” cer­e­mony, at which he is be­stowed a T-shirt, usu­ally black, with the group’s in­signia: a skull in a cow­boy hat loom­ing above a crossed set of trekking poles.

The AT has al­ways been the so­cial trail of the Triple Crown. Town, pizza, and beer are never far away. Shel­ters en­cour­age hik­ers to camp in groups, and groups en­cour­age more so­cial­iz­ing. His­tor­i­cally, drink­ing and pot smok­ing have been mild phe­nom­ena on the trail, eas­ily sidestepped by purists aiming to be at one with a trick­ling creek. But to­day, Riff Raff ’s brethren are not eas­ily avoided. Long-haul foot traf­fic on the trail has dou­bled since 2010, now in­clud­ing 4,000 as­pir­ing thru-hik­ers each year, many of them young and un­bur­dened by con­ven­tional views of the back­coun­try ex­pe­ri­ence. And there has been a cul­ture clash.

David Miller, the au­thor of The A.T. Guide, notes that, since 2015, nine trail­side hos­tels and ho­tels have asked to be re­moved from his book. Many trail towns, Da­m­as­cus in­cluded, pro­hibit hik­ers from pitch­ing tents within city lim­its. The out­cry from trail purists is mount­ing.

Ben Mont­gomery, au­thor of Grandma Gate­wood’s Walk, re­mem­bers stand- ing near the sum­mit of Katahdin in 2012 and watch­ing four twen­tysome­thing thru-hik­ers cel­e­brate the fi­nale of their north­bound AT jour­ney by tromp­ing arm-in­arm through a meadow of en­dan­gered Bigelow’s sedge. “They just didn’t give a shit,” Mont­gomery says. “If you have 4,000 peo­ple like that on the trail ev­ery year, the magic of the AT will die.”

This angst about chang­ing trail cul­ture seems to be di­rected with par­tic­u­lar ve­he­mence at Riff Raff. The group has been de­scribed as an out­law hiker gang, more like the Hell’s Angels than the Sierra Club.

But if Dis­ney is sup­posed to be ter­ror­iz­ing the other hik­ers at Trail Days, pro­claim­ing his sex­i­ness does not ap­pear to be do­ing the trick. In­deed, dur­ing his stay at the fes­ti­val, he will out­lay some $400 buy­ing beers for friends and strangers. And as he wends through the woods in Da­m­as­cus, he is hailed and adored by Riff Raff’s coun­ter­parts—by the salty old hip­pies of Bil­lville and by the crys­tal- heal­ing, vel­vet- clad ro­man­tics of Won­der­land camp. These folks, too, have vast quan­ti­ties of beer laid in like cord­wood against an Alaskan win­ter, and they rise and wob­ble away from their camp­fire and join Dis­ney in danc­ing. They writhe and twist awk­wardly in hik­ing boots, ragged shorts, and ash­be­grimed T-shirts. Dis­ney grins.

When Ben­ton MacKaye, the AT’s founder, first pro­posed “an Ap­palachian Trail” in a 1921 es­say bear­ing that name, he fa­mously en­vi­sioned a “wooded wilder­ness” re­tain­ing “much of the pri­mal as­pects of the days of Daniel Boone.” But “com­mu­nity” was al­ways part of his scheme. MacKaye imag­ined a trail that would con­nect a net­work of farms and camps where city dwellers could gather to un­wind.

The trail and its users have of course evolved in many ways in the decades since, but one thing is clear: The AT has at­tracted le­gions of fans, many of whom have strong feel­ings about what is “good” or “bad” for the trail. To Dis­ney’s peo­ple, “Sexy and I Know It” is the sound of progress, of good hu­mans find­ing bliss in the wilds. As they see it, MacKaye wanted a party in the woods.

IN THE EARLY 1980s, when long- dis­tance walk­ing first be­came pop­u­lar, AT thru- hik­ers re­lied on an un­der­ground book­let called “The Philoso­pher’s Guide.” The 1983 edition was printed in pur­ple, on a mimeo­graph, and con­tained in­sights on, for ex­am­ple, the best trail snack food (Parkay mar­garine). The tone of The Guide is in­sid­ery and know­ing. Read­ing it, one gets the sense that if se­ri­ous par­ty­ing was a thing back then, The Guide would have linked up a pub crawl of back­woods wa­ter­ing holes.

But drink­ing is scarcely men­tioned, and the book ac­tu­ally tells read­ers to cel­e­brate the com­ple­tion of a thru-hike by swim­ming in a Maine lake, call­ing it “a per­fect place for some soul- search­ing … a per­fect place to feel the tinge of melan­choly.” An­drew Downs, Vir­ginia re­gional di­rec­tor for the Ap­palachian Trail Con­ser­vancy, says, “There was par­ty­ing on the trail in the ’80s’ and ’90s, sure, but it was con­tained and self­po­liced. If you left trash, other hik­ers would call you out. In the past decade or so, there’s been a shift, aided by so­cial me­dia, into a mob men­tal­ity.”

“Cell phones and im­proved cov­er­age al­low hik­ers to bet­ter lo­cate their co­horts and co­or­di­nate their party plans,” Dave Miller says. “I re­call one hiker telling me that he was work­ing on an app specif­i­cally for this

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