SCOTT SIMON, host:
This week it turned out that South Carolina's governor, Mark Sanford, was not hiking the Appalachian Trail, as he'd suggested. Well, you know the rest of the story - he was really in Argentina. But it's another story, as it happens, another South Carolinian - our Thomas Pierce - actually did go hiking on the trail to find out how the recession is affecting who's out there this year.
THOMAS PIERCE: For the record, my friend Brad Wright is not a drug dealer. But his new nickname does suggest otherwise.
Mr. BRAD WRIGHT: My new name is Pusher because my friend said I looked like a drug dealer because I was carrying around a giant bag of ibuprofen and calcium supplements the first day. And I was offering them to everyone.
PIERCE: His first day on the Appalachian Trail, that is. Everyone out here gets a nickname, and Brad - Pusher - is an old friend of mine. We grew up together in South Carolina. He's changed some since he started hiking in March. He's 26 years old and leaner now, with a dark beard migrating down his neck.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
PIERCE: I joined him for just a few days near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
Mr. WRIGHT: Maine is 1,165 miles away and Georgia is 1,013 miles away.
PIERCE: So you're not quite halfway.
Mr. WRIGHT: Not quite. About 70, 75 miles to go, I think. As soon as we cross this river I believe we're in Maryland. I think I should check that.
PIERCE: He's right. It's Maryland. We hike for a few miles between the gray Potomac River and the C&O railroad track.
(Soundbite of train)
PIERCE: Pusher the Backpacker used to be Brad Wright the Office Manager - for a commercial real estate firm. When development slowed down last year, he started plotting an adventure in them there hills over the cubicle walls.
Mr. WRIGHT: And I didn't put in my two-week notice until February of '09, so -I was the only one left in the office by the time I quit.
PIERCE: Quitting your job or even just putting it on hold during a recession would be a non-starter for most. For one thing, hiking the length of the trail can end up costing a couple of thousand dollars. But my friend Pusher, he's not the only hiker on the trail whose taking a risk to be here this year.
Meet Couscous, so named because…
Ms. KIM MARLEY: I eat couscous with cinnamon and sugar and somebody thought it was weird.
PIERCE: Every meal?
Ms. MARLEY: No. Actually, just a couple of times. Haven't had couscous in weeks.
PIERCE: Couscous is Kim Marley, a 29-year-old environmental consultant from Atlanta. She says she's wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail for seven years.
Ms. MARLEY: I really just had to make the decision to say, okay, this is the year that I'm doing it and then it really wasn't difficult after that. It may not have been the best time to take a leave of absence.
PIERCE: Couscous admits she's a little worried about being away from work for so long. Times are tough and what if they forget about her way out here in the wilderness?
Ms. MORLEY: I send out emails from towns to a bunch of people and, you know, and just copy my boss on it. So they know where I am, and so they kind of know I should be done in September at some point and back.
PIERCE: Also on the trail this year are The Duder and his dog.
Mr. CHRIS LEE: And her real name is Donny, kind of like off "The Big Lebowski," but she's out of her element.
PIERCE: The Duder, whose real name is Chris Lee, climbs the stony steps into Harper's Ferry. This is where the headquarters for the entire Appalachian Trail is based. When The Duder gets there, he drops his pack and sits on the hot concrete and gets Donny some water. His girlfriend is coming to pick him up.
Mr. LEE: I don't see how people can get off for six months at a time.
PIERCE: What are you doing when you're not doing this?
Mr. LEE: I just graduated, so at this point, nothing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PIERCE: He's 26 and wants to get into journalism. He says hiking the trail could be something of a resume builder, but then again...
Mr. LEE: There's never a good reason to be hiking senseless miles. I don't care what anybody says.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LEE: If you talk to any hiker, there's no good reason to be doing what I'm doing right now, especially the through-hikers. I was talking to one old man one day, and he said this is hands-down the single most selfish act one person can do, just leaving all of your people behind to worry about you.
PIERCE: But he sees an up side, though, too.
Mr. LEE: And I think if by doing something like this, hiking for a long distance, you're somehow getting in better touch with yourself. It's all about individual perception out there, and ticks.
(Soundbite of door opening)
Unidentified Man: Internet access here. You guys expecting any packages?
PIERCE: Inside, the headquarters is hopping with backpackers. Maps and guidebooks line the walls and it smells, well, it smells not so bad considering no one's had a shower in days. Here they can check e-mail, charge cell phones, stretch out on the couch, and enjoy the electric foot massager.
(Soundbite of foot massager)
PIERCE: All through-hikers get their picture taken here too. The photos go in big black binders dating back for decades. Not much has changed over the years other than the gear and maybe the haircuts. Many hikers do carry iPhones and BlackBerrys, but the trail continues to lure people who just want to get away from the world for a couple of months. What changes most is the world they're getting away from.
Just ask Rusty Towery, aka Wheeler, a 26-year-old mountain biker from Georgia.
Mr. RUSTY TOWERY: I was laid off in November.
PIERCE: What do you do?
Mr. TOWERY: I work for Caterpillar, but great opportunity. I have no, you know, major responsibilities yet in life so I might as well do something like this now while I can instead of having to wait like the other half of the population on the trail, you know, retired age.
PIERCE: It's true. The trail is generally split between 20-somethings and retirees. Wheeler says when he comes off the trail, there's a chance he'll already have a new job lined up.
Mr. TOWERY: I had a few things come about from the trail, people I've met.
PIERCE: I never really thought about the trail as a networking for a job.
Mr. TOWERY: Yeah. Oddly enough, it's been pretty productive in that regard. Figure something good has got to come out of a hike like this. When I was starting off I had friends that were going, Man, I hope I get laid off.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. TOWERY: You know?
PIERCE: As for my friend, Pusher, he packs his tent in the early morning before we part ways. He says he's not thinking about the economy or what he'll do after hiking the trail. He's taking it one mile at a time, and he has a thousand more before Maine.
Mr. WRIGHT: Alright, man. Good seeing you.
Mr. PIERCE: And he's off into unknown territory. When he emerges on the other end, there's no telling what the world might look like.
Thomas Pierce, NPR News.
SIMON: Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, Legs. You can meet more of this year's backpackers in an audio slideshow. Come to npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.