I Am Ulysses



Above photo: Hiker Matt, also known on the trail as Ulysses, stops to enjoy the beautiful view from Max Patch.

Story by Jay Zschunke; photos Emanuel Vinkler

Jay is an Associate Copywriter with 360i in New York City. Emanuel is an Associate Art Director at 360i in New York City.

Hikers often take on trail personas and change their names.

There’s something magical about the Appalachian Trail. On its pathways, you can be anyone — from anywhere, going in any direction. The 2,200-mile stretch of beautiful landscape allows you to disconnect from the world and reconnect with yourself mentally. You might trade in your possessions and fit what’s left on your back. You might even trade in your name.

After hiking for a while, it’s common for people to forego their actual names in favor of a trail name they choose — or one that is given to them.

Meet “Ulysses,” known to non-trail hikers as Matt. On a multi-week hike along North Carolina’s scenic trail, he was motivated to give himself a new name by fellow hiker “Wandering Star.” During a conversation about trail names, she said, “The name you go by [Matt], that was given to you. Why don’t you choose something you can identify yourself as?”

An excerpt from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s legendary poem, “Ulysses,” inspired Matt’s name:
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail is something Ulysses had wanted to do since his teenage years; he only recently found an opportunity to do it. After a failed relationship, he left a job he didn’t enjoy. “It was the best money I’ve ever made it my life, but I sat at a desk making phone calls 500 times a day. That’s no kind of life.”

Ulysses started his hike in Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawsonville, Georgia. We crossed paths with him at Max Patch, just outside of Asheville, North Carolina, some 150 miles from his starting point. “The best thing you can do for yourself is learn to not live off of very much,” he says. A light backpack is the key, and any weight you can shed makes life that much easier. “I even cut my toothbrush in half. Anything helps,” he said.

When Ulysses began his hike, his backpack weighed 35 pounds, but as he’s gone along, he’s learned that every ounce counts. He’s since cut it down 28 pounds. His packing list includes the following items:
• Three pairs of socks
• One pair of running shorts
• One pair of long pants
• One pair of shorts
• One short- and one long-sleeved shirt
• A rain jacket
• Underwear
• Soap
• Toothbrush
• Water
• Food

To Ulysses, possessions are expendable. What is always a necessity on the Appalachian Trail, though, is what makes it truly unique — “trail magic.”

Trail magic is defined as an unexpected act of kindness and is an essential part of the Appalachian Trail experience for long-distance hikers. It can take many forms. Some people will leave cold drinks and snacks; others will take hikers home for a few days of rest and food.

Ulysses’ first experience with trail magic was an encounter with a kind couple who offered him cold beer and hot dogs. Later on, he was caught in a cold rainstorm and came across a few hikers who gave him hot water, which felt akin to a lifesaving interaction. Ulysses says trail magic isn’t usually something you find; it’s just something you stumble upon. “A lot of times people just show up. They call themselves Trail Angels,” he said.

Ulysses plans to get off the trail soon to attend school but is certain he will be back. When asked if he wants to hike the entire trail, he responds, “Absolutely. If money and school weren’t a factor, I’d keep going.”