Skywalker Finally Realizes Renowned Appalachian Trail Personality–Baltimore Jack–Is a Good Guy
You get off to good and bad beginnings with your fellow humanoids. My initial contact with the well-known Appalachian Trail (AT) personality, ‘Baltimore Jack’, was of the decidedly rocky variety. While there was probably plenty of blame to go around, I want to take my share of the culpability.
I first met Baltimore Jack in 2005 at the AT hiker hostel at Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. I was in the process of rooting out what was anything but an aesthetically pleasing thru-hike; nonetheless, it was as intoxicating of an extended experience as I have yet to enjoy as a human. Jack’s hiking career, on the other hand, was moving in the opposite direction. Those of you in the hiking community might be aware that Baltimore Jack thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail eight times over the course of nine years. His string was just ending about the time I met him that summer day in July, 2005, after he injured himself in the steep descent into Bennington, Vermont. As all Appalachian Trail (and Pacific Crest Trail) thru-hikers are aware, thru-hiking is an all-consuming endeavor, both physically and mentally. It is simply tough to readjust; and somebody who has been at it willy-nilly for almost a decade faces a particularly grueling reorientation.
So Jack and I were in different places mentally at the time of our first encounter. Complicating things even further, we had very difficult relationships with the other very well-known trail personality, Warren Doyle. Warren had hiked the AT a total of 13 times by the time I entered his Appalachian Trail Institute class in the spring of 2005. So obviously he, too, was a different animal than me. To say that he and Jack were rivals, would be a great understatement. They seemed to represent two entirely hiking traditions. Baltimore Jack, in his heyday, had a virtually cult-like following by people who simply reveled in his company. He is a raconteur par excellence, with deep and wide friendships throughout the entire trail. Warren, on the other hand, is a born lightning rod. He is fiercely independent (ultra-lightweighter, extremely contrarian, famously frugal, and very controversial). At times, it actually has seemed like Warren is afflicted with a ‘low-boredom threshhold’. He simply courts controversy like he needs it to keep going (Ex. jumping off the Connecticut river bridge going into Hanover, N.H., teaching his classes to ford the Kennebec River in Maine, eating off the so-called ‘leftover menu’ in restaurants). Jack, being a staunch defender of the AT’s culture and the hiking community at large, often takes offense at Warren’s outlier behavior. Topping it off, Warren is far-left politically, while Jack is to the right of center.
But they have similarities as well. And perhaps that’s the problem. Both are quite clearly intelligent. Further, each is very eloquent in his own way, and good public performers. I have long since concluded that both of them are Shakespearean characters (defined as someone with higher-than-average highs, and lower-than-average lows).
Having said all this, let me return back to my relationship with Jack. First, while an objective observer would probably say we share the blame for our rocky beginning, I have stated on several occasions that I was not fair to him in the first edition of my Appalachian Trail narrative, Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail. For starters, my publisher insisted that I use pseudonyms for anyone whom I portrayed in a less than flattering manner. Thus, I ended up using the cheesy pseudonym, Cleveland Evan, in the book. I described him as having an obsession with Warren Doyle. While it was true that I felt everybody ganged up too much on Warren that year, I now realize that Jack’s differences with Warren are grounded more in conviction, than any actual obsession. He cares deeply about the trail community, and thinks Warren’s antics sometimes hurt our image. When we were arguing about Warren eating off the ‘leftover menu’ in restaurants, Jack fired back, “Next time you’re waiting for an hour in the rain trying to hitch into town, now you’ll know why.” And regarding the fording of the Kennebec and jumping off the bridge into Hanover, Jack sincerely said, “He teaches people to do dangerous things.” Most of these things seem to me like they fall into a gray area, but I can certainly see his viewpoint.
When I saw Jack at Trail Days after the book’s publication, I offered him a copy. Also, I asked for permission to use his real name, instead of the publisher-requested pseudonym. He assented, despite my criticism in the book; I felt pangs of guilt. Thus in the second edition, I not only corrected his name, but tried to provide a more balanced account of his actual hiking record. For starters, unlike a sizeable fraction of ‘thru-hikers’, nobody has ever insinuated that Jack has ever skipped any sections, or otherwise not done pure thru-hikes.
Jack is a fixture at various trail events (Trail Days, the Gathering) and always seems very popular. Many have remarked on the AT’s unmatchable culture and he is a big part of it. In fact, it is this culture that makes hikers feel like they are part of a larger community, and not just a footpath going through the woods. Actually, he and Warren Doyle both are significant parts of the AT tapestry.
I saw Baltimore Jack this weekend at the Appalachian Trail Kickoff. “This is the first time I have ever been to this event,” he said with boyish enthusiasm. He is a fierce guardian of anything that affects trail culture, and you could tell he was impressed that the famed Appalachian Trail has yet another arrow in its quiver. “I’m an Amazon reviewer,” he said. “Would you like me to do a review of your Camino book?” I readily assented, although perhaps I should have been a bit more reluctant. For Jack is trail-wide famous for his virtually encyclopedic knowledge of history; and specifically, he has a Masters Degree in medieval history. So I can expect a thorough–and possibly intimidating–review. But that’s fair, given I have already given my take on him in my Appalachian Trail narrative. Actually, I will be very interested to see what his take is on my Camino book, because I put a lot of work in it.
Perhaps one reason I am getting on better with Jack in recent years is because he has become better adjusted to his new role as trail statesman. When I first encountered him in 2005, he had just transitioned out of his annual thru-hiking phase (He still section hikes each year), to a person we would periodically see in trail towns. “Who is this guy who seems to know so much about the trail?” people kept asking. But now I know. Baltimore Jack is one of these people who wears well over time, and I hope to see alot more of him down the road.
Bill Walker is the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail. He is also the author of Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail, as well as The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago (2012). Walker, who is nearly 7-feet tall, is currently working on a whimsical book on the subject of height.