A Man Called Screamer: A True Story From the Appalachian Trail
Standing 30 feet away or 30 inches, he spoke in the same loud voice.
That's why we called him Screamer. "We" were hikers on the Appalachian Trail.
Each year, millions of people use those 2,174 miles of footpath extending from Georgia to Maine for recreation. They come from all states and countries, ages and backgrounds. Some people walk short distances within a day's time, while others enjoy longer treks of a week or more. On April 1st, 2000, I became one of a growing minority of A.T. hikers who cover the entire distance in a single, continuous journey.
Hiking northbound on that white-blazed footpath, I occasionally spent time in the presence of a young man eventually dubbed Screamer. The sum of those encounters left a lasting impression and, when asked about the trail on which I spent six months of my thirty-second year, I always think of that particular, somewhat mysterious character.
A First Encounter
I first encountered him soon after entering Smoky Mountain National Park. My eyes on the ground ahead of my feet, where I'd become accustomed to looking after more than 170 miles of watching for rocks and roots, I didn't see the disheveled man who sat against a boulder at the side of the trail until I nearly stepped on his outstretched legs. Startled, I glanced at his dark eyes and uttered a quick hello.
Most of his face was concealed by a thick, black beard, and the long hair pressed around his cheeks and forehead by a knit cap. He pulled his legs to his chest, clearing the way for me to pass but didn't respond to my half-hearted greeting.
A second brief look sufficiently sized up the young man's gear. He wore tennis sneakers but no socks, a gray, hooded sweatshirt zipped to his neck, and red gym pants. Lashed together and to his back with rope were various articles of clothing, a silver tarp, and a heavy black blanket. I noticed two bulging grocery bags at his sides. But there was no backpack, no Gortex or Polypropylene in sight.
Having halted my forward motion for only a moment, I continued trudging, giving no more thought to the man who clearly wasn't a typical hiker. When, an hour or so later, I saw that man again, the differences between "us" and him became even more apparent.
My two hiking companions caught up with me just before we arrived at the day's first shelter and as my empty stomach began to complain that lunch had been too long in coming. Digger sat beside me on a fallen log, while Joker dug through his backpack and removed a large Zip-Loc baggie full of trail mix.
"Did you see that guy back there?" Digger asked as she began unwrapping a bagel. Though we'd encountered several other hikers that morning, all but one had been familiar to us.
Joker and I nodded.
"Have you seen him before?" was my question.
Two heads shook.
And that was the end of the subject. Filling our hungry hiker bellies was a much more pressing issue.
Ten minutes later, the man in the red pants shuffled in. As we three watched, silently chewing, he went about his business. Despite what appeared to be nothing but damp wood all around, the stranger soon had a fire crackling in the open pit in front of the dingy, three-sided shelter. In the flames he placed a blackened soup can filled with water from a nearby spring, and into that water went a handful of spaghetti he'd pulled from one of his plastic grocery bags. The man proceeded with other chores I couldn't figure out and spoke more than loud enough for the three of us on the log to hear. The monologue was disjointed, nonsensical. And not once did he look our way. Truth be told, I was glad.
As the water came to a boil, the man reached into the flames and shoved the spaghetti further into the can. He quickly withdrew his hand, and that's when I noticed the burns; he'd cooked this way before. No compact backpacker stove, titanium pot or handy gripper.
Lunch eaten and miles to go before we'd stop for the night, my friends and I again hoisted our packs and moved on, leaving the strange stranger behind, sitting alone, eating plain spaghetti with his soot- and sore-covered fingers.
Several hours later, I lay warm in my synthetic sleeping bag on the upper tier of a crowded shelter, satisfied after another day of fresh air and adventure. The sun was setting and the temperature dropping rapidly, a storm approaching with the increasing wind. How glad I was to be under that metal roof as I looked out through bear-proof chainlink fencing across the front of the shelter. And then I saw the red pants again. They stood out amongst the leafless trees.
He'd passed the side of the shelter and stopped maybe a dozen yards up the trail. At first, he looked ahead with his back to the rest of us, who stopped chatting and watched. The hood of his sweatshirt was now pulled up over the knit cap, his arms crossed tightly on his chest. Toasty in my sleeping bag, I tried to imagine being cold. He certainly was.
The stranger looked back at twenty hikers in a shelter intended for twelve. There was silence on both ends of the stare. Should we try to squeeze in one more, I wondered. But still I said nothing. Didn't really matter, I supposed, for no sooner had the man looked back than he turned again and disappeared into the darkening forest. That night, as the lightning flashed and the rain made quite a din on that metal roof over my head, I wondered what it was like to be him.
The Mystery Continues
Dawn brought with it colder air and more precipitation.I took a deep breath, removed my jacket and fleece pullover, stepped from beneath the eave of the shelter, and lowered my head against the rain as I continued northward. As long as I kept moving, the exertion and my long-sleeved, Capilene shirt would keep me warm.
Fog descended, and I hiked alone for hours, no one in sight ahead or behind. I drank and ate as I walked, grabbing my water bottle, candy bars and handfuls of trail mix out of my hip pouch, while the dampness worked its way into my leather boots.
Suddenly, I stopped and listened. I heard only the pattering of raindrops and a distant bird call. Must have been the leaves crunching beneath my own feet, I decided and resumed my steps. After no more than ten paces, however, I stopped again. This time, the sound I thought I'd heard before paused, but not at the same instant I had.
Turning around, I could just barely see him. He stood motionless in the trail, maybe thirty feet behind, those red pants of his bright enough to penetrate the white mist. Without a word or wave, I moved on.
Then minutes later, I again stopped and turned my head. And he stopped. So I continued. Repeating this scenario a fourth time, I chose to step off the trail and wait for him to pass. He'd been closer than before. As he walked by, we looked at one another but still said nothing.
Alone once more, I hiked a couple of miles with my own thoughts. Immersed in a daydream and the now heavy rain overtaking most other sounds, I didn't hear footsteps approaching from behind. I must have sensed the presence though, because I looked back yet again.
All I could figure was that he'd stepped off the trail to rest or relieve himself perhaps, when I must have passed in the fog. And yet again, those red pants glowed in the whiteness. This time, I kept moving.
An hour later, soaked through to my numbed skin, I was still going at a good clip. No longer was the hiking enough to keep me warm. My thoughts were now focused on the dry clothes at the bottom of my backpack, and the hot meal I'd eat after changing into them. That is, the hot meal I'd eat in the presence of other hikers. That strange man was still behind me -- how far back, I didn't know -- but I kept my gaze on the trail ahead.
Within minutes, I was safely amongst friends in a full shelter, with wet clothing, backpacks, footwear and miscellaneous gear hanging from from the ceiling, walls and nylon cords, as if a pressure cooker full of hiker paraphernalia had exploded. All occupants were asleep by sundown. But no sign of the man in the red pants.
He Has A Name
Digger, Joker and I succumbed to the allure of town -- an unplanned visit to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Days of cold rain and the previous night's ice storm, though beautiful in its aftermath, had rendered us vulnerable to visions of hot showers, cheeseburgers and soft beds.
When we emerged from the woods at Indian Gap, the first of only two road-crossings on the Appalachian Trail within Smoky Mountain National Park, we couldn't resist the opportunity to pay five dollars apiece for the 15-mile ride to town.
Before climbing into the entrepreneur's van, we had our next sighting of the red pants. The top half of the man wearing them was inside a garbage can. As I lifted my pack into the vehicle and proceeded to climb in, I heard a gleeful exclamation. From my passenger window, I watched a very thin, smiling man in a hooded sweatshirt and gym pants hold up a baggie full of dried somethingorother. Before we'd pulled out of the parking area, there was again just a red torso and two sneakered feet hanging out of the trash.
Twenty-four hours later, after spending more time and money in Gatlinburg than I'd expected, I was back on the trail. A late start for a day of hiking. My two companions and I didn't travel far.
After just a few easy miles, we arrived at the newly remodeled Icewater Spring Shelter, with skylights and a covered patio but no chain link between the occupants and the view. Fourteen people were already there, but the new shelter was roomier than most I'd seen thus far in the Smokies. Plenty of space for more. By dusk, thick clouds were moving in. More rain was imminent.
That evening, all but one of those present sat under the shelter overhang, cooking and eating dinner. I took a seat next to Mike, as he fired up his stove. That's when he called to the man in the red pants, who was huddled on the ground thirty feet or so in front of the shelter, his knees pulled to his chest as he rocked.
"Hey, Brandon! Want some hot water?"
Until that moment, there hadn't been much conversation going on in the shelter. But there had been looks, both at the man on the ground and one another. All activity had ceased when Mike had spoken.
He knew the stranger's name; that made me smile. The man in the red pants had a friend among us. And he would soon have more.
"Only if it's extra, man!" Brandon called back.
"Come on," Mike told him. "Come get some hot water. You need some coffee? Here, have some."
Brandon stood and took a few steps towards those who were watching him. "Hey, man, only if it's extra! I don't want it if it ain't extra!"
And that's pretty much how the dialogue went for the next few minutes, until Brandon was finally sipping coffee out of his blackened can, with the cuffs of his sweatshirt pulled over his hands. He sat back down on the ground, but this time right in front of the shelter. And now he was talking -- shouting -- non-stop.
By nightfall, Brandon was no longer sitting apart from the group, and the group was no longer quiet. After our new friend had accepted the coffee from Mike, others began offering their "extras." Two children, with their parents for an overnight in the mountains, begged Mom and Dad in hushed voices for something to feed Brandon. They were given more from the family food bag than they could carry.
That night, Brandon ate enough to satisfy three hungry hikers, and he did so under the metal roof. He was even told he would be sleeping in the shelter that night, all other occupants enthusiastically agreeing and quickly shifting gear to make room. Thanks to Mike, the ice at Icewater Spring Shelter had been broken.
"Are you sure there's room?" Brandon asked for a third time. "Someone else needs that space a lot more than me!"
Again the group insisted, and Brandon at last conceded with a smile. "Don't worry!" he shouted. "I'm real skinny! I'll only take up one plank, maybe two! But if I sleep on my side, only one!" Then, before he rolled himself up in his silver tarp and black blanket cocoon, he screamed louder than ever. "This is the best Easter I've ever had!"
But We Called Him "Screamer"
From that point on, Brandon was no longer stared at in silence....
And few tried to avoid looking at him. Now and then, I would see someone who'd never met the man in the red pants look at him with what appeared to be a mix of critical surprise and a bit of fear -- being out in the woods with this odd person -- but that reaction would usually give way to some measure of acceptance once he or she heard another hiker call him Screamer. Brandon now had a trail name.
Over the next several weeks, I saw Screamer sporadically, at shelters, in passing on the trail, and a few times in towns where most long-distance A.T. hikers resupply, shower, do their laundry, and eat as much as their shrinking stomachs can hold -- all sorts of goodies that can't reasonably or possibly be carried in a backpack. Ah, the ice cream!
But Screamer was always in that sweaty, hooded sweatshirt and those dirty, red pants, dumpster-diving or collecting cans. On several occasions, I overheard him asking motel and restaurant owners if he might work for lodging or a meal. Then I usually heard a very adamant, "No."
Despite his circumstances, however, Screamer always had a smile to share. At least, he did with me. Every time he saw me, he'd shout, "Debraaaa!" How did he know my real name? Everyone else on the trail called me Ramkitten. I'd always respond, "Brandoooon!"
And Brandon ... Screamer found other things to share, as well. A travel mug, for instance. He'd found one in a trash can. Though he had no other cup, Screamer gave his lucky find to another hiker who also had few belongings and nowhere off the trail to hang his floppy hat.
Perhaps it was the combination of Screamer's reluctance to take and eagerness to give what someone else might need more than he, along with the inspiration of trail life ... or maybe it was simply the doings of kind hearts ... but I witnessed a number of people on and involved with the Appalachian Trail give of themselves and what they had to the man who, at one time, most of us didn't speak to.
"I couldn't believe it!" he exclaimed one night, as several of us sat around a campfire at Flint Mountain Shelter. "A whole thing of mountain butter! And pasta, man! It was like Christmas! You wouldn't believe what people throw away! Not even opened, man!"
Screamer smiled and so, then, did the rest of us. But I wondered if anyone else was feeling a little awkward. I was thinking of a leftover pasta meal I'd thrown away at the last town -- food I could have held onto long enough to find a hiker (donation) box to leave it in. I'd never do that again.
As Screamer continued to describe the many wonders of a garbage can, I wasn't the only one who noticed his feet. He'd taken off his soaked and beaten sneakers, and was wandering around the shelter area in his even more tattered bare feet. I could hardly stand to look at the open, bleeding sores.
Sailboat was quick to react. Out of his own pack, he pulled a pair of brand new socks. Thick socks. The fifteen-dollar-a-pair kind of thick socks. He held them out to Screamer, who looked from those socks to Sailboat with wide eyes.
"Oh, no, I can't take those, man! They're too nice! And they're yours, man!"
An exchange much like the one about Mike's coffee followed, resulting in a pair of socks more appreciated and held in higher esteem than any pair of socks may ever have been. Screamer blessed both Sailboat and those socks time and again. "And they'll keep your feet warm even when they get wet," said their previous owner. "They have wool in them."
"Oh, no, man, I won't get them wet! They're too nice! I won't wear them unless it's dry!"
That night, Brandon slept on the ground next to the fire pit -- his choice -- with his new, priceless possessions (the socks) rolled up in the black blanket and silver tarp with him. He wasn't the only one who fell asleep with a smile.
The next afternoon, as Sailboat and I hiked together in silence following two hours of logic-problem-solving to occupy our minds, we came upon Screamer doing his usual, slow shuffle. As I'd seen him do numerous times, he picked up a piece of trash at the side of the trail and put it in one of his grocery bags.
"This stuff belongs in a garbage can!" he shouted, though I was standing only inches away.
And that's where the stuff went to if Screamer packed it out. My friend in the red pants toted many more pounds of trash off the Appalachian Trail than any single hiker I've ever known.
For the next few hours, Sailboat and I walked and talked with Screamer, who more than once commented on how much he was enjoying our company. He was very low on supplies, he said as he picked up another candy wrapper, and was therefore pressing on to Erwin, Tennessee to look or work for some food. At that point, I had none to share.
And that would be the only time I'd hike with Screamer and the last day I would see him on the trail. I did hear, "Debraaaa!" once in Damascus, Virginia, and looked across the busy street to see the still-disheveled man in those same dirty, red pants and sweaty, hooded sweatshirt smile through all that thick, black facial hair. I waved back, but that had been the extent of our final exchange.
As often happens on the Appalachian Trail, you can hike with someone for weeks or months even, and suddenly that person is gone; you may not see your hiking buddy again. A half-mile behind or a quarter-mile ahead may as well be a thousand miles if one doesn't catch up or slow down long enough to meet the other. Which is what happened with Screamer and me; I got ahead, and that, as they say, was that.
During the remaining four months of my hike and occasionally afterward at trail-related gatherings or when e-mailing with another hiker I'd met on my journey, I inquired about Screamer. Had anyone seen him after that day in Damascus? Did anyone know how far north he'd gone? And what about after that?
I got only dribs and drabs of information, some of which didn't jive. But between the little I heard from others and that one day I hiked and spoke with Screamer at length, I was able to glean a bit of history about the man I'd nearly tripped over in the Smokies on April 18, 2000.
I heard, for instance, about the hundreds of miles he'd walked on Florida and Georgia highways, before a cop had picked him up and said, "If you wanna walk, see those white paint marks on those trees? Follow those, not the ones on the road."
At first, Screamer hadn't known the name of the trail he was on. He didn't know how far that trail went or where it went. He'd never walked on a trail before, he'd said, but he had lived on the streets for years. Also said something about being a bike messenger in New York City. And he mentioned an accident, too.
Whatever the case may have been, Screamer was certainly not a typical hiker. He was, however, most definitely one of us.
More About Screamer
The following are portions of e-mails I received from other A.T. hikers after finishing the trail, about their interactions with and knowledge of the man in the red pants....
I first met Screamer in NC and saw him on and off till Damascus, VA. He stayed at Kincora Hostel when I was there and I talked with him at length about music theory. He really knew a lot about music. He also treated me to some of his nettle tea. He said, "Hey man, try this, it's loaded with IRON!!"
Bob People's was kind enough to donate an old backpack to Screamer, which he accepted only after a half hour of coaxing. I tried taking his picture a couple times when I first met him, and he was adamantly opposed to that. I think he was afraid people thought of him as a sideshow. Somewhere in TN, I let him use the shower in my motel room, and he let me take his picture.
About 25 miles from the Gap, Screamer went by like I was standing still. It was raining and the trail was very muddy. Back in Waynesboro, someone had left a $50.00 bill on Screamer's tarp while he was sleeping. He went to town and bought a nice pair of sneakers. As he was leaving, he had a couple of dollars change and he literally threw it on the ground where everyone was camping and walked off. When questioned, he said he didn't need any money. Anyhow, the rocks of PA were not kind to Screamer's new sneakers and, while they got him out of VA and through MD, they were looking pretty ragged by the time we got to Port Clinton.
On this particular day, someone had told Screamer the Church of The Mountain was going to put on a huge dinner for thru-hikers. Though it was raining, the trail was muddy and The Gap was 25 miles away, Screamer wasn't going to miss the dinner that night. He screamed as he was hiking as he always did in the rain, so I knew he was coming up behind me. Fairly early in the day, he passed me and I told him no way could he make 25 miles in tattered sneakers with the conditions we had. About 6 miles later, I found the remains of one sneaker, completely destroyed. And for the rest of the day, I followed the footprints of a hiker barefoot on one side with a sneaker on the other foot. That night, I stayed at the Kittridge Shelter and there was no sign of Screamer. The next morning, I did find a second sneaker, completely shredded in another mud hole, and then followed the tracks of a barefoot hiker. When I got to The Church of The Mountain hostel, Screamer's pants were hanging on the door but there was no sign of him. He'd come in just ahead of me and had missed the free dinner. No one knew where he was except he was barefoot, had abandoned his only pair of pants and had made a phone call.
I'd rubbed my shoulders raw carrying a 50-pound pack with wet straps, so I asked the Pastor of the church if I could take a zero-day to recover at the hostel. On day two, Screamer showed up. He was clean, had new pants but was still barefoot. Seems he had a cousin in Stroudsburg, and he'd called and the cousin picked him up. For the first time, I saw Screamer clean, well fed, and he actually had a few dollars in his pocket. I guess his principles allowed him to accept money from relatives. I had grabbed a pair of boots in good condition that someone had left in the hiker box and saved them for Screamer. He put them on, said they fit even though I doubt they did.
I encountered Brandon early in the hike, at a campsite where a section-hiker was offering hotdogs to hikers. When I first saw him walking past my tent, he had that wild-man look about him. The thing that stuck in my mind about his appearance was his very black beard and long hair, which stuck straight out. The ends of the hair had grown in raggedy fashion as if it had never met a pair of scissors. He had a silver, plastic tarp rolled up under his arm with what I assume were his belongings inside. The only thing I remember about his clothes is that they were cotton and didn't look very substantial. Especially for spending a lot of time in the woods that time of year.
At the shelter, the section-hiker was offering hotdogs to all takers. When Brandon arrived, he was offered some from the next batch, but he insisted he didn't want to trouble anyone to cook for him. Instead, he accepted two raw dogs and retraced his steps to a spot out of site of the shelter. He told someone that he just rolls up in the tarp at night in a bunch of leaves to keep warm and dry.
Over the next few months, I met him on the trail several times. At one campsite, he was collecting bottles left by rude hikers. They were Tabasco bottles that held enough for one serving. I asked him what he was going to do with the bottles. He said he used them to carry gas to help light wood fires for cooking. I guess he got white stove gas from hikers like he did food.
A female hiker told me a story about meeting her parents at a trail crossing in the Smokies. They took her to town for the night and brought her back to the trail in the morning. Near the trail was a dumpster where Brandon was practicing his diving skills, looking for food. The parents took one look at this wild man and insisted [their daughter] come back to town for another night. The next day, she convinced them she would be ok and got them to take her back to the trail to continue her hike.
As time went by, I lost track of Brandon. Occasionally the trail gossip would include Screamer sitings. The last one I can recall was that he had made it to New England. People had been giving him food and gear along the way.
I'd also heard the story about him having worked as a bicycle messenger in New York City and figured he might get off the trail there. Part of the Brandon lore was that a fellow messenger had been killed on the streets of NY and the experience had traumatized him.
Sure wish I knew how far he got. I finished my trek at the end of the hiking season. At best, he was several weeks or more behind. The way he was dressed, it's hard to image he could deal with ice and snow to finish the trip.
I don't know if you stayed at the "secret hostel" on the NY-NJ line, but a huge group of us did. An 85-acre farm with showers, clothes dryer, bunk house, the works, and word of mouth is powerful as about 20 north- and southbounders were there. There was a hammock and Screamer slept in it. By now, Screamer trusted me and I was one of the few he would accept anything from.
A trail angel took a bunch of us to a local store and we bought cases of soda, beer, pizzas and sandwiches. There was a mild party, but Screamer fell asleep and afterward a trail angel picked up all the trash and bottles and put them in a trash bag. When I saw what he'd done I told him to please put all of the trash back on the ground. I knew Screamer would want to pick up the area as his way to pay the hostel. Also, the store we had bought all our drinks from was in NY and that was the first state with a 5-cent bottle deposit, and Screamer could make a few bucks. When Screamer woke up the next morning, the trail angel had left a $10 bill on his pack with a note saying he wanted to "hire him" to clean up the mess. When Screamer left, the area was spotless. He even found a mower and mowed the lawn, and he had directions to a bottle redemption center where he got about eight more bucks. Screamer was now at a point where he'd actually accept money for work. When I first started hiking with him in Virginia, he actually threw away any money he had when he left a town.
I was at Mohegan Outdoor Center where they always allow one thru-hiker to stay free in exchange for work in the kitchen. You may have stopped there, but in case you didn't there is one large bunk house where they put the thru-hikers and it was full that night. Otto was already working in the kitchen. Screamer showed up about dark and of course didn't have the $15.00 fee. The hostel manager was away for a few days, so we hid Screamer in the manager's room so they couldn't catch him. As it turned out, no one checked on who was staying there. The next morning, Screamer got up and before he left, unplugged, defrosted and cleaned the refrigerator. Moved all the bunks to the middle of the floor, washed and waxed the floor and did all the dishes in the cupboard that were clean but dusty. Then he left and management never knew he was there, but must have wondered what happened to their hostel.
In NJ, I stopped at Worthington's Bakery as all hikers do. Screamer had gotten to town ahead of me to go dumpster diving. A huge gang of thru-hikers were at the bakery making phone calls, drinking Coke, and hanging out when Screamer came back from town, screaming that he'd just seen Stevie Ray Vaughn. Screamer swore he saw Stevie riding around Culver's Gap in a convertible, and Stevie waved at him. He said no one had seen Stevie's body and Screamer was positive he was living in Culvers Gap. Of course, Screamer was yelling about Stevie near the phone booth so everyone the hikers talked to at home got to hear the great man. Later, Screamer confided in me that he was caught up in the moment and it probably wasn't Stevie but it sure did look like him.
A 2010 Screamer Sighting
On June 11, 2010, I received an email from a man I met early in my thru-hike ten years earlier. He said he'd returned to the trail for an anniversary hike with his father, the thru-hiker known as "Pa." Near Bland, Virginia, he ran into none other than the infamous Screamer who, he said, hadn't changed in his mannerisms, his speech, his dress, or his habits.
Here, check out this photo of Screamer taken in front of the lean-to.
I've written the man back to see if he knows anything more about Screamer. If I get any further information, I'll post it here.
Another Screamer Sighting
Thank you to Dan (Smokey) Scheboth for sending me this photo of Screamer. (He's on the right-hand side, above.)
Smokey writes, "This is a group dinner shared by all who stayed at The Place, in Damascus Va. I was riding my bike cross country on the Trans Am trail that also goes through town. I hiked the AT from Maine to New York/New jersey border in '09. Rode the Trans Am in 2010. I met Screamer on my bike trip, he told me about New York and doing the bike messenger thing. We ended up doing a zero there together, my first I'm not sure how many for him since it was a few days after Trail Days. I will say this, I am really glad to have met Screamer, He had an old army style backpack held together by lots of duct tape. No fancy sleeping bag, just a few blankets. Regardless of his gear, he had an abundance of stories to share and always seemed to have a smile beneath that long beard."
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© 2008 Deb Kingsbury