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Opinion

Traveling mountain trails initiates nickname

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March 2, 2012

Most know me by my given name. Others, namely hikers, know me only as Bard, or, in its formal manifestations, Bard the Changeling.

The name Bard the Changeling, my trail name, was awarded to me in two parts during a 1,000 mile trek of the Appalachian Trail in 2010.

It all began in Pennsylvania on the third day as I was marching at a fast clip. Light green ferns covered the forest floor as far as I could see for a few miles. The rocks, boulders actually, corrupted the trail for the entire Pennsylvania section. Those boulders house all sorts of snakes: black, copperhead, timber rattlers and more.

Hours earlier, I was loitering on an ancient dam cracked and covered with moss when I noticed a copperhead in one of the broken crooks. I antagonized it for some time with rocks and sticks.

Well, when I was walking among the ferns, finally gaining a good stride, a loud rattling noise spoke up from the ferns. “What the f—k,” I yelled falling back into a tree then onto my 37-pound pack. The maneuver of falling onto your pack is what we in the business call “turtling.” Crab-walking back a few feet I jumped up; the rattling was less pronounced.

Taking off my pack, I found a long branch and proceeded with caution towards the rattling. Two feet from where I was a moment ago was a coiled blue timber rattler, rare and petulant. Its tail stuck straight in the air next to its head above the coiled body.

Despite the increase frequency of the rattle, I shoved the stick under the snake like digging up earthworms and flung it some dozens of feet off the trail.

The same incident with many cousins happened to the snakes and I through the next seven states. A couple miles later, I met three weekend warriors, professional working types that probably had all of their gear handpicked by Jim the sales clerk at REI.

After telling them the tale of the rattler, they asked me if I had a trail name and told them I didn’t. They declared me Bard on the spot.

And Bard I was, just Bard, for 600 more miles until I hit the White mountains of New Hampshire. In April, before hiking the trail, I meticulously planned how many miles on each day I was to hike. For example, on May 31, I was to hike 23.6 miles in New York from Pochuck Shelter to Wildcat Shelter or on August 3, 14.4 miles in Maine from Potaywadjo Spring to Crescent Pond.

Things didn’t go according to plan. This was just as evident when ascending several mountains and thousands of feet in addition to the long miles I expected of myself. In the midst of the Whites, I befriended some older hikers who I would start the day out with, but warned them I was going to hike 17 miles or some junk only for them to see me smiling eight miles away at the shelter. These older hikers were called Flatlander and Kite and Piper, a married couple. Piper took to calling herself my trail mom, always looking out for me in the trail logs.

After repeating this process several times throughout New Hampshire, I had finally told them that I would leave them in Gorham, a trail town. Staying at a hostel on the opposite side of town to their motel, I decided to take a double zero, zero meaning day off.

When I was waiting for my ride from Golden Waldo, I saw my friends passing by in a van towards the trailhead. They were 10 minutes ahead of me by the time I got to the trail.

I ran fast, but stealthily over the flats before the mountains started to ascend.

Finally, I saw the familiar blue shorts and t-shirt of Flatlander. Creeping up a few feet behind him, I was going to tap his shoulder, but my foot broke a twig and he turned around.

I wasn’t able to startle him like the rattler, but we exchanged smiles and hearty handclasps as he hallooed to Kite and Piper who were up the trail. “You know Bard; you’ve changed your mind quite a bit recently. We, Kite and Piper, got to talking and started referring to you as Bard the Changeling.”

So it was that in casual reference I was called Bard, but when people saw me when they didn’t expect to, especially at a shelter I didn’t say I was going to end up at, hikers would hold their arms out towards heaven like the returning of the prodigal son and declare, “Bard the Changeling.”

Christopher Pagels is an alumnus of UW-River Falls.