APPALACHIAN TRAIL -- My brother's name has changed. He no longer goes by Ryan Royalty. On the Appalachian Trail, he is known to his fellow travelers only as King. This is his trail name, a long-standing tradition observed by hikers of the Appalachian Trail. Other travelers that the group has encountered so far have introduced themselves with such names as Waffles, Hawaii and Homebrew.
Ryan, unsurprisingly, dubbed himself with his moniker.
His travel mates weren't so lucky. During the trek down to Georgia on March 17 to begin the nearly 2,200-mile hike, Jeff Haropolous, my brother's close friend and travel buddy, was dubbed Mr. Frodo, a la Lord of the Rings.
Jeff had asked Ryan and fellow traveler Tyler Jane if, on the way up the mountain, he had trouble carrying his gear, his friends would assist him.
Ryan, imitating the character Sam from the movie adaptation of the series, said, "I can't carry the ring, Mr. Frodo, but I can carry you."
"We just started laughing hysterically and said, 'OK, that's your trail name,' " Ryan said.
Unfortunately, Jeff didn't keep the name for long. About a week into the journey, Jeff was forced to forgo the remainder of the expedition after suffering from bouts of knee pain.
Though Ryan and Tyler (now known as Flip for reasons that haven't quite been made clear to me) are still hiking together for the time being, Ryan may end up taking large portions of the trail alone in an effort to reach his destination by midsummer.
And much to my own great relief, his spirits are high.
"It's pretty much exactly what I was expecting," he said.
Undaunted by the distance, Ryan finds it fairly easy to keep pace, except when impeded by weather. He was about 60 miles in by day five. With thick forest populating each foot of the stone-laden trail thus far, Ryan said the hike reminds him of being home, sans civilization.
The comparison includes the icy temperatures. Though his one-man tent protects him from temperatures as low as 20 degrees, several of the evenings have sunk far below, with gusts of wind reaching 40 mph. Along the way, there are some lean-tos and hostels for shelter; other nights, there's only his tent.
On one evening that hit 12 degrees, Ryan was forced to take shelter in a local town. (Luckily for me, he was also able to charge his cellphone. Unfortunately, his signal has consistently been less than stellar and our conversations have been short and choppy.)
Another night, he dealt with his first torrential thunderstorm, needing to assemble his tent after only seven miles. (He's hoping to average about 15 miles a day.) He barely got his tent up before it started pouring.
On Tuesday evening, he sent me a photo so blurred with snowfall, heavily laden tree limbs intercepting the path, I could barely decipher what the image was on the tiny screen of my phone.
His caption: "This is what I'm dealing with."
But the trail has some nice surprises in store, as well. One idiosyncrasy of the Appalachian Trail is "trail magic."
"The trail itself crosses a lot of a major roads, and a lot of people who are very supportive of the hiking culture will drive cars through the intersection of the road and trail and bring food and barbecue for the hikers," Ryan told me. "Providing through-hikers with food is very common."
The other day, he encountered his first trail magic.
"I walked across a parking lot and the first thing this woman said to me was, 'Would you like a hot dog?' They had bags of chips, fruit, water, PB and J. It was three ladies doing this out of the kindness of their hearts," he said.
Travelers from all walks of life are currently hiking the trail. Thus far, Ryan has encountered about 50 other hikers, a number that has surprised him in its magnitude so early in the season. Still, he spends a fair amount of time in total solitude.
"I hiked an entire day, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., without seeing another hiker at all," he said.
Ryan has found himself far better prepared than most hikers on the trail.
Before leaving for the trip, he got certified in a wilderness first-aid course.
"Not a lot of people have that resource under their belt," he said.
With 35 pounds worth of equipment, from waterproof clothing and boots to trekking poles and titanium pots to heavy-duty sleeping gear, he has pretty much everything he might need.
In fact, he has found he has taken too much. After a last-minute decision to take his Kindle with him, he said he has yet to use it once. A week after beginning the hike, he is planning to ship about five pounds worth of unnecessary items back to my mom for safekeeping.
Meanwhile, he's seeing other hikers clad in jeans (notoriously not ideal amongst hikers) and lodging in $30 Walmart tents.
"Those are the people that aren't going to make it all the way," he said.