The following is an excerpt from the 2019 book, THE UNLIKELY THRU HIKER: An Appalachian Trail Journey, by Derick Lugo.
It’s just past 9 a.m., and after a restful night’s sleep at Blood Mountain Cabins in Neels Gap, Big Foot, Downhill, Chris, and I head out for an 8.5-mile hike to Low Gap Shelter. Although the four of us begin the day together, Chris and I find ourselves pulling ahead of Big Foot and Downhill. The two older hikers seem to have the same pace and are enjoying each other’s company. Meanwhile Chris, feeling energetic as usual—especially now that his dad has a hiking buddy, so he doesn’t need to worry about pulling too far ahead—is moving at a pace that I’m barely able to keep up with.
This guy is a torpedo with legs.
“I decided to take the trail name Overdrive,” Chris announces, as if reading my mind. The name fits.
“Coolio, that is so you,” I say. “Isn’t that one of the names Downhill was suggesting for you?”
“Sure is. You’re next,” Chris, now Overdrive, announces.
“I’m sure one will present itself soon enough,” I say. Although I sound unconcerned, I’m eager to receive a trail name.
As we continue to speed-hike, we converse about trail names. Overdrive suggests that a trail name should be bestowed on me by the end of the day, which suits me because I probably won’t be 100 percent happy with whatever name I end up with. Reaching Maine and signing the shelter logs with Derick (no trail name yet) is a distinct possibility.
We reach a lookout point at Wildcat Mountain, which gives us a good reason to take our packs off. Except for some shoulder soreness, I’m pain free, thanks to the help I received at Mountain Crossings. The adjustments the staffer suggested made all the difference in the world.
By 2:30 p.m. we make it to Low Gap Shelter. It’s crowded, but Overdrive and I find a flat enough spot with the ends of our tents nearly touching. Twenty minutes later, Big Foot arrives and finds a lumpy spot farther off by some fallen trees. Downhill decides to sleep in the shelter. Brett, now the Kid (named for his boyish looks), arrives with a tarp that he dumps on a patch of weeds and twigs.
Around 5:30 p.m., after everyone eats their dinner, Overdrive gathers a few hikers for a trail name brainstorming session. Joining the discussion is Nora, her brother Matt, Big Foot, the Kid, and Kevin, who are staying at the cabins as well.
We start with Nora’s brother and quickly decide on Three Week since he’s on the trail for only three weeks. Normally only thru-hikers get trail names, but what the hey.
Nora is next.
“OK, what are your hobbies? What’s your favorite color? What’s your favorite TV show?”
I’m hoping to get a laugh, but she perks up and says, “Actually, my favorite show is Doctor Who!”
“That settles it, your name is . . . TV Show. Next!”
“That’s funny, but I don’t think so,” she says.
“What about Doctor Who?” Overdrive suggests.
“Too obvious, there’s no story,” she says, shooting down the suggestion.
Yeah, I can relate to not taking an obvious name.
“What about Who? It’s vague enough to entice a story, right?” I add.
“Maybe . . . ” she says, uncertain.
“I’ve never seen Doctor Who. Do you have a favorite character?” I ask.
“Yeah, Doctor Who,” she says with a laugh.
“Well, what about Doc?” suggests Overdrive.
“That may work,” she says shyly.
“It’s Doc or TV Show—take it or leave it,” I say.
This makes Big Foot laugh, sounding strangely like Herman Munster from the old black-and-white sitcom. He’s a lovable, laughing giant who kind of moves like that character as well. His trail name should be Herman Munster.
Our attempt at finding Kevin a trail name is much more difficult.
“What’s your sign?” I ask. “What’s your favorite toothpaste? Boxers or briefs? That last question was for Nora’s benefit. Getting nowhere, we decide to hold off on Kevin’s nickname. It’s my turn now.
Big Foot turns to me and says, “So, what’s your sign? How many dreadlocks do you have? What’s your favorite salsa move?” A burst of laughter erupts.
“Oh, you got jokes. Well, for your information, I’m down with the salsa move the cucaracha, and no, damn it, that will not be my name.”
“Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself?” Nora says.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
I swing my arm with flair, as if unveiling one of the secret wonders of the world. “One day the universe decided to create a perfect being. It began with two brilliant stars for eyes, which were placed on a face that was deemed the most enchanting in the outer world. This being had flawless skin tone. Hair was harvested from a faraway planet where hair was equal to the highest form of holiness. To make him spicy, they added sazon and adobo seasoning and other mystical Spanish ingredients. When they were all finished—well, here I stand before you.”
I fight back a creeping smile. Although they know that I’m kidding, my audience is hanging on every word.
“You’re a hoot,” says Kevin.
“I’m a what? That will not be my trail name,” I say with a playful snap.
“The truth is that I’ve never done anything like this before”—I wave my arms, indicating our surroundings—“sleeping in a tent, hiking up mountains with a 40-pound backpack. My friends back home are shocked that I’m even doing this. I’m what you may call a metrosexual: I like to stay groomed, fresh, and well dressed.”
The truth sounds as absurd as my first story.
“So, being out here without a shower in sight, well, it’s out of character for me. I guess that’s why I’m here . . . ”
“You’re a Mr. Fabulous!” Overdrive announces enthusiastically.
“Whaa—?” I begin.
“You’re a Mr. Fabulous!” he repeats.
“If my friends back home knew that I was being called a Mr. Fabulous on the trail . . . well, I did joke that I wanted to figure out how to fit a full-length mirror into my backpack.”
“You’re definitely a Mr. Fabulous!” Overdrive proclaims once more.
“Isn’t that the trumpet player from The Blues Brothers?” Big Foot asks.
“Yeah, he was well dressed and suave. You’re definitely a Mr. Fabulous,” Overdrive gleefully declares.
“How full of it will I sound? Hi there, I’m Mr. Fabulous. What’s your pleasure? Oh, yeah,” I say with the deepest, most sensual voice I can muster. “That would be so creepy.”
“Yeah, if you say it like that,” Overdrive says with a laugh.
“I kind of like it,” Nora says, with a playful flirt.
“Then I’ll take it. You don’t think it’s too all this is hotness like?” I say, waving my open hand across my body as I move my hips from side to side.
“Not really. Once they meet you and see you’ve got a great personality, they’ll realize that it’s perfect,” Overdrive says.
This guy is awesome. I’ll have to keep him around as the captain of my cheerleading squad. He makes a brotha feel good about himself.
“Well,” I say, “I guess I can try it. It’ll be fun to see people’s reactions. All right, Mr. Fabulous it is.”
Mr. Fabulous? If I tell my friends in New York about this, they will certainly say that I persuaded others to call me by such a name.
With the trail name meeting complete, we retire for the night. Soho and Halfway have squeezed their tents near the rest of us. All of our tents are nearly touching. It’s a tight fit.
“I hope I don’t sleepwalk tonight. Overdrive, you know I sleep naked, right?” I joke as I crawl into my tent.
I stop and look out over the tents pitched so close together, like a village that will awaken tomorrow morning and move on to its next campsite and once again form another village. A Moving Village.
As I lie in my sleeping bag staring at the ceiling of my tent, my new nickname swims around in my head like a fish in a glass tank. Mr. Fabulous . . .
“What’s a nero?” I ask as we start our 3.6-mile hike to Dicks Creek Gap, Georgia.
I know that a zero is a day off from hiking—zero miles for that day. But when Overdrive mentioned a nero to the closest trailhead, where Big Foot’s dad awaits to drive us 11 miles to Hiawassee, the nearest town, I have to ask.
“It’s a short hiking day,” says my all-knowing hiking partner, Overdrive.
“Ah, a combination of near and zero,” I say, feeling foolish that I didn’t figure it out sooner.
So, a nero was what we did yesterday. We stopped to do laundry, but a shower was my true priority. I needed to sandblast the last few days of hiking off of me. Although I was cleaner than many other hikers—some of whom go a week or two without bathing—my daily birdbaths leave me far from my optimal cleanliness.
The night at the motel has left me feeling reenergized. Daddy Big Foot, which I have come to call Big Foot’s dad, drives us back to the trailhead at Dicks Creek Gap. We strap on our packs and thank him for the lift. He’s our first trail angel—someone, Overdrive has explained, who provides assistance or food to thru-hikers. We wave goodbye and start hiking in single file toward our first state line crossing.
Once again, Overdrive and I are moving faster than the rest of the Moving Village. I realize that I tend to mimic the pace of whoever is in front of me, whether it’s a snail’s pace, a steady pace, or Overdrive’s rocket-like pace. We’re currently moving full tilt, fueled by our excitement about reaching our first state border. But I’m not Overdrive, so eventually I slow down and steady my stride, letting the speedy hiker pull ahead. I’m definitely better at going up mountains than I was when I first started the AT, but Overdrive is—well, he’s called Overdrive for a reason. He tears up the mountain as if it’s a flat, rockless terrain. Mountains fear him, and children want to be him. One could hate or envy him for such power and speed. I choose to pretend that his legs are bionic.
Away he goes, leaving me alone with my thoughts, until I see a group of senior day hikers. I stand aside, giving them room to pass. They greet me and wish me luck on my journey. The last one in the group, a small woman who is slower than the rest, seemingly in her hundreds, is hiking with a cane and helped along by an aide. She stops, looks up at me, and asks me what my trail name is.
Believe it or not, it has taken some persuading for me to accept a trail name like Mr. Fabulous. I mean, what kind of egotistical person would . . . ?
“So, what’s your trail name?” a day hiker asked me a few days ago.
“Um . . . well, they call me Mr. Fabulous,” I replied sheepishly. “I didn’t name myself, I promise,” I quickly added.
To my relief, he smiled and offered some kind words. I got similar reactions from others. I’m finding that the name seems to evoke good humor, warmth, and affection. I must admit, I am amazed.
And now, this sweet elderly lady wants to know my trail name. “Mr. Fabulous, ma’am,” I respond.
Our eyes meet, and her eyes widen with acknowledgment, as if she has been shown the answer to a mystery she has been pondering for decades. Then, without missing a beat, she says, “Oh, I’ve waited my entire life for a Mr. Fabulous.”
She braces herself on her cane with one hand, and with the other she reaches up, touches my face, and guides me closer to her. Her hand is soft and smooth but cold on my cheek. The wrinkles on her face reveal a long life, but a youthful exuberance—an unmistakable childlike innocence—radiates through her eyes. Without another word, she kisses me on the cheek. Delighted with herself, she turns away and continues down the trail with a bounce in her step, leaving her aide chasing after her.
It occurs to me that my trail name is actually a fun introduction that clears the way for an engaging interaction with strangers. It’s an optimistic name I can play with and make others feel fabulous with. I declare that from this moment on, I will proudly use my trail name—not only because I am fabulous, but because it seems to bring joy and amusement to those who hear it.
With newfound energy, I catch up to Overdrive and tell him about my enlightening encounter.
“I told you it’s an awesome trail name!” he says with his uniquely overdrive response.
A sign reading “NC/GA” greets us at our first border crossing. Overdrive and I are ecstatic. It’s as if we just summited Katahdin. This is why I like hiking with this guy: He greets every milestone out here, even the little ones, with equal enthusiasm. We take pictures, posing in front of the old, weather-beaten sign, which has names carved into it.
“Our first state complete, Mr. Fabulous!”
“Our first state and only thirteen more to go. Wahoo!” I cheer as we high-five.
Soon, one by one, the other hikers in our group begin to show up and pose for their border picture. I’m not sure who started it, but we have taken up the habit of signaling our arrival with a woot woot call. When everyone is present, we take a group photo of the Moving Village: Overdrive, Big Foot, Downhill, Soho, Halfway, the Kid, Jolly 3-0, Doc, Trudger, Kevin (now Tower, named for his childlike love of fire towers and his tall frame), and a hiker who has finally accepted his trail name,
What’s in a name?
Out here it defines you and tells your story, like the heroic Jolly 3-0 or the high-speed Overdrive or the tall-framed Big Foot. It also provides yet another reason to love the AT. Receiving a trail name is a way of accepting this experience and all that it will send your way.
Watch an interview with Derick Lugo.
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