What's in a Name?

I was 150 miles into my 500-mile hike of the Colorado Trail when I stopped at the boundary sign for Holy Cross Wilderness. As I filled out my backcountry permit at the self-service box, a gray-bearded man walked up and greeted me with a warm hello. His name was Richard.

Richard was wearing a rain poncho that draped cattywampus over his generous frame. His eyes twinkled behind rain-specked glasses and he wore a sunhat with Legionnaire’s neck flaps. Something suddenly clicked in my memory.

“Hey, are you Pufferbelly by chance?” I asked while tying the permit tag onto my backpack.

A woman named Vickers had stopped me about 12 miles back and asked if I had seen her husband, and this guy fit the description to a tee. 

"Did your wife find you? Did you get your supplies?”

He broke into a broad grin.

“Yes, I am, and she did, and I did,” he said slowly and deliberately, showing obvious delight at the mention of his wife.

In typical thru-hiker fashion, Pufferbelly and I talked about weather, gear and food as he filled out his permit and we stepped onto the trail together.

“May I be so bold as to inquire if you have a trail song?” he asked.

I found his formal turn of phrase endearing.

“When I hike the straightaways, I sing ‘I’ve Got a Brand New Pair of Roller Skates,’” Pufferbelly admitted. “It has the perfect cadence.”

Now it was my turn to grin.

He started to sing, I added my alto voice to his baritone, and together we attempted the impossible high notes of the chorus.

Well, I got a brand new pair of roller skates
You got a brand new key
I think that we should get together
And try them out, you see

“My hiking song is ‘Little Liza Jane,’” I volunteered.

“Ah, that’s an older tune, if I’m not mistaken,” Pufferbelly said. “Late 1800s or turn of the century perhaps?”

“I’m not sure how old it is, but I made up a bunch of new verses about the CT.”

Here I go to Durango (Little Liza Jane)
With a big ol’ pack upon my back (Little Liza Jane)

Oh, Little Liza, Little Liza Jane
Oh, Little Liza, Little Liza Jane

I’m in the mood for freeze-dried food (Little Liza Jane)
Had chili mac and a gas attack (Little Liza Jane)

When he heard me sing the second verse, Pufferbelly howled with laughter. I guessed that he, too, was no stranger to the intestinal pitfalls of certain dehydrated backpacking meals.

“Chili mac is the gift that keeps on giving,” I said, triggering another loud hoot from my new hiking buddy.

“I must confess,” Pufferbelly said, still winded from laughing as we hit a steeper section of singletrack. “My trail song … slows into … the Volga Boatmen dirge … when I go … uphill.”

As we stopped to catch our breaths, he hummed several low, mournful notes from deep in his chest.

I’m pretty sure there’s a Russian painting – a landscape I saw in a book once – with men in rags dragging a barge to the banks of the Volga River, their heads bent as they push their weight against leather chest straps.

“I think we share the same uphill song, Pufferbelly,” I said, as we forged on, pushing our weight against the straps of our backpacks.

“By the way, how did you get your trail name?”

As it turns out, this wasn’t Richard’s first attempt at the CT. He earned his nickname when a hiker caught up to him on a steep section of trail one day. With every labored step Richard muttered, “I think I can, I think I can” like in the Little Engine That Could.

The hiker soon passed Richard, but waited for him at the top of the climb.

“Hey, I’ve got a trail name for you and I think you’ll like it,” the hiker announced once Richard reached the high point. “It’s train-related.”

Richard anticipated a powerful name like Locomotive, the Zephyr or Iron Horse. Instead, the hiker gave him the trail name Pufferbelly – an old-timey steam engine barely able to chug along, discounted, retired and put out to pasture. Richard could have refused the name, but he embraced it as a gift because it reminded him “I think I can.”

“Do you have a trail name?” Pufferbelly asked.

“No,” I said, scrunching up my nose. “I haven’t earned one yet.”

         Photo of Pufferbelly by Justin Smith

Soon Pufferbelly and I started to hike at different paces and I found myself alone again on the trail, wrestling with the same worry that had nagged at me before leaving home. I was afraid I would hike all the way from Denver to Durango without doing anything special enough to earn a trail name. I was scared of ending my thru-hike feeling unremarkable and unchanged.

Even though many hikers choose their own trail names, the tradition is to be given your name by a fellow hiker. And you can earn it for a number of different reasons. It might be one that reflects who you are as a person, or a name that speaks to your unique experience, or one that simply captures a funny moment.

Loud thunder clapped and my mind snapped back to the trail as fat rain drops started to hit my backpack with decisive splats. I scrambled for cover under a tree canopy and pulled out my rain gear.

Pufferbelly came up the singletrack behind me and stopped to say hello. I offered to re-snap his poncho so it would hang straight before he continued up the hillside, and I was a little sad to see him leave.

Not one minute later, the skies unloaded and Pufferbelly trotted back down the trail to where I was standing.

“Would you mind if I shared your sanctuary here?” he asked as small hail stones started to bounce off his head and pack. I waved him under the branches to join me.

A crack of lightning made our ears ring, and Pufferbelly pointed to the lightning detector on his hip belt. “That was a close one!”

I asked about the gadget, and he showed me how it worked, and what to look for, to know when the coast was clear. We chatted as steady sheets of rain continued to fall around us.

“My wife would take such comfort in knowing I’m safe, here with you in this shelter, during this storm.”

“Well, I’m delighted to have such good company,” I said, and I was, especially during my first real squall on the CT.

We stood smiling in silent companionship, dry and content in our sacred space.

Pufferbelly cleared his throat and then declared with great ceremony, “I have a trail name for you, that is, if you wish to accept it.”

I took a sharp intake of breath.

“I’ve found that the best things on this trail, as with life, happen in the smallest of moments – like this one,” he said. “So my name for you is Serendipity.”

Serendipity I thought. That’s like luck or magic, right? I had started this hike worried I would never get a trail name, and now that I had one, I was worried it was too big for me. I didn’t know if I could live up to it.

I barely managed to choke out a thank you as I marveled over the gift, and potential responsibility, of this name.

Then, like a faucet, the rain abruptly turned off. The clouds parted and sunshine bathed the mountainside in gold light as we stepped out from under our temporary cover. A rivulet of water rushed down the trail like a small stream, sweeping away the hail and pine needles, washing the path clean.

Once again, Pufferbelly and I started to hike at different speeds and I lost sight of him. We didn't know it then, but that day would be the first and last time we would cross paths on the Colorado Trail.

Later I heard from fellow thru-hikers that we reached Durango within days of each other.

And thanks to social media, Pufferbelly and I were able to find one another and stay in touch. Within a few weeks of completing the CT, I reunited with Pufferbelly and his lovely wife, Vickers, in Denver.

Here is Richard, a.k.a. Pufferbelly, next to his Colorado Trail cake at the party to celebrate his completion of the 485-mile CT.

Unable to recall the details myself, I asked Pufferbelly if he remembered how we parted ways on the trail that afternoon in the wilderness. “I can’t remember how we said goodbye that day,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “But that seems fitting, don’t you think?”

There is a phenomenon called Trail Magic, known and spoken of with reverence by everyone who hikes the trail, which holds that often when things look darkest some little piece of serendipity comes along to put you back on a heavenly plane.
— Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods

A version of this story was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Around the Oval magazine, and it will also appear in my upcoming book Serendipity on the Trail.

If you’re curious how the book is coming along, sign up for my monthly newsletter under the comments section below.