The Return of the Drifter
It was the evening of December 14. My 7-year-old, Olivia, and I were dressed up and braving the rain for our annual downtown outing to see the Nutcracker. We joined the other suits and dresses hanging out in the swanky center orchestra seats and were settling in for the performance when my phone started buzzing with a call from an unrecognized number in Alabama. A quick scan of my memory told me I knew about two people in Alabama – and both of them could wait. I put my phone back in the chest pocket of my suit jacket and didn’t think about it again for two hours.
After the music faded and the ballet dancers took their final bows, Olivia and I made our way back to the parking garage and I listened to the voicemail. A woman’s voice started out “Hi, this message is for Alan. I’m calling for Levi.”
Drunk dials used to be enjoyable; at this stage in life, they’re an annoyance.
I moved to delete the message as the mystery woman continued, “I guess you might know him as Colorado Drifter.” She had my attention. “He lost your phone number and he’s trying to get in touch with you. We saw your website and would like it if you could give us a call.”
It had been 18 months since I parted ways with the Colorado Drifter at the border of Georgia and North Carolina on the Appalachian Trail. I thought about Mike often. People still frequently asked me if I heard from him or if we ever met up again. Thanks to the blog post, various hikers had also reached out to tell me they saw him further up the trail, in Virginia, Maryland and as far north as Connecticut. All gave similar reports – he was doing well, adopted the trail name “Levi,” and he was covering good ground.
Mike had my number written down, but he had never reached out. Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to contact him either. My well-honed internet sleuthing produced little. Google searches for his name lead to a mug shot from a prior arrest, but I couldn’t track him past that. The cattle ranch either didn’t exist or it was in hiding, as it didn’t have a website, Facebook page, or tax records. My searches didn’t produce parents, siblings, high school records, or a single Facebook tag. Mike had achieved something special in this era of hyperconnectivity: he didn’t exist.
I had no idea how Mike was doing, but that hadn’t stopped my mind from drawing up various theories in an attempt to explain his absence. Maybe his backpack got stolen. Maybe he lost the piece of paper with my number on it. Maybe he got thrown back in jail.
Hell, maybe he died.
The voicemail changed all that. Not only was Mike alive, I had a way to communicate with him! I called the number back, hoping it wasn’t too late.
The mystery woman answered on the first ring. Her name was Karen and she had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail several years ago. She met Mike as they were working together to clean up Florida after the latest hurricane and they were staying together, albeit briefly, in her home in Alabama. She went on to say that Mike had told her about our hike and wished he could get back in touch with me. Karen asked Mike for my name and home state and – being a decent internet sleuth herself – she tracked down my blog. She and Mike read the story just before she called. “Do you want to talk to him?” she asked.
Is the Pope Catholic? Does a chicken have lips? Are Ohio State fans classless? “Of course!”
A familiar mellow voice came on the line. “Hello.” It sounded like more of a question than a greeting.
“Hi, Mike! How are you?” I was so excited to finally talk to him again.
We chatted for a few minutes and caught up on each other’s lives. After we went our separate ways on the trail in 2017, Mike completed his thru-hike and summited Mount Katahdin in Maine. He then settled down in Massachusetts for the winter, working odd jobs for a contractor near Boston. When the weather warmed, Mike made his way back to the Appalachian Trail and hiked southbound until he reached Harper’s Ferry. If you’re counting, that means Mike has hiked about 3,100 miles since I saw him last. It wasn’t surprising based on his determination, conditioning, and speed, but it was humbling to hear nonetheless.
True to form, Mike's journey didn't end there. After the trail, he headed down to the Panhandle with other transient workers to help with the cleanup of Hurricane Michael. There he had met Karen and decided to travel with her back to her homestead in Alabama. But he explained he wouldn't be staying long, with the prospect of Texas hanging in the air.
I was happy to learn that Mike still had my old backpack and it was holding up well. He also still had the hammock we picked up at Neel Gap. Karen was kind enough to send me a photo.
I told Mike a little about my family, job, and living in North Carolina. I also told him about my hike last year and how I missed having him out there.
“When do you go back for your next hike?” he asked.
“It looks like it’s going to be in April and I’ll head out near Newfound Gap.” I had started the process of mapping out the hike a few weeks earlier and it was still fresh in my mind.
“Planning to head out on the 13th, Mike.”
“Okay. Maybe I can join you.”
A big smile filled my face, bigger and more genuine than the one I wore when we got invited backstage to meet the Sugarplum Fairy earlier that night.