Eric the Red

The day before Thanksgiving, I left work early and took a hike in the late afternoon in a woods near my home. About a mile into my walk from the trailhead, I came across a hiker at a trail junction. He had stopped to study the trail information and a map displayed on a kiosk.
He and his clothes and gear looked worn. A large red backpack was on the ground by his boots and he was holding a pair of battered ski poles in one hand. We exchanged hellos, and he told me he was walking the 215-mile New England National Scenic Trail, which runs from the the Long Island Sound in my Connecticut town up through Connecticut and Massachusetts to the New Hampshire border.
He had just started his walk that morning after sleeping outside somewhere, no doubt illegally, not far from the trail’s start near the Sound.
He wanted to know whether he was still in my town and how far he had come. I told him he was indeed still in my town and had come less than 10 miles. He said he thought he had gone farther, acknowledged that he might have made some wrong turns, and pulled up his shirt sleeve to display a very bloody elbow. “I caught a root,” he explained. He asked me how far up the trail the next shelter was located and whether he could get some supplies nearby. I said I didn’t know of any shelters coming up and that the woods we were in were bordered by homes, not stores. He took in that information without saying anything. I do not know if camping is allowed anywhere in my town, whether someone is walking the New England Trail or not. I was thinking of saying, “Good luck!” and continuing my hike, but instead I said, “You could camp in my backyard if you want.” He brightened up at my offer and accepted it. He shouldered his large pack and I turned around to walk with him back to my car.
He said his name was Eric. I said I was Tom and we shook hands. We talked about hiking. He had hiked the Appalachian Trail about 25 years earlier. He had walked from Maine to Georgia on the AT and said that the mud, black flies, and rushing streams filled with snowmelt he had encountered made him realize he should have walked the trail in the traditional south-to-north direction. He also said he had walked the Hundred-Mile Wilderness section of the AT in Maine earlier this year.
We got to my car and he threw his pack in the back and got in the passenger seat. He said he hadn’t driven a car in six years and rode his bike everywhere. “Driving is bad for my disposition,” he explained.
On the way to my house we passed a motel that I mentioned was relatively cheap, but he didn’t seem interested. At my house I showed him the backyard, which he said was great. He needed money and called a friend, but the connection was bad so he used my phone. I heard him make arrangements for a money transfer at a drug store. He asked me how he might get to the store and I offered to drive. We drove downtown and he went into the store. While I waited, I texted my wife, Jan, and informed her that someone would be camping in the backyard, and that I would explain when I saw her.
“Can’t wait!” she responded.
After 20 minutes I went in the store looking for Eric. He was at a computer screen with a store employee who was offering assistance. The problem seemed to be that he couldn’t figure out the number of his new cell phone, which he had gotten for the trip. The problem got solved and we left the store with $60. He apologized for the delay and asked if it wouldn’t be too much trouble if we stopped someplace to pick up beer. We hit the liquor store on the way home and he went in and came out with a brown paper bag.
Back at the house we walked into the backyard to his pack. I asked him about food and meals and he said he had a lot of Ramen noodles for dinner. He showed me the little stove he used that burned alcohol. His cell phone battery was low, and I offered to charge his phone overnight. I went inside and told my wife that we had been in town so Eric could get some money. Jan went outside with me to say hello to Eric, who by this time had his headlamp on and was setting up camp. He looked at her in the headlamp light and said she looked familiar to him, but they certainly had never met. I told Eric to knock on the door if he needed anything and we went inside. It felt a bit weird to be inside with light, music, a fire in the woodstove, and plenty of food and drink, while Eric moved around outside lit by his headlamp and the deck lights I had turned on, but I forgave myself for not inviting him in on the basis of knowing so little about him, although he was perfectly charming and friendly. I wondered if he thought it rude that I was making him stay outside.
He knocked on the door a bit later to get some water for cooking, so he woudln’t have to use his purified water. “Van Morrison!” he said, recognizing the song playing in the house. I asked him about his elbow while my wife filled his water bootle. He said, “Oh, I forgot about that.” I brought him to the bathroom so he could clean the wound and my wife gave him some antibacterial ointment and a large bandage. Out he went to his small tent, which he said he had just bought new for only $29.
The next morning when I woke up, Jan said, “Your friend is up!” It was still fairly dark and I could see the beam of Eric’s headlamp. I walked out a bit later with his fully charged phone to a cheerful Eric. He said he had a great night and enjoyed a spectacular full moon in a clear sky. He pointed to where the moon was setting low on the horizon and where the sun was coming up, remarking how cool it was to see both at the same time.
I invited him in for a cup of coffee and he sat at the table and we chatted for about half an hour. I asked him what his nickname was on the AT, and he said, “The Red-Bearded Viking.” His long beard was now all gray (He had told me the evening before that he was 48 years old).
He said he had once suffered a serious leg injury on a construction job, but luckily found a doctor to put plates and screws in his leg that allowed him to hike. He said he hiked toe to heel rather than heel to toe and got up from the table to demonstrate his gait, which he said was much easier on his legs. He referred to the book, Born to Run, by Christopher McDougal, about the native Mexican tribe of ultra-runners, and said that was how they ran. He also said he got around all the time riding a bike. He had once been hit by a drunk driver while riding and had let the driver off, telling her, “You’d better get home now.”
He also talked a little bit of places he had lived out west, and said he had left a woman out there to come back east to another woman, which had been a mistake. The previous evening he had told me he had a 19-year-old son living with his grandmother. I didn’t know if that was Eric’s mother or not. He said his son had tried to show Eric how to use his new phone, and Eric was self-deprecatory about how inept he was with electronic gadgets.
We finished drinking our coffee. I asked Eric if he wanted anything to eat, or if he needed anything. He said he didn’t and I told him I would drive him to the trailhead after he had packed.
I went out to him when it looked like he was ready. He had a bag of “recycling” which I said I would take care of. He mentioned that it was Thanksgiving, which was his favorite holiday and asked what Jan and I were doing. I said something vague about going out of town to a relative’s place. I was thinking that he clearly would have taken a layover day to have a Thanksgiving dinner somewhere.
We walked to the car and Jan came out to say good-bye. He thanked her for everything and Eric and I drove off. At the trailhead, he thanked me profusely and said how nice all the people were who he encountered on his hikes. I had written my cell phone number on a piece of paper. I handed it to him and told him to call me if he had a problem. He thanked me again, and expressed excitement at the beautiful day that was shaping up. We shook hands and he strode off into the woods with his ski poles, northbound to New Hampshire.

Driving back to the house, I remembered that he was going to hit a trail junction a few miles into the day’s walk, and that it might not be clear to him which way to go at the junction. I had asked him if he had a map, and he had said he did, but I never saw it and it didn’t appear that he had conducted much research about the trail. When I had met him, he had related that he had originally planned to do a long hike elsewhere, but was intrigued by the New England Trail, which had been established only a few years earlier, and which he had just heard about.
I drove home, and told Jan he had thanked us again and was off on the trail. I was pleased that the weather was so good and that it was unseasonably warm. Jan had taken his recycling, which was six empty beer cans that he had bought the night before, and an empty plastic vodka bottle, perhaps from an earlier evening.
We left town for Thanksgiving and I told my relatives about meeting Eric.
The next morning, my phone rang at 7 a.m. I usually don’t answer if I don’t know the caller, so I let it ring. There was a voicemail and I listened.
“Hi, Tom. It’s Eric. I slept in your backyard.” He had reached the tricky trail junction and said he wasn’t sure which way to go and was wondering if I could help. His voice went in and out, and I guessed he was looking around as he spoke, without moving the phone along with his head. I called him back and he said he had made a choice of direction, which was the right one. He said he hoped we had had a great Thanksgiving, that it was a beautiful day, the trail was wonderful, and that he was wondering if he could get supplies along the next road he was going to reach. I said he would have to hitchhike or walk a ways north up the road to the next town. He said he would figure it out and I wished him luck. He had only traveled several miles on Thanksgiving, despite his plan to do the 215-mile trail in 10 days. I related this to Jan and she was dubious about his progress.
We spent another day away from home with relatives and the following morning at 6:45 my phone rang and Eric’s name came up on the display, as I had made him a contact. I figured I would listen to his message and only call him back if he was in a jam.
“Hey, Tom. It’s Eric the Red. Kinda lost a little bit.” He was laughing at himself. “I’m somewhere on some highway. I think I’ll find my way. It’s just getting light. Curious if you might have an inkling of where I’m going.”
I didn’t.
I opened my laptop to call up the map of the trail online and called Eric back to see if I could pinpoint his location. Eric answered and told me “Leo” had picked him up and was driving him to the trailhead. I assumed that he had called me because he had come out of the woods to a road and had walked in the wrong direction or couldn’t spot the blue trail blazes that are on the short road sections of the trail, as well as in the woods. I wished him luck again and hung up.
It’s been two weeks since that call and I haven’t heard from Eric again. The weather has been great since then, and much warmer than normal, so he had hit a perfect time to do his hike. I hoped he finished it. I had asked him what he was going to do at the end of the trail, and he had said he didn’t know. I hadn’t asked him where he lived but it’s somewhere in Rhode Island, or at least that’s the area code of his cell phone number.
Maybe I’ll call Eric and see if he made it to New Hampshire. While he seemed to be a bit of a hapless soul who had had a tough time of it, he was friendly and good-natured and not too worried that everything wasn’t all planned. He was doing something—hiking a 215-mile trail by himself—that few people would have the expertise to accomplish, and he seemed very happy to be doing it.
I’ve done quite a bit of hiking and camping, but always in large “official” woods for a prescribed period, knowing exactly what supplies I would need and only running into fellow travelers. I’ve never walked with a pack “through the world” like Eric, going in and out of woods and, in this case, walking along a trail, unlike the AT, whose neighbors aren’t even aware of it, and probably view “thru hikers” with some wariness.
When I gave Eric my phone number and told him to call me if he had a problem, he had said, “Or maybe to take a hike sometime.” I’m sure I’d enjoy that, but, either way, God speed, Eric. God speed.