This article previously appeared in the Summer 2021 Long Trail News under the title “No Trail Name, No Problem: Thru-Hiking 50 Years Ago.” It is written by avid hiker and Vermont resident, Tom McKone.
Without a Trail Name
“If he didn’t have a trail name, he didn’t hike the trail.” That conclusion made me laugh. Two years ago, when my sister told a recent Appalachian Trail thru-hiker that her brother had done the AT, too, his first question was what my trail name was. Hearing I didn’t have one, he lost interest, deciding I couldn’t be a real thru-hiker.
No, I didn’t have a trail name when I did the then-2,029-mile AT back in 1971. I hiked much of the trail with a college friend, Bob Winslow, and we met a couple of long-distance hikers with nicknames, but no one with what would later be called a trail name.
Bob and I were avid day hikers, and months before starting the AT, after someone mentioned the trail, I wrote the Appalachian Trail Conference (now the Appalachian Trail Conservancy) for information. This was just before trail resources started to expand, so the planning process was slow and difficult.
A lot has Changed in 50 Years
Trail names were among many things we didn’t have then—from GPS apps and cell phones to hostels and stores catering to backpackers. Guidebooks were few and basic, and there was almost no support system beyond shelters, signs at roads and trail junctions, and those beloved white blazes.
Trail magic existed, since people did nice things for hikers, but the term didn’t. I hiked the trail in cut-off jean shorts, and my only other pants were jeans that weren’t cut off. Too heavy, too hot and very slow to dry. Equipment options were extremely limited, and except for my Svea stove, none of my brand-name gear was fully up to the task.
Vermont is the 12th state for northbound thru-hikers, and the only place where the AT took a backseat to another trail. In those days, when the AT and the Long Trail split just north of Sherburne Pass, the Long Trail kept white blazes and the AT switched to blue. Though recently designated a National Scenic Trail, the AT was effectively relegated to being a side trail to the venerable LT.
The Long Trail was better maintained than most of the AT, and its natural beauty and warm encounters with Vermonters made the Green Mountain State one of the favorite parts of my 2,000-mile hike. On my second day in Vermont, several other hikers and I, drenched after a thunderstorm, arrived at an overfilled camp. The caretaker left to make a phone call. He returned with a GMC Bennington Section member who, in two trips, drove 10 of us to his house for the night. We camped in his living room and an outside playroom. Best of all, he invited us to use his washer and dryer.
In Gifford Woods State Park, the ranger told me that the state government had warned that 200,000 hippies were expected in Vermont that summer. After all, the 1967 Summer of Love and the legendary 1969 Woodstock Festival were still fresh memories. “In my report to Montpelier,” he told me, “in the section on hippies, I said they had been 100 percent perfect, and that I hoped I got a lot more of them.”
Thru-Hiking has Expanded
In 1971, 23 years after the first thru-hiker, we were still a novelty. When I finished, the ATC told me I was just the 35th thru-hiker, though 20 section hikers had also finished. There were far, far fewer people everywhere on the trail then. In the 500 miles between the Smokies and Shenandoah National Park, Bob and I met only a few hikers, and almost always had the trail and shelters to ourselves.
We had a trail-beaten look, so people often asked how far we’d come and where we were going. During my 127 days on the trail, I was asked for my autograph several times, even though I was just a guy putting one foot in front of the other for months on end. We coped with entire weeks of rain, occasional minor injuries, equipment failure, dried water sources, losing the trail, closed stores, sleeping in odd places, aggressive shelter mice—all the usual stuff.
I have traveled and walked widely in the last 50 years, but following white blazes from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine, is still one of my best trips. I liked Vermont so much that I kept coming back, and a few years later I moved here. I’ve called the Green Mountains home ever since.
Tom McKone is a lifelong walker and writer. His full account of his AT thru-hike is in both Hiking the Appalachian Trail and Great Stories of Hiking the Appalachian Trail. The Connecticut native has lived in Vermont for over 40 years. A Montpelier resident, he is a retired teacher, principal, and library administrator.