Three Men and a Beard
Since Earl Shaffer first hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in 1948, the number of people who attempt to follow in his footsteps has grown greatly every year. As the numbers have increased, thru-hiking the AT has developed its own subculture as well as certain traditions, both common and controversial. Of the latter, there is the practice of “mooning the cog” in which hikers bare their butt cheeks to the Cog Railway train as it ascends Mt. Washington. (This risque tradition is disappearing, however. With the local authorities arresting hikers who doff their drawers and harsher penalties for crimes committed on federal land, fewer hikers are willing to put their asses on the line, so to speak). One of the AT’s grandest traditions is the practice of adopting “trail names”. Most thru hikers will take on a trail name, or nickname, during the course of their journey and they will be referred to by this name, their trail name, rather than their real name for the remainder of the trek. As you can imagine, the various monikers that people come up with are as varying as the myriad personalities you meet on the trail. (Here’s a good sampler from the Appalachian Trail Museum). Some people come up with their own while others prefer to be given one.(Although, then you run the risk of being dubbed something unsavory like “Mr. Poopy Pants”). Rather than discuss the psychology behind trail names or explore the ways such a practice could be abused (such as this recent example), I’d like to share the story behind how I acquired my trail name and the significance behind it.
Earlier this spring, as the temperature rose and most of the heavy snowfall began to melt away in Boston, I decided to head up to the White Mountains to go snowshoeing one last time. Since it was the heart of spring ski season, I was one of the few guests at the Joe Dodge Lodge without skis or a snowboard. My first day there, I took the Boot Spur Trail above treeline and, although I didn’t see too many other people, the sounds of skiers coming from neighboring Tuckerman’s Ravine was a bit loud. (Since then I’ve learned that spring ski season at Tuck’s can be a bit of party scene on a sunny day with a thousand plus packing into “The Bowl”).
The following day, in search of solitude from both the sight and sounds of my hominid brothers and sisters, I decided to head out on the Glen Boulder Trail. As I ascended up to the ridge, I couldn’t believe the brilliant weather. A few clouds in the sky but mostly sunny. I could feel the sun’s warmth even through the tree canopy. Most of my snowshoeing experience has been during the heart of winter with below-freezing temperatures and cutting winds. So marching along in the soft, mushy snow, listening to the birds sing as they danced and skipped about in the bright sun was a revelation. Unlike the day before, it seemed I had the trail completely to myself and I quickly got lost in my own thoughts.
I planned to stop at a spring along the trail to have lunch and refill my water. Packing my gear that morning, I had only filled my 3-liter water reservoir halfway to save weight. After a few hours, with the strong, spring sun and physical demands of snowshoeing causing me to drink more water than usual, I was beginning to regret my decision. To my relief, I began to make out the sound of running water off in the distance not long after. As I quickened my pace, the volume of the rushing water intensified along with my thirst. I tried to remember if I had packed my water filter in the top compartment of my pack or if I had stuffed it in the bottom. As I rounded a bend in the trail, I was startled to see an old man kneeling down on some rocks by the side of the stream. I stood there and stared at his back for a moment trying to regain my composure.
Perhaps sensing my presence, he swung his head around and quickly glanced me over. When our eyes met, I uttered a meek “hey”. He smiled, revealing a mostly toothless grin, and exclaimed, “Well…hello there, Ginger Beard Man!” I smirked as it wasn’t uncommon for people to mention my most distinguishing physical feature, my fiery red beard, upon first meeting me. He stood up as I stepped towards him. Besides a few scraggly strands of hair, the old man’s head was bald. He was really light-skinned, too. Pallid like a ghost. The paleness of his skin only seemed to be heightened by the bright yellow down jacket he wore. It was then that I realized he was standing in the snow barefoot, with his boots and snowshoes laying against a tree off to the side. I glanced down again. He wasn’t standing directly in the snow but he was still standing on the cold rocks with just bare feet. How the hell aren’t his feet freezing right now?
As soon as he started speaking at me (because at the speed he fired words at me, that’s the only way to describe it), I was looking for ways to disengage from the conversation. My attention bounced between trying to follow the elderly man’s words and possible excuses I could use to break free. Just as he was barreling right along into a story about wrestling a bear, I decided I’d had enough. “Listen,” I said, a bit too loudly. “I hate to cut you short but I really must be going.” I started to back away from the man but still looked him in the face. “I’m supposed to meet my friend up at the trail junction up on the ridge and I don’t want to keep him waiting. It was nice talking to you. Take care!” I spun around and started walking away as fast I could. Pretending to have a “friend” you were meeting further along the trail was a common tactic used by AT thru-hikers when encountering a hiker of questionable character. I smiled to myself for using it.
“Well…wouldn’t want to keep you waiting. Happy trails, Ginger Beard Man!” he called after me.
I was so concerned with putting distance between me and the old geezer that it was a few minutes before I realized I had forgotten to fill up my water reservoir. Cursing myself, I considered going back but the eeriness of the encounter with old man Henderson had put me off. (While traveling, I have a habit of referring to any strange old men I meet as “Old Man Henderson”. I think it’s a defense mechanism.) I looked at my water supply and there was still about a liter left. There’s no way I’m turning back now and running into that old dude again. I’ll just continue on the trail, I thought to myself. Get up on the ridge and find a spot with some views and eat lunch. Then I’ll fill up my water reservoir at the stream on the way down. Hopefully, old man Henderson won’t be there. So I continued on my way up the mountain.
It started like a faint humming in the wind at first. Then, it became more clear and distinct. The sound of someone whistling became louder and louder. Listening for a moment, the melody sounded familiar but I couldn’t quite recall the exact song.. It was as if the whistling was slightly off-tune, giving the melody an almost sinister tone. I laughed at my myself for letting my mind take such a dark turn and stopped to look back to get a look at the whistler. The trail descended in a straight line about thirty feet down and the whistling seemed to be getting closer. Suddenly, it stopped and I could faintly hear the crunch of the person’s snowshoes. Just then, old man Henderson stepped into view and looked up. “Ginger Beard Man!” he shouted with unnecessary vigor.
“Hey there,” I replied. Spinning around, I drove one of my trekking poles into the snow and started scurrying up the trail. After a few steps, I could hear that he was following behind me. As I trudged forward in the snow, I started to wonder why it was that the old man was weirding me out so much. I mean, he seems harmless enough. A little wacky sure but probably harmless. What’s so cr-
His whistling pierced through the air and my body shivered. Screw that. He ain’t cute. I gotta hoof it and get as far away from him as possible, I thought. Thus, for the next ten minutes or so, we both raced up the trail. I’d gain momentarily leads but somehow this whisper of a man kept pace. (For those that know me and are thinking, “You’re one to talk, Kevin!”. I know but this guy was skinnier than me!) All the while, he was whistling that God forsaken melody. (It even freaks me out when I remember it now. And if you see me, don’t even ask me to whistle it! For the past few months, I’ve tried to replicate the melody but haven’t even come close. But, I’ll know it if I hear it. Hell, I’ll never forget it. I can watch Deliverance and listen to “Dueling Banjos” and not even flinch. But if I ever hear that whistling again I’m running away, screaming in high-pitched terror.)
Sweat cascaded down my forehead and I unzipped my fleece. I had to hand it to him. Old Man Henderson was in shape. Something happened though as we pushed on. The fear that had been present since I first encountered him gradually morphed into pride. I mean, what the hell. Here I was, just a few months removed from starting a thru-hike of the two thousand mile Appalachian Trail and some nursing home resident was keeping pace with me as I fly up a mountain. Damn you, Old Man Henderson! I stopped and looked back. I could only see about twenty feet down trail before it turned right out of view. However, I knew by his whistling that my friend wasn’t too far behind.
Gritting my teeth, I fired up the after burners and took off. Visions of Rocky Balboa flashed in my mind as I raced up the slope. I was maintaining a steady pace at this point. Digging my left pole into the snow, I pulled my body forward and pushed off with my left. Then the right…then left. Thump. Thump. Thump. My heart started pumping faster and faster as I picked up speed. Left…..right. Thump. Thump. Thump. My body was drenched in sweat now. Thump. Thump. Thump. Wait, I thought and stopped suddenly. Leaning against my trekking poles and laboring to breath, I listened. Hell, my heart was pounding so loudly it sounded like a battle drum in my chest. Keeping my eyes down trail, I strained to listen as my breathing and heart rate slowed. Nothing. Taking a deep breath, it was relieving to not hear that eerie melody anymore. Suddenly, my dehydration hit me in full force and it felt like my mouth had been sucked dry of all moisture. As I reached for my water reservoir, I remembered again that I hadn’t filled it up earlier. Only about a third of a liter left.
I might as well keep going, I thought. There’s no way I’m coming this far and no getting any views. If I turn back now, I’ll probably just run into the old man. If I get above treeline, I might even find a boulder to hide behind. (Such were the idiotic thoughts going through my dehydrated brain at the time. So, naturally…) I continued hiking up the trail. At this point, it was becoming steeper. The trees were getting shorter and thinning out. I started envisioning the glorious views I would hopefully have. Then I remembered how windy it had been on the ridge the day before on Boot Spurr. Glancing up trail, it looked as if it would open up completely further ahead so I decided to add some layers before continuing on. Even in early spring, the wind can really damage exposed skin above treeline in the Whites.
I took off my backpack and started rummaging through it. Then, I thought I heard the whistling again through the wind. I froze and listened. Nothing. I laughed at myself. I found my down puffy jacket and put it on. I heard the whistling again, more lucid now. That damn melody! Hold on…I looked up trail again. The whistling wasn’t coming from below me but above me. About fifty feet up trail where it opened up, I saw a bright yellow shape. The old man’s jacket! I quickly stepped behind a tree to the left, hoping he hadn’t see me. For some reason, like a child, I closed my eyes. How the hell did he get ahead of me? There’s no side trail he could have taken. The old man was quick but there’s no way he bushwhacked past me! I stood there behind the tree with my eyes closed and waited. I thought for sure I’d hear him shout out, “Hey Ginger Beard Man!” It was kind of funny, actually. Ginger Beard Man. The whistling had stopped. I opened my eyes and peered past the tree. No sign of him.
I was so exhausted that I decided to eat lunch right there. The trail was wide and flat so I was able to lay my towel out in the sun. I had bought a packed lunch at the lodge in the morning and began devouring the main item, a roast beef sandwich with horseradish. Knowing it was still a long way back to the spring, I was careful not to drink all my remaining water. While I ate, I started to second guess myself. There’s just no way the man could have gotten past me. Maybe my mind was playing tricks on me. I was obviously quite thirsty and tired at that point. Remembering the man’s pale skin, I shivered. Perhaps he was a ghost. I laughed to myself again. Old Man Henderson, the apparition. I moved on to the other goodies in my packed lunch, the trail mix, the raisins….. The whole time I ate, the question stayed at the back of my mind. Had I really just seen the old man? By the time I had finished eating, I had already made my decision. Despite being low on water, I would hike up above treeline and see if I could spot the man along ridge.
I pulled my baklava up to cover most of my face and put my wool cap over my head. Tugging the bottom of the baklava down, I zipped up my jacket. Then, I slipped insulated mittens over my thin liner gloves. Feeling snugger than an Ewok wrapped in reindeer fur, I marched up the slope. As the trees opened up, the wind grewer faster and louder. Soon I was completely exposed and the force of the wind slammed into me. Damn, it’s even stronger than yesterday. Ahead of me was a near vertical wall of ice and boulders before the ridge looked to flatten out. I switched to holding both trekking poles in my left hand and used my right to pull me up. I drove my feet into the snow to get better traction and held on to to rock edges to steady myself. As I crested over ridge, the wind was howling. Suddenly, the force of it flew directly into my face and the pressure was so great I had to turn my head away. Most of the ridge was obscured in dense cloud. I saw a large boulder about twenty feet away and figured I could get out of the wind behind it. I stepped towards the boulder and the deep, powdery snow I had been snowshoeing in abruptly gave way to patches of thick ice. After a few paces, the wind reared up behind me and sent my heroin-chic physique sliding across the ice. I tried to press the claws of my snowshoes into the ice but it barely slowed my movement. The force of the wind was pushing me toward the boulder I had spotted earlier. I held my forearms out in front of me and braced for impact. Hitting the rock a lot less harder than I expected, I frantically pulled myself around the boulder out of the wind.
Holy shit, I thought to myself as I hunkered down and glanced around. Although it had been slightly cloudy for most the day as I ascended up the mountain, I was in a virtual white out now, completely surrounded by clouds. After a few minutes of sitting there as the wind whipped around the edges of the boulder, I was wondered how long I’d have to hide behind it and wait out the weather. Then, the wind started dying down. In a matter of minutes, the weather changed from stormy to a glorious sunny spring day. Typical weather above treeline in the Whites, I guess! I might as well make my move now and get back down while it’s calm, I thought. I don’t have enough water to be messing around any longer. I cautiously stepped over the ice I had slid over earlier. Every time the wind picked up ever so slightly I got prepared to be pushed around like a rag doll. Luckily, I was able to make it across the ice without issue. Reaching the crest of ridge, I turned around for one last look. Parts of the ridge were visible now as it snaked in and out of the clouds. A yellow shape caught my eye. I focused in and, sure as day, there he was, old man Henderson! I was certain of it this time. I glanced away for a moment. When I looked back, I saw the small yellow dot again just as it disappeared into the mist. I could feel the wind getting stronger and I thought if I stayed above treeline any longer I would either lose my mind or my life. Since I wasn’t keen on losing either, I drove one of trekking poles into the snow and swung myself over the edge.
Over the course of the descent, I replayed memories of the encounter with the old man several times. When I glissaded down the steep parts…as I chugged water at the spring without filtering it….when I got back to the lodge and checked if I had shit stains on my underpants twice and made sure the door was locked at least four times….memories of the old man played in my head.
The next morning, on the bus back to Boston, I was still thinking of him. The whole experience seemed less eerie a day later but it had certainly left me spooked. There was no doubt about that. As the bus sped along the highway, I kept thinking of the name the man had called me, “The Ginger Beard Man”. As I stroked my luxurious lion’s mane of a beard (as I am prone to do) and tossed the name around in my head, I realized that it would make one hell of a trail name. Now, as I mentioned before, my beard is my most distinguishable feature these days and, as such, it receives its fair share of comments, both positive and negative. While growing a beard has become popular among young bucks these days, my chin whiskers predate the current hipster trend and, although I admit to a touch of vanity now that my glorious beard has blossomed fully, it has much humbler origins.
The year was 2004 and my chin was as smooth as the day I was born (okay, there was some peach fuzz but, come on, don’t ruin the simile). I had never attempted to grow a beard because, like a lot of young males, I didn’t think I’d be able to grow a full one. When I shaved the little facial hair that did grow, I always felt it appeared scruffy so I thought I’d look ridiculous trying to grow an actual beard. The interesting thing is my father had always sported a full beard for most of my life (except for a brief period when he simply had a mustache…let’s just say, Tom Selleck, he wasn’t!). It was a lovely beard, too. In fact, since I adored my father so much (as I’ve mentioned in a previous post) and the image of his beard is etched in my memory, it has imprinted in my mind the idea that a beard is one of the strongest symbols of manliness. However, up until that point in my life, I had always imagined I’d look like a scruffy derelict if I tried to grow a beard.
In May of that year, I took a break from my job in South Korea to go on a solo trip to Mongolia. I hired a jeep driver in Ulan Bator and went on a week-long tour of the Gobi. My driver’s name was Jakar. Although communication between us was difficult, he was an exceptional guide with genuine enthusiasm and a flexible attitude about the itinerary. During the day, we drove around the desert to a variety of wonders; such as the Flaming Cliffs, a sandstone escarpment blasted by wind for years, yielding several key fossil discoveries, or Yolyn Am, a deep, narrow gorge in the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains, part of which is blanketed with a thick semi-permanent ice field. At night, we stayed in gers (the traditional tents of the Mongolian people) with local families. Although I had brought along my shaving kit, I wasn’t able to shave for more than a week while in the Gobi simply because I wasn’t able to access a mirror. I didn’t bring one, I rarely saw one and the one time I asked Jakar about borrowing one, it lead to absolute confusion. So, by the time I returned to Ulan Bator and took a look at myself in a mirror I had grown a fairly decent chin strap. Looking at my reflection that day, I thought that my “beard” didn’t look that bad! (In all fairness, my facial hair most likely looked pathetic to your average observer at that point…and for several years after, for reasons I’ll soon explain. I was probably just finally feeling secure enough with myself to let it grow). Although I decided I would shave it off before leaving Mongolia, I’d let it grow out again once I was back in South Korea. I learnt a valuable grooming lesson that day in Ulan Bator as well when I attempted to shave off my beard with an ordinary disposable razor. Yooooooooooooooooooow-zer!
Over the course of next year, I made several attempts at growing a beard. However, my mustache just didn’t seem to “connect with” my beard (in other words, there was a little gap of bare skin between my mustache and beard that appeared ridiculously larger in my young mind) Not having the patience to let the hair grow more, I shaved off the mustache and opted to sport an Amish look for a while. (Although, with my monkey mug, perhaps it would be more aptly named the Dr. Zaius look) In addition, I couldn’t find a single barber in my town who would trim my beard so I had to groom it myself. Needless to say, my facial hair looked less than professional on a consistent basis. Some mornings, though, I would mess up the chin line so badly that I’d freak out and shave the whole beard off. Over the course of repeating this process several times : freak out, shave completely, grow fully, freak out, shave completely, etc., that bald patch between my mustache and beard filled in. Therefore, by the time I returned to Boston to get a Master’s degree in 2008, I had a full beard and mustache on display. And, display it I did! Mostly in my old bedroom, studying at my desk, since I had moved back in with my mother to save money while going back to school.
One morning, while my mother was getting ready for work in the bathroom, I was walking down the hallway. The bathroom door was open so I stopped to talk to her. She didn’t realize I was there and when she glanced over in my direction, it was clear by the look in her eyes that she had thought I was my father not me. (One only need look at the photos that I’ve posted on this site to see the strong resemsblance between my father and me). Since my father had passed away only a few years prior, the incident shook her up a great deal. As for myself, I can’t deny that I felt a surge of pride when my mother mistook me for my father, my hero, the man I wanted to be like. Of course, I knew we had a strong resemblance but now it was as if by growing a beard the look was complete. Sure enough, my mother confirmed that it was my beard that had made her think I was my father for brief instant. As time passed, I began to see my beard as much more than another physical feature I share with my father. My admiration for him has only deepened as I’ve gotten older and I increasingly find myself trying to model my life on the best of his qualities. Therefore, when I look at my beard in the mirror now, I see it as a reminder of the great man I can be if I continue to emulate my father.
So, there you have it. The story of the origin of my trail name and why I chose to use it. Interestingly enough, unlike the actual Gingerbread Man who’s known for speed in the classic story, I will be taking things at a slow place during my AT thru-hike. That’s not to say that I’ll be hiking at a slower rate or achieving low mileages each day. Rather, I want to take the time to explore things and not feel rushed. There are several blue blaze trails (side trails) that I want to check out along the way, starting with Gulf Hagas in the 100 Mile Wilderness. Although I would like to finish my thru-hike before winter sets in, I realize the journey is an ideal opportunity to take life at a more relaxed, deliberate pace and that’s precisely what the Ginger Beard Man plans to do.