What’s in a (trail) name?

by Harry Cunningham

A hiker learns that the famous 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail can change a lot about a person — even their name.

Trail names are as old as the trails themselves, and adopting a trail name is a thru-hiker right of passage. Generally, these aliases are bestowed by other hikers after some memorable event, or for some reason that becomes obvious when meeting the hiker in person. 

I heard lots of unique trail names out on the Pacific Crest Trail: Cliff Jump, Ballerino, Two-foot, Jynx, Money Bags, Baywatch, Turtle, Silk Road (or Silky, for short), Botox, Starman, Crockett, Too Lazy, Skittles, Squats, Wrong Way, The Darkness, Rabbit, Kindle, and Tarzan, to name a few. 

I found that sometimes trail names reflected the personality or character of the hiker perfectly already. Other times, hikers seemed to eagerly lean into their given trail name, embracing their chance at a new identity. 

Some only begrudgingly accept their new name, unable to escape its pull. Too many times has an unsuspecting hiker begun the sentence, “Wouldn’t it be awful if someone had a trail name like…” without yet realizing they have just sealed their own trail name fate. The first time I heard this story was from the friends of the recently named Cuddles, a six-foot-something, enormously serious man who clearly did not appreciate the joke as much as we did.  

Tarzan was one of those people whose trail name needed no explanation: young, square-jawed, long, dark hair sitting over his broad shoulders, tan skin against a big white smile, and a true North Carolinian jungle man feeling about him. Tarzan was a good trail name. He was often asked if he was looking for his Jane, and he always replied that his backpack was his Jane, but he was still on the lookout for the perfect one. 

I met Tarzan for the first time about 150 miles north of the Mexican Border, climbing Apache Peak before my first major (snow-covered) mountain, San Jacinto. We came across each other at a mutual time of need. I was low on food (and miserably tired after an exhausting climb with low water), and Tarzan was low on motivation, experiencing the familiar mental and physical exhaustion after a particularly grueling day of non-stop climbing and jumping over hundreds of blown down trees. 

I sat next to him at Apache Spring, the only water source miles in either direction that was (annoyingly) a 20-minute descent off the trail. I admitted to Tarzan my food predicament, and he graciously offered me some nuts and a granola bar. He told me he was disheartened by the massive climb and not having the best day, so we stayed and chatted a while until we both felt better. After getting a little top up of what we needed, we parted ways and pushed ahead towards the mountain town of Idyllwild, California, at mile 175. 

The following day, we met up and resumed our conversation at La Casita, a Mexican restaurant we had agreed to stuff our faces at once making it into town. Sometime after my third soda refill, our debrief on the previous day’s struggles gave way to a more personal topic that Tarzan introduced candidly as he pushed his empty plate away, leaning back in his chair and resting his hands on his full belly.  

“I had an older brother once, you know. His name was Tripp.”

“Tripp?” 

“Yeah, Tripp. People always told my parents that’s what you should name your second kid, not your first. Like my name is Trent, which is way more of a first kid sort of name.” 

“What was he like?”

“He was cool, he would have loved being out here. He really enjoyed being outdoors. He loved his car. And music. We used to listen to a lot of music together.”

“What happened to him?”

“He was driving his car and he crashed it. He was really unwell, mentally. One time he ran away for days, and the police eventually found him living in someone’s boat house. He wasn’t with it, completely out of it. Could see stuff that wasn’t there, that sort of thing.” 

“That must have been difficult for you to watch. Did he ever get any support?”

“Nah, as soon as he turned 18 there was nothing really for him. We looked out for him where we could, but he couldn’t get any real help.”

We both sat in silence, absorbing this quietly. We’d been talking for a while and almost all of the lunch crowd who’d been sitting around us had left. 

“I’m older than he was when he died now. Never thought about that before. He would have loved being out here, hiking the PCT.”

“I wonder what his trail name would have been?”

“I guess most people would have thought Tripp was his trail name,” Tarzan laughed.

“It sounds like you two both loved the outdoors.”

“Yeah, we grew up in North Carolina always playing in the bush catching snakes and that sort of thing. But my parents were still worried about me coming out here.” 

A story Tarzan told me earlier came to mind, where he had accidentally blown his nose with poison ivy as a kid and suffered for days. 

“I guess because of what happened with Tripp?” I asked. 

“Exactly. It’s weird, him being gone. But it’s nice to talk about him. He was cool, my older brother, you know? I have been thinking a lot about him on this hike. Often when I sit down at the top of a peak I’ve just climbed.”

“It’s good to think about him, and talk about him. Helps you to remember.” I offer. 

“Yeah I think so. Tripp. In another universe that could have been my name. Ha!” 

We talked into the early evening, replacing soda with beer before going our separate ways once more to spend our first night in a real bed in 10 days. Tripp came up in conversation once or twice more, but mostly we talked about life and what the long future of our hikes might look like.

I thought about Tripp that night, and wondered if he was part of the reason why Tarzan was out here hiking the PCT. Remembering an old name, rather than worrying too much about a new one. I hadn’t asked him, but it felt like something important that maybe Tarzan was still figuring out himself, sitting atop the many peaks of the Pacific Crest Trail.

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