Nancy Drew and the Mystery of Trail Names

“What’s your name?” a guy at the 501 shelter asked.

“You want my real name or trail name?” I said. Trail name would have been implied if he was a thru-hiker, but he wasn’t backpacking, so I wasn’t sure if he would even know what a trail name was. 

Inside the 501 Shelter
Nobody really knows how the trail name tradition started on the Appalachian Trail. A pseudonym is common for hobos, or if you prefer: drifters, gypsies, nomads, vagabonds, wanderers, or tramps. It doesn’t matter to me what you call it, I’ll still romanticize the lifestyle all the same. I imagine the first AT thru-hikers also romanticized that life, so the tradition seems to have carried over. 

“Trail name,” he said. 

I deepened my voice slightly, held out my hand to shake his, and said, “Nancy Drew.” It’s important to lower your voice a little before saying something like that. 

Let me go back a couple of months and explain...

Red was always a faster hiker than me, but I could usually keep up. That is, if I wasn't taking photos. If you’ve read my blog or seen my Flickr page, you know I take lots of pictures. Since this habit slowed me down, Red gave me the trail name, Cam. A.K.A The Cameraman, or as Thumper and Sixgun would sometimes call me, Cam Cam the Cameraman.

I never liked the name Cam. Everyone assumed my real name was Cameron, and I wanted a name with a good backstory. One day, I told the group that I was going to just come up with a different name whenever someone asked for it. I gave them the responsibility to come up with the backstory on the spot if anyone ever asked, “Why do they call you that?” 

For example, someone asked me for my trail name after I chipped my tooth on a piece of candy. 

“Chip Drifter, D.D.S.,” was my reply. 

“He’s actually a dentist in his spare time,” Thumper said. 

“Well, I’m not a licensed dentist, but I dabble,” I said. 

It became a pretty fun game, so frequently changing names became our thing. One day, Red said he was going to use the trail name, “Whoopie Goldberg”.

“No wait, how about Sister Act, instead,” he said. “No, Sister Act 3, because there isn’t a Sister Act 3 yet,” he said. 

“There’s a Sister Act 2?” I asked. 

“Yeah man, it’s only the greatest film of all time. The Godfather, Citizen Kane, they have nothing on The Acts,” as he called them. “Seeing it for the first time was like looking into the eyes of God! Right then I knew I’d never be the same.” Actually Red didn't say any of the stuff in this paragraph. I just thought it would be funny to immortalize him (as much as a blog with a small number of readers can) as the world’s biggest fan of the Sister Act franchise.

Later, when a hiker introduced herself to Red, he said his name was Sister Act 3. I had a backstory ready to go. 

“Why do they call you that?” she asked. 

“Oh, he’s out here to write a screenplay.” 

We later found out the person not only believed us, but told other hikers that there was a guy on the trail writing the screenplay for Sister Act 3. Stories travel fast out here. 

Don’t let Red’s thick New York accent fool you. I would regularly get to a mountaintop and see him already there sitting on a rock singing bluegrass. He’d be swaying his head back and forth with his eyes closed and an enormous grin on his face, like a white ginger Stevie Wonder. On a day someone would meet him on the trail for the first time, they might just assume it was on the best day of his life. He was always in a good mood, which made him a great person to hike with. So when his cell phone rang while we were sitting on a mountaintop, the girls and I were shocked to see him look down at the caller ID and say, “I’m going to take this over there. There might be some yelling.” 

He walked off and we looked at each other. “Yelling? Can either of you picture Red yelling?” 

“Cam, you need to find out what that’s all about,” Thumper said. 

“Alright, I’m on it,” I said. “It will give me a chance to show off my Nancy Drew skills.” 

When Red came back, I did just that. “So, Red, what was that all about?” That was all I had to say. He simply told us. 

“Alright, mystery solved. What do you guys think of my Nancy Drew skills?” I said. I don’t remember what they said next, but obviously they were impressed. How could they not be? “I guess you can start calling me Nancy Drew,” I said. And so they did. 

I went through many names: Cam, Bella Funk, Nathaniel Hawthorn III, Jackson Five, Diane Keaton, The Messiah, The Voice of Reason, Magnitude, U-turn, Quiet Thunder, and perhaps the second most frequently used name, That Guy Hiking with the Sisters from Kentucky. The name Nancy Drew, however, spread beyond my control. It made people laugh. Whether it was with me or at me, I didn't care. A few weeks later, a northbounder introduced himself. I couldn’t think of a new name fast enough, so I deepened my voice slightly and said, “How you doing? I’m Nancy Drew.”

“Oh, I’ve heard about you!” he said. 

Oh no, I thought. Once thru-hikers start talking about a guy named Nancy Drew when you’re not even around, your kind of stuck with it. The name was a lot more popular than I would ever be.

So, it’s a couple months later and I’m at the 501 shelter in Pennsylvania. I didn’t plan on staying there that night, but it was one of the few shelters close enough to civilization for pizza delivery. Also, there were lots of women camping there. It’s not what you are thinking, unfortunately. They turned out to be lesbians. That is, except for one couple. When I told the guy my trail name was Nancy Drew the girls all looked at him. 

This wasn't the reaction I expected. Sometimes, especially when I got further south, I got mixed reactions to the name. There were less laughs and more awkward silences. I was told I might have to be careful in the south with a name like that. People might draw their own conclusions about me. One guy actually said, "Ahh, you gotta change that, man." If I was talking to someone who I thought might have an uneasy reaction to a guy calling himself Nancy Drew, I would sometimes introduce myself as, Nancy Fucking Drew, and strengthen my hand shake. It was sort of a survival reflex. You can't be too careful.

The reaction at the 501 shelter was unique though. They were all laughing and looking at him instead of me. 

“Oh man, are you a fan of the books too!?” he said. I’m willing to bet he was the only twenty-six year old male to have ever said that.  He probably thought for a moment, See, you guys, I'm not the only one!

“No, actually I've never read any,” I said.

“My favorite thing about Nancy Drew,” he went on enthusiastically, “Is that when she was working on a case and needed to clear her head, she’d go to the mall. Also, I liked that she always ended up catching a truly bad guy. It was never just the owner of a haunted carnival that stole some treasure or something; it was like a guy that beat his wife.”

That evening, we all sat around a campfire while one of the girls played Ani Difranco, Melissa Etheridge, and Indigo Girls songs on her guitar. As it turns out, my musical taste is not unlike a young lesbian woman’s, because I knew the lyrics of most of those songs and sang with them. They gave me a few cans of PBR and a couple shots of whiskey. The next morning, they made me a breakfast burrito. I was glad I decided to stay.

A few days later, I was sitting in the pub at the Doyle Hotel in Duncannon, Pennsylvania. A hiker, who I had passed a few days before, walked in. 

“Hey, you caught up,” I said. “So, how’s the hike going?“ 

“I was miserable. I’m done hiking," she said. "I hitched from the 501 shelter to here. Hey, did you know that after your entry in the 501 shelter log book, someone wrote, ‘We loved Nancy Drew!’” 

It made me feel good. Now that Nancy Drew had fans, I couldn't think about changing my name again. And I never did.
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A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.