This is just a part of what I will tell about Jack and his relationship with the trail in my book. I’m holding off on pictures except for this one. It seems appropriate somehow.
There are some common themes among the hikers that I have corresponded with and read about in regard to why they wanted to hike the trail. The stories I will relate in this book include soul searching, escaping, partying, celebrating, challenges to be met, time to be filled, and others as they come to me. One of the most difficult to write about, and this is a source of great anxiety for me, will involve a hiker I met on the trail. A hiker introduced you to in the forward. This hiker would become a close friend, change the course of my life, and become a member of my family (not just trail family, but family closer than blood in many ways).
His name is L.A. Tarlin. Adam to his friends growing up in Massachusetts, L.A. to others. But to hikers, he was known around the world by his trail name-Baltimore Jack, or Jack Tarlin, Jack for short (as I will reference him in this book). Oddly enough, with as many names as he is known by, he really is not any single one of them as a matter of permanence. His name is almost insignificant in relation to the presence that he had. He was a unique human being and I am glad that I got to know him, as much as anyone could really know Jack. He was an enigma, and perhaps thousands of people knew him, or knew him in the sense that they met him a time or two, maybe spent time in a shelter together, shared a bottle, or even hiked with him for a time. But very few people knew him well, and even fewer knew him in a familial way, as a member of their family. But none of us knew all there was to know about Jack. No matter how close we were, he was never going to let anyone have all the pieces of his puzzle.
That is part of what makes writing about him frustrating and challenging. I am not qualified as a writer to tell his story by myself. He is without question the most complicated, intelligent, and conflicted man I have ever met. There have been many articles written about him, and others that are no doubt forthcoming, but few have been written by someone who was both close to him as a hiker, and who is themselves a hiker. I’m attempting to compile his stories to do just that. He has not just one story, but a Dostoyevsky sized novel’s worth of stories. Most true, some embellished, some possibly total fiction. The man was larger than life in many ways, deeply troubled and struggled with alcohol abuse, intensely in love with the trail and his trail family; and has 8 consecutive complete hikes (7 thru-hikes, and one two-year complete section hike) of the Appalachian Trail from 1995-2003. I’m not sure I agree with my own statement about him struggling with alcohol abuse. I don’t think he struggled with it, he embraced it. It was a part of him, and he owned it and never tried to hide it like most alcoholics. I was there when he decided he needed to give up one of his vices, he chose smoking. He could have quit drinking, but he did not want to, and if you knew Jack, he did what he wanted to do at all times. The downside of not smoking, was he replaced it with more eating. Which is odd, because I rarely saw him eat! I think he was a closet eater, chowing down on leftovers after everyone else had gone to bed or something. He would cook massive dinners at our home, and hardly eat anything. But got bigger each time we saw him.
After he retired from thru-hiking Jack then went on to work his way up and down the trail helping and working at hostels and outfitters until his death in Franklin, TN. On the 4th of May 2016. At the age of 58, he left us way too soon. This passing was devastating to the trail community, so many hikers had met Baltimore Jack and he had a profound influential relationship with an uncountable number of people in so many ways. Word of his death spread up and down the trail and to all corners of the hiking world in a matter of minutes. I feel like quoting Star Wars, but fear Jack’s spirit would taunt me for such a comparison.
None the less, I will tell Jack’s story as it pertains to what I know, and what has been shared with me. If I am inaccurate about a specific event or situation, it is not out of malice nor deception, it is my own memories inaccuracy, or due to the many variations of the stories that he himself told and were related by others. This is not to be taken as the complete and accurate biography of Baltimore Jack, I think that is an impossible task, by Jack’s own design. He wasn’t international, but he was a man of mystery.
It was fate that I met Jack on the trail. I firmly believe that I was destined to encounter this character, as providence was my guide in this journey. I had been reading his journal entries for many weeks and had heard a little about this “blue blazer” and wild man of the AT. This is a day that I recall precisely. I was hiking alone for much of the day and it was quite hot and dry out, the leaves were starting to change, and it was looking like summer was well on the way.
As I began to climb a very steep long straight section of trail I looked up and saw an odd sight. It was a hiker, but not a “normal” looking hiker. This hiker had a stumbling unbalanced gait that contrasted with the intense efficiency that a thru-hiker typically develops over time. He had both knees wrapped with ACE bandages, his boots were unlaced and floppy looking, and his enormous backpack was cocked hard to one side rather than well balanced in the center of his back, and he had torn black nylon shorts on. I had to pause to make sure I was really seeing this caricature of a hiker as we were well away from a trail head where the day jockeys would get on and off the trail. About that same moment, he stumbled and in defiance of the laws of physics and momentum, did a full-bodied front flip and face planted on the rocks!
A loud voice in my head said, “That’s Baltimore Jack!” I rushed up to where he was sitting, tangled up in a heap with his obscenely large and gnarly looking backpack (His pack size would become as legendary as the man himself). He was holding his broken glasses in his hand and had blood pouring out of a gash on his forehead. He looked up and said in his distinctive voice, “got any tape?” I said sure I do, and you have got to be Baltimore Jack. “How did you know?” Just a hunch I responded. With a huff, he retorted in pure Jack fashion “Well sir, it appears as if your intuition proves to be correct, now how about that tape!” This encounter would eventually prove to be the most transformative meeting of my life, up to that point anyway. It became a catalyst for so much life change, that I still am in awe over it. Jack would become one of my best friends, he would provide me with a home in Hanover, NH, introduce me to someone that I am still with nearly 20 years later, and set in motion a cascade of events and life decisions that ultimately, I believe helped me to discover and fulfill my destiny as a human.
I would spend a great deal of time with Jack over the next three years. Each winter he would live and work in Hanover to earn money to go off and hike in the spring. That was his societal goal in life, to earn money to hike. That’s it. He needed enough money to go for a walk. We would spend many hours at our place on Mink Brook (where I lived for two years) in Hanover, the local coffee house, library, and bars conversing about all manner of things. It was a five-minute walk to the center of town from our place. The trail goes through the town on the road we walked, so every time we went to town, we walked the AT both directions.
His story is a complicated one, so as I stated earlier, I will do my best. He started out life as Leonard Adam Tarlin. Yes, I said it. Leonard, you hoodwinked us your entire, but far too brief life by giving innocent sounding “accidental” hints in your stories, that your name was Lawrence. His former friends, family, fellow students, and professional colleagues called him Adam. Adam was his pre-hike name. Mike was mine. He transformed into Jack, I transformed into SY.
As I recollect, Jack and his father had been planning, at least tentatively, a thru-hike of the AT. His father passed away prior to the realization of this father-son hike becoming a reality. Later in his life, but still as a young man, Jack decided to take an extended leave from his job and began hiking in 1995. He made it well into the hike before a fall broke or cracked several ribs and he was unable to continue. As told by him on the occasions when he was asked about it, coughing up black blood while leaning up against a tree made things difficult. He left the trail to recover and returned to his job.
The following year his employer granted him enough time off to complete the journey and he said he found the exact spot he left the trail and was able to pick right up and complete the journey. Reflecting on his hike, Jack felt as if he missed out on part of the experience and wanted to do what he set out to do initially. A complete single year thru-hike. He asked his employer to have the time off again, they said “absolutely not. So I quit!” Classic Jack. Thus, the course of his life was set in motion. His life would be one of hiking, and searching, for something that may have ultimately eluded him. Or, he may have found it and held on to it the entire time.
It would be easy to interpret his actions as merely an intense interest in hiking, a desire to be with and in nature, following his passions, or even complete irresponsibility. But this would be a simplistic misunderstanding of Jack Tarlin. His trail name Baltimore Jack comes from the Springsteen (his favorite musician) song. He had a wife and kid in Boston, went for a walk and never went back. Jack was not cut out for the world that Adam was born into. The structure of society was not one that Jack could successfully navigate and maintain any level of self-fulfillment or joy. He had had a strained relationship with his family, not uncommon with hikers and our kind, and I think he generally had a difficult time coping with having responsibility for others and following the expected traditional life paths. He could barely take care of himself according to traditional rubrics. You will find a lot of us like that on the trail, and in the trail towns with similar stories. What society calls the real world is an illusion and a mirage. Most people never really get to a point where the bucket of contentedness and self-fulfillment is topped off. Ironically, the bucket that we spend so much time filling for others has a hole in the bottom and is never ultimately satisfied. They, society, always want more than we could ever give. A succubus draining us of our essential purpose-to enjoy life and all it has to offer.
I feel very strongly that the AT offered Jack something powerfully satisfying that was absent from Adam’s life. Acceptance, and a feeling of belonging to a tribe of people who accepted him and one he could call family, tramily in trail speak.
While he could speak with authority on nearly any subject and had a qualified opinion on everything social or political; he was always reluctant to speak about himself unless he trusted you and felt that he knew you well enough, but even then, it was difficult to completely trust what he said about himself. He was and is a mystery. He was one of the smartest people you could hope to meet, but with little drive to do anything with that smartness. One of his favorite tv shows was Jeopardy, and on one of the last nights of his life, got all but three responses correct. His depth of knowledge in history, literature, politics, and of course the trail was limitless, and he never shied away from a vigorous debate.
Jack could hammer away with an idea or opinion, refusing to let go, much like a starving dog with a bone, until someone either walked away in frustrated rage or swearing to never speak to him again. More often than not, they would be sharing a pint or five at the local pub shortly after as if nothing had happened. Jack could be equally endearing, obnoxious, loveable, and objectionably prickish in equally brief moments of time. There was nothing superficial about Jack Tarlin. What you saw, was NOT what you got with Jack, he was far too complex for that. He had many faces and very few people saw all of them. In some ways he was entirely self-absorbed, and in others he was the most generous and compassionate person I have had the pleasure of knowing. His gentle kindness was always present around babies, young children, and cats.
Jack’s daughter was just a baby herself when he and his wife split up. She would quickly remarry, and her new husband would become the father that Jack’s daughter would recognize and lay claim to. I will not speak too much about that part of his life, it is not a part of his history that I am qualified to tell, and he would not want us to put that attention on them. However, I think being responsible for a child and being a full-time life partner was very intimidating and more than he could handle emotionally. He always said that that kind of life just wasn’t something he could relate to. Trying to live up to the expectations of someone else’s standards of success and the expectations of so many others is difficult, and it does not leave room for your own sense of fulfillment and happiness.
Again, I am inferring a bit here, but it seems reasonable that Adam always felt as if he was going to be a disappointment to those he cared most about in that world. I think he secretly feared losing them or having them taken from him as his parents were at such an early age. The trail offered him a way to reinvent himself, and a place that he could start over with a brand-new life where no one was going to judge him, nor would they have any expectations of him beyond that of a “hiker.” He did not walk out on his wife and child to be clear. He spoke of it on a Pox and Puss podcast given in 2013 that “she left me for a thousand good reasons.” They divorced, and he was no longer a meaningful part of their lives after from that time onward, and we’ll leave it at that. By letting them go, they could not be taken from him.
We both shared a love for books on polar explorations. Some of our most admired included Douglas Mawson, Roald Amundsen, and of course Shackleton. Jack’s journey could be viewed as a contemporary metaphoric representation of the lengths that the explorers of the white lands would go to prove themselves. Enduring hardships, the creation of everlasting loyal friendships with their colleagues, the torturous pursuits of human endurance, and moments of profound and fleeting glory that always left them longing for one more expedition. Jack had many hikes, but it was one long single journey to find his place in the world, people he could call his “family”, and one thing I believe he never fully attained or recognized, a sense of self acknowledged fulfillment.
Each year the trail pulled him back, and he would spend the final weeks of winter in a freezing cold barn in Hanover, NH preparing for his annual spring departure. He regularly began hiking on or around April 1. Every year it was like the first time for Jack, springtime meant hiking and like a little kid at Christmas, he couldn’t wait for it to arrive. His excitement was that of a child on Christmas morning, it was pure and genuine. On more than one occasion I would help out with his assembly line of mail drop bourbon preparation. He would save up 22 empty plastic bottles of fruit punch and fill them with his go-to brand, and then duct tape them up so as not to spill in the mail. Every mail drop had some food, ace bandages, maps, stuff, and a bottle of bourbon. This trademark behavior would ultimately be part of his lifelong burden. It would, in part, play a role in what would ultimately kill him. But it was a part of the identity that he created of himself on the trail. Bourbon was part of who Baltimore Jack was. The owner of the place we stayed on Mink Brook in Hanover was named David, and he would mail Jack’s packages, usually on time. Sometimes David would break into one of those maildrops and pilfer a bottle. This would leave Jack high and dry until he mailed the next one. Jack would throw a fit when this happened. David and Jack were like an old married couple, constantly bickering with each other and they both gave as good as they got. You will find few stories about Jack online that do not include booze at some point. But riding that dragon takes a hard toll on a person.
Each year, Jack saw the trail as a brand-new experience, no matter how many thousands of miles he hiked. It was a constant source of discovery. He was often asked why he chose to hike the same trail over and over and over again. His responses were on point, but I think he left some things out that he either could not bring himself to say or was unconsciously keeping suppressed.
Jack had an intense, pure love for the physical trail itself. He could describe it in explicit detail, but also as it appeared, felt, smelled, and looked at different times of the year, in different weather. He would list places that he wanted to see in the snow, or in late spring when things were in bloom, or side trails that he still had not yet explored, and the people that he had yet to meet. His desire to meet a whole new crop of hikers every year, even after his thru-hiking days were over, provided Jack with more hikers to add to his family. I offered to buy him maps and guide books for the PCT, but he would not have it. Recalling the hostel keeper in Georgia I mentioned earlier; I think that he had a monumental hole in his heart, that he tried to fill up every year but did not ever quite get there. A tragically Sisyphean like challenge that he methodically strove to complete; but may not have ever achieved fully, what he so earnestly sought. But maybe he did, who the hell knows? Even those of us who knew him best are left guessing because the fucker never wrote a journal or memoir of his experiences. For crying out loud Jack! Seriously, he wrote tens of thousands of posts on blogs and social media, he critiqued and pontificated about everything, but barely a word about his own life.
Regardless, he would explain that every day and step on the trail were a new experience for him, and I think that the act of leaving each spring fulfilled his desire to resist the societal pressure to establish a permanent sense of establishment and conformity to those norms. The act of leaving was an act of rebellion, of cathartic healing, and a self-fulfilling and further demonstration of who he had chosen to become. He was and always will be identified as a thru-hiker and trail legend. This desire to be relabeled is not uncommon with the hiking community. It is a turning of the back on social expectations. This was an annual celebration of the suppression of Adam, and the step by step progression of Jack. He did not live in obscurity, and as long as we share his stories and our memories of him with others, he will not reside there in death either.