And They Shall Call Me Tunes
Featured photo shot by Synjon Dudgeon on one of the disposable film cameras I carried on trail.
“What are you most excited about?” they’d ask me during the months leading up to my first thru hike.
I found the question, like so many others related to my hike, nearly impossible to answer. I’m excited for… everything? It felt presumptuous to pick out one part of the experience I thought I’d enjoy most, as if I had any clue what it would be like walking a dirt path through the mountains all day every day for six months.
I knew what I’d read about the terrain, what I’d seen in other hikers’ YouTube videos about social dynamics and famous trail angel houses, and what I’d heard on podcasts of hikers’ highly personal motivations for getting out on the trail and deep insights into the human condition once there. I knew why I had to go. But what I was getting myself into? I had about as clear an understanding of that as I do the fundamentals of accounting.
“I’m not excited about any one thing in particular, in fact I have no clue what to expect,” however honest, didn’t strike me as an effective conversation prodder, so I often reached for a fun aspect of life on long trails that could shed some light on thru hiking culture.
“I can’t wait to get a trail name,” I told anyone when they asked and Cameron, repeatedly, whether he asked or not.
It was a simple answer to a complicated question, but it was true. I’d obsessed for years over thru hiking, devouring any information I could find on the subject, and the most revealing, compelling stuff I found and searched for over and over again were the stories of hikers’ relationships, both with themselves and others, and how quickly and powerfully they developed on trail.
My childhood and adolescence were defined by experiences that, in hindsight, almost seem designed for the purpose of uniting people from different backgrounds and bonding them through a week or two of intense group activity that’s equal parts fun, vulnerability, and education. Throw in matching t-shirts, a ropes course, and someone pooping in the swimming pool and you have summer camp. Replace “ropes course” with “dance studio full of hormonal, attention-seeking kids who all think they can sing” and “swimming pool” with “the white shorts we were required to bring from home for the final performance” and you have theatre academy.
From summers at camp to a semester in Paris to a 200-hour yoga teacher training, I’ve consistently sought out these kinds of experiences. They’re the kind of experiences you go into for the first time with a nervous pit in your stomach because you sort of have an idea of what to expect, which as we all know is not damn good enough. They’re the kind of experiences that force you to question your assumptions and learn about yourself and others and see the world from a different perspective, from which you might emerge a little wiser than before. You talk about them incessantly once they’re over and are disappointed when those outsiders who didn’t share the experience “just don’t understand.”
The thing is, they would understand, if you could just learn to explain the experience in relatable terms, because what makes those experiences so profound is the connective tissue they reveal between oneself and others who, previously, seemed so different. But it’s hard to boil what you’ve learned down to relatable terms because these life events - anything from band camp to Burning Man - are designed to bond participants through extremely specific common experiences, including a language, culture, value system, and social hierarchy all specific to the paradigm of that particular program.
Maybe that’s part of the reason I was so drawn to thru hiking. I looked at my life (read: job) and saw myself participating in a program I didn’t like, one where I felt more like a cog in an inhuman machine than a valued individual with agency and a path to growth. I looked down from my standing desk and saw through blog posts and YouTube videos on my computer screen a glimpse of a different program. One where people push themselves and help each other. One where the daily commute is not only the whole point but one of the best parts. I learned the language and identified with the culture and value system.
I wanted to be a part of it, and I reached for what seemed the most emblematic signifier of thru hiking culture: the trail name. A trail name is a sort of nickname hikers take on during their thru hikes. Typically, a hiker is given or suggested a trail name by another hiker, and the namee can then accept or reject the suggested name. Sometimes a name just sticks. Sometimes a hiker will choose their own trail name. Some hikers never take a trail name at all. The name is usually based on a characteristic of the person or a funny or notable thing that happened to/near/because of them.
There is a whole etiquette associated with the giving and receiving of trail names, and it is the subject of much asinine online debate you can read if you’re ever craving a hit of baffling frustration with humanity. If you ask me, it doesn’t matter how you get your trail name, as long as it’s one that resonates with you and isn’t disrespectful to anyone. Like, generally avoid anything that could be construed as racist or homophobic or misogynistic… usually not an issue, but, y’know. People.
I’ve always loved the concept of nicknames. It makes me feel all tingly inside when a group knows each other so well or in such a special context that our parent-given names will simply no longer suffice. I’ve been SarMow, Sayray, Sriracha, Smowery, Mowdog, SayMow, Smow, Mowrizzle, Money Mowery, Saryah, Sarahline, Sister, Kid, and Turtle Bug. I’ve been called so many names by so many different people, it’s almost offensive when someone who knows me well elects to call me “Sarah.”
A nickname is so much more than a personalized proper noun. A nickname is the hand-painted, co-created vessel for a thousand inside jokes, for years of growing up together, for all the little moments you want to relive. It’s all those shared experiences packed down into a few syllables, and, for the people who know each other by their nicknames, it says, “I know you. I get you. We’ve been through some shit.”
So, as I packed my apartment into a storage unit and said my goodbyes in March of 2018, that is what I couldn’t wait for. I was doing the thing, that was for sure, but I hardly even knew how much I didn’t know. I wanted to know and be known and tailor a new identity to fit this version of myself I worked so long to find.
April 1, 2018. Day Two. I’d picked out what looked on the maps like the perfect place to camp that night. Relief and grateful exhaustion exploded in my mind as I reached the bottom of my last descent of the day and turned a corner to find the clearing, right where I expected it, and alive with four other hikers sitting around, chatting.
The others, two couples by the looks of it, welcomed me into our home for the night and introduced themselves. I threw down my pack and surveyed the remaining open space, finally laying my tent out on a semi-flat patch of dirt between two tall pines. As I pitched my little grey and yellow nylon house, Groover, whom I’d met at Hauser Creek the night before, pointed to a patchy use trail leading into the woods and told me, “The road to Poop Town’s that way.”
Over the next few hours between twilight and total darkness, three more hikers hobbled in, I nursed a Coors Light tall boy, and a few among us made the trip to Poop Town. We covered all the most common topics of early thru-hike conversation -- gear, foot pain, food, back pain, mileage plans, shoulder pain, weather, blisters, anticipation for upcoming sections, and, finally, trail names.
Groover and his partner, Pacecar, being the only hikers in our group who already had trail names, told us the stories of how they acquired theirs (Groover’s trail name has nothing to do with dancing and everything to do with, well, poop, while Pacecar’s has nothing to do with poop and everything to do with, well, pace) and proceeded to engage the group in a rousing game of “Let’s see if we can come up with a trail name for you.”
We went around in a circle, telling stories and asking questions about each other, someone occasionally piping in with what they thought would be a super trail name. For the guy wearing all camouflage clothing, “Camo.” For the Austrian wearing tighty whities, “Tighty Whitie.” One of those two ended up sticking, I’ll let you guess which one. And for me, the girl with a tiny speaker clipped to her pack and a vision of uniting fellow hikers through shared music tastes and filling every campsite and town motel room with the sweet sound of good tunes, “DJ.”
I went to sleep that night tired, hungry, and extremely satisfied. I was proud of my 16-mile day, reeling over how new and exciting this life still felt, and thrilled with the immediate sense of belonging. “DJ” didn’t feel quite right to me, -- it seemed too much like a real-world name, one you might find on a Yelp review or FOIA request form, to be my trail name -- but that was a problem for another time. It may not have been perfect, but it was mine. An external indicator of my place in this community I’d dreamed so long of joining. A shiny membership card I could pull out at any moment, proving to everyone, chiefly myself, I was a part of this thing. With my new nickname, I felt suddenly transformed from obsessed observer to insider.
I walked with my new trail name for two days and tried it on by introducing myself alternately as “DJ” and “Sarah,” the former consistently feeling like a front. I still wasn’t smitten with my new identity, but I wasn’t ready to slough it off just yet. I didn’t like the sound or feel of “DJ,” but I loved what it represented: the importance of music in my life and my desire to share the music I love with others. I had grown so much over the two years prior, strengthening my understanding of self, empathy, confidence, and relationships. Much of that growth came through the pursuit and mutual love of music I found and explored with friends old and new. It had always been a powerful force in my life, but music had taken on a new role in the months leading up to my hike. It was a portal, a mentor, a yellow brick road from an unsatisfied past to an unforeseen future. More than a backdrop, the music I was discovering illuminated, accompanied, and reinforced the things I was learning about myself. The things that led me to where I was now, traveling down a dirt path in the mountains of Southern California.
Music was a huge part of me, and so it seemed appropriate that one of the first interpersonal signifiers of who I was - my trail name - would convey that. Just maybe not in the form of an acronym that calls to mind images of Vegas pool parties for some, the eldest sister from Full House for others.
I hiked with my thoughts until they became tiresome, then I pulled out my phone and put in my earbuds. I opened Spotify and went to the first playlist in my Library, a collaborative playlist I’d started with my friends before the trail so I wouldn’t have to miss out on any of the new music coming out. They would add their favorites of the songs they’d found, and I would download in town and listen on trail. It was called PCTunes. It was, and is, an incredible playlist.
I arrived at camp early the evening of April 3rd, Day Four. My friend Synjon (that’s his given name, he’d later take on the trail name “Jukebox”) was already there, exploring the boulder field three of us had all said we’d likely camp in that night. And it was way too awesome to pass up. We climbed around the boulders and shared snacks while the setting sun cast an orange tint over the crinkly beige desert in front of us. Butterscotch rolled up a little later, and we all sat around talking until well after dark. The conversation drifted, as it so often does, to the topic of trail names.
“DJ just sounds too much like a person’s actual name, but I like the idea of it,” I floated to the group, fishing for a little validation. “I know you’re not really supposed to pick your own trail name, but...”
Butterscotch, a veteran of thru hiking, chimed in: “Do what you want, there are no rules!”
“Well…” I went on, “I’ve been thinking, I kind of like Tunes.”
“Tunes?” said Butterscotch, “That’s a good trail name. I never heard of anyone with that trail name before.”
“Yeah,” I smiled and leaned back onto the boulder behind me, tilting my head back to scan for shooting stars and satellites.
The next day, to whomever I met, I introduced myself as “Tunes,” and it fit like a worn old t-shirt, soft and special and mine.