April 12, 2001 11:00 pm
SWEEPING VIEWS: Bombaci's hiking compasion, whose trail name is "Flipper," relaxes on Barren Ledges that overlooks Maine lake county. It's a tradition for hikers on the AT to take or be given a trail name. ().
SWEEPING VIEWS: Bombaci's hiking compasion, whose trail name is "Flipper," relaxes on Barren Ledges that overlooks Maine lake county. It's a tradition for hikers on the AT to take or be given a trail name. ().

By Gary Fletcher

Observer Staff Writer

ENTERPRISE Rick Bombaci owns a computer business, but he left his techno-toys at home when he spent six months last year on the Appalachian Trail.

Bombaci traveled light. He took no lap-top, cell phone or GPS.

He discovered that it was the people that were the most remarkable part of his experience.

Although much of the AT, as he calls it, is rugged and remote, it did not turn out to be a wilderness experience to get away from people, Bombaci said.

90 per cent drop out

The rule of thumb is that 90 percent who set out to do the trail in one season, dont make it, Bombaci said.

Living out in the elements day in and day out the power of nature makes you very humble, he said.

Last summer was very moist in the east, so Bombaci found himself wet.

My feet looked like prunes, he said about spending a day in a pair of wet wool socks. His precious second pair of dry socks was saved for the luxury of wearing to bed.

Often he wore wet clothes at night in hopes that his body heat would dry them in the confines of his sleeping bag.

In spite of the rain, lack of water was a challenge, because most of the trail follows the ridgetop crest of the Appalachians, above streams and lakes.

Its a complex experience, he said. Life every day is simple, but full.

Trail Dynamics

A wonderful dynamism, is how Bombaci describes the trail experience.

A walk in the woods is good for what ails you, Bombaci said about getting away from pressures and responsibilities.

He spent much of his time alone.

When you walk all day, every day, it becomes a form of meditation, he said.

It can change your state of mind, if you let the woods work their magic on you. It frees you from the frenetic activities that make all of our lives so harried.

There was also a constant mix of meeting and saying goodbye to people. It was poignant, not knowing if you would ever see them again or you might run into them the next day.

People watch out for each other, the Enterprise businessman said. They loaned things to each other, shared their food and provided mutual support.

It was a marvelous affirmation of the goodness people can show to one another, he said.

Trail angels

You might be walking along and find cold beverages in a stream, he said, or find candy bars, a bag of cookies, brownies or fruit even watermelon. Of course the homemade strawberry cheesecake is something that sticks out in his mind. It was all the work of trail angels.

One was Aubrey Taylor. In the early 1960s, a hiker appeared at Taylors logging camp. Taylor befriended him and has been an angel ever since, cruising the roads of the Blue Ridge Parkway to see if he can be of help.

On the seat of his pickup is an old National Geographic coffee table book about the AT. The book includes a photo of Taylor.

Would you like to see a prayer that General Patton read to the troops before the Battle of the Bulge? a gentleman in his 70s asked Bombaci on a portion of the trail in New York state.

He had a three-ring binder chock full of clippings and photos about his outfits role in World War II.

Bombaci listened and learned from the man.

As Bombaci headed back to the trail, he heard someone else being greeted with, Want to see a prayer that General Patton read to the troops before the Battle of the Bulge?

Trail makeup

Bombaci met people of all ages from a 17-year-old youth to Grandma Soule, 75.

The majority of hikers were under 25. Most were in their mid-20s, out of school, not settled down with families or involved in a career.

The next largest group, but significantly smaller was retired baby boomers over age 50.

At age 45, Bombaci was in the minority. He found it easy to relate to both young and old, finding something in common with both.

Trail names

Its a tradition for hikers on the AT to take or be given a trail name.

Within the first three days, Bombaci met 24-year-old Gilligan, who wore a little hat like the television character. They hiked about 1,000 miles together in two big chunks at the beginning and end of the trail.

Odd Rod had mismatched hiking poles. Golden Sun had a smile that lit up like the solar body.

Recycled was in his 60s. He had to retire from his position as a judge. It gave him high blood pressure. Recycled hiked 20 miles a day day in and day out.

With Straightjacket and his troupe, which included a guitar player, it was one constant party. Straightjacket was an insane stand-up comic in his 30s who kept everyone laughing. And for those coming behind, he wrote jokes in the trail registers at the shelters.

A New Jersey native, Straightjacket made a point to eat in a deli each day in his home state and much of New York where the trail runs within 34 miles of New York City.

Interesting old timers

Bombaci, who had been planning the trip for seven years, returned home with admiration for some of the older people. They demonstrated remarkable mental toughness, he said.

The 90 percent dropout rate cut across all ages, however. When older people left the trail, it was for one reason only, Bombaci observed. Their bodies couldnt take it.

I tip my hat to them, Bombaci said. They know the odds are against them physically. They know that some aches and pains wont go away; that they can get an injury that they cant get over.

The older people had great mental toughness and focus, as opposed to some young people who quit because the trail had lost its charm.

Their bodies were fit, but the spirit flagged, Bombaci noted.

In the first week, he met Relic, a 65-year-old from Georgia.

Relic had never camped once in his life and had no backpacking experience. He was healthy, but not very fit.

He was a nice guy a great person, Bombaci said. He kept an online journal. He brought a lot of goodwill to the trail.

I treasured him. He had great resiliency and mental tenacity.

Bombaci did not see Relic again for months, until Virginia. He was lean and mean, carrying a light pack.

We hiked together a week in the Shenandoahs. That was the last time I saw him.

Lifetime experience

Bombaci saw and photographed much of the trail, but it was the people that fill his memory.

I made some very fine friends along the trail that I hope to count among my friends the rest of my life, he said.

We mean a lot to each other. We went through special experiences together.

Of the nearly 200 names and addresses he collected, he has been in contact with some 30.

Has Bombaci put away his hiking shoes?

I fully intend to go on another long walk, he said.