Trail man's journey ends in Pocahontas County
The Appalachian Trail is the longest, continuous, marked, hiking trail in the United States. The AT is more than 2,100 miles long, and the distance changes constantly because of new trail designations. The winding footpath stretches across 14 states from Georgia to Maine, and continues on into Canada along the International Appalachian Trail where it eventually meets the Atlantic Ocean. For Marlinton resident Russell Forsyth, it's where he has spent most of the last twenty years.
In the AT community there are "through hikers," that attempt the trail in one long trek. This usually takes about six months, or roughly five million footsteps depending on your pace and stride. Then, there are "section hikers," who make the journey in segments, resuming where they left off when they can make time for it again.
Hikers that brave the Appalachian Trail are a tribe all their own. They label each other with lifelong "trail names" and have developed their own language and customs.
They come to hike the Trail for their own reasons, but in the end, they're all challenging themselves. Those who have hiked the Appalachian Trail say the journey changes them. It changes the way they look at life, and the way they look at themselves.
Some of the more experienced veterans of the AT spend their time and money helping other hikers make the quasi-spiritual journey. Mala, as he is known on the Trail, spent the last 19 years of his life doing just that. Mala was recently featured in the hour-long documentary "Trail Angels," by director Daniel Peddle. This documentary is available for viewing at the McClintic Library in Marlinton.
Mala is an ancient Sanskrit word for 'offering a prayer.' He goes by Russell Forsyth nowadays, and he moved to Marlinton last year. Mala's life is a roller-coaster story of the ups and downs of traversing the United States. A battle with substance abuse and darker days, and more luminous days of friendship and charity. Things are good for Forsyth now, and he owes much of what he has today to the Appalachian Trail.
"It wasn't chosen- my life," said Forsyth. "I was messed up in the head, man. The AT healed me. I got to the point that I wanted to pay it back."
Forsyth was born and raised in Bay City, Michigan. Drafted in 1968 into the U.S. Army, Forsyth saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the Vietnam conflict. He served with the 101st Airborne at the Battle of Hamburger Hill in May 1969.
In 1969, at age of 20, Forsyth received the Soldier's Medal for his actions. The Soldier's Medal is the highest honor a U.S. soldier can receive for an act of valor in a non-combat situation. It's the kind of award one receives for singlehandedly pulling six men from a burning helicopter. It's only one of the many stories Forsyth has been unable to share with anybody for nearly 20 years.
Long after Forsyth's "homecoming," disturbing memories of the conflict fueled his bout with alcoholism and drug abuse. Forsyth lived in Key West, Florida, for 12 years where he struggled with two failed businesses, a fast lifestyle, and what would later become known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD.
According to Forsyth, back then, there was no such term.
"In World War II, they called them 'shellshocked.' For us, we didn't have a name for it," he said.
Forsyth sums up his experience in Vietnam in 12 words which he saw once on a bathroom wall.
"The incompetent, leading the unwilling, to do the unnecessary, for the ungrateful," smiled Forsyth.
Call it a coincidence, or call it an act of divine intervention, but the single moment that changed Forsyth's life forever can be attributed to a misplaced book on a library shelf.
"I went to the library," he said. "I went to the library to get Colin Fletcher's book "Complete Walker," and this "Wilderness Adventure" book was next to it."
"Wilderness Adventure" is a National Geographic book about the Appalachian Trail. Forsyth saw the book on the shelf and flipped it open to a breathtaking photograph of Roan Mountain. That's all it took for Forsyth to decide to backpack the AT.
"The amazing thing was, I went back to get a copy of this book and couldn't find it," said Forsyth. "When I found it the first time it had been in the wrong place. It was like divine inspiration. I'd never really heard of the AT 'til I found this book."
According to Forsyth, he began his journey in 1992, with six months of sobriety under his belt, in the Great Smokey Mountains along the Tennessee, North Carolina border.
"Usually people start in April. This wasn't until May, the end of May," he said. "So I hiked about 700 miles to Harper's Ferry. I figured it'd be a piece of cake, I wasn't getting shot at!"
Forsyth stopped and worked at a hostel for five days or so during his first leg of the Trail. He didn't have any money, so he did "work stays."
"Back then you could do that," said Forsyth. "Choppin' wood, cleanin' the toilet, you know, whatever. You work for an hour, you get a shower and a bed. A lot of places had a list. If you wanted to do a work stay, do something here on this list."
Forsyth supplemented his living by painting houses in different towns along the way. He wanted to learn a profitable skill that wouldn't require him to carry his own tools.
"I'd meet people on the Trail, they'd say 'my mother needs her house painted' or 'the trim work on our house needs painting.' I'd go visit their mom, take her to the paint store, buy all the paint and brushes or whatever we needed, ask her to borrow a ladder from a neighbor and then stay two weeks or so."
As soon as Forsyth generated enough cash, he would hit the Trail.
"I'd get up 300 bucks, then I'd start traveling again," he said. "That was my travel stash, 300 bucks. You don't need a lot of money to walk, especially back then."
Forsyth bounced around the country, hiking and picking up painting jobs.
"I met this guy that had like 17 units in Key West that needed painting," he said. "He was there from November until April. So when I'd go hiking in the summer, and I got done, I'd be broke. Now all of a sudden, I've got a place to stay, and money and a job. That worked out."
The next year, he picked up where he left off and hiked 800 miles from Harper's Ferry to New Hampshire. He bounced back and forth between Gorham, New Hampshire, and Key West, Florida and then finished his first hike of the Appalachian Trail in 1994.
"I section hiked the trail in three years," said Forsyth. "1,000 miles, 800 miles, then 300. Then I just went back every year."
Forsyth's meanderings at one point brought him to Georgia, where he found himself applying for food stamps.
"Back then you had to go see a Veteran's [Affairs] rep at the unemployment office. She said 'how come you're not getting a pension?' I said 'well because I got a letter back in 1980 that said I was never in the military!'"
According to Forsyth, some Vietnam veterans were told that there had been a fire in St. Louis, and their records were destroyed.
"'You need to prove to us that you were in the Army' they said. That was worse than going to Vietnam as far as I'm concerned," said Forsyth. "The government telling me I was never there. It was a nightmare."
After telling his story to the Veteran's Affairs representative in Georgia, Forsyth's luck finally changed.
"She said 'that's hogwash.' She said 'there was a little file in a closet of WWII veterans' files. A few records got burned up.' She gets on the phone and said 'your records are in St. Petersburg, Florida. They've been there since you got out of the Army in 1970. You need to fill out this and we'll get you a pension.'"
More than 20 years after being denied, Forsyth was finally receiving his well-deserved military pension.
"All of a sudden I'm getting $500 a month, that's three times what I lived on!" said Forsyth. "I almost cried. I thought 'oh my god, I have money for food!'" laughed Forsyth.
Forsyth went back to Key West and bought himself a truck.
"An old 1961 Chevy pick up. Apache Rose, they named her. We had a contest with some hikers. So what I did, I had this old truck and I'd meet hikers at trail heads and give them rides to town. Then I'd follow them up the trail. Get up in the morning, set up a kitchen, cook 'em breakfast. Tear it down, drive 20 miles, set up, cook 'em dinner. In the meantime I'd hike, day hike. There were some sections I hiked fifty times."
The idea came to be called Trail Magic. It's not a new term in the AT community, but it's a concept Forsyth helped develop. Trail Magic can be something as simple as a kind action, a gift, or words of encouragement. Trail magic is often an act of anonymity. A package of hot dogs or new socks. Gifts left along the trail for someone that will be in need of a kind gesture, from a stranger they'll never meet.
"The original term was defined as a random act of kindness," said Forsyth. "It could be anything. I've had trail magic just talking to people. There was a time on the Trail I was thinking to myself, 'I want to go home, I want to go home.' And then I met this couple on the Trail. They were almost 90 years old. They'd been section-hiking the Trail for 25 years. They had like 10 miles to go, they were going to finish that summer after 25 summers of section hiking. To me, that's inspiration. Just talking to them. That's trail magic."
But times have changed, and the Trail has changed, according to Forsyth.
"It's just lost its focus," he said. "You could do the Trail real cheap before. All the hostels in town are businesses now. They charge $20-25 a night, and they do slackpackin' now. That's where you don't have to carry your pack. You pay them, they pick you up and drop you off. Man, that's not an adventure."
The dynamic of the Trail has evolved into a "big business" that eventually drove Forsyth farther and farther away from the once close-knit community.
"I just got over the Trail. It got to the point that it just wasn't fun anymore. It got to the point that people would see you and they'd want something from ya. You know, 'hey whataya got?' People would come up and say, 'got any Trail Magic?' I'd say 'naw, it ain't Trail Magic... you asked for it.'"
The change in kinship among AT hikers has even birthed new terms in hiking lexicon.
"We called that yogiing. Like 'hey Boo Boo! I see a picnic basket and a fire!' It used to be that it was like a game. How can you get something from somebody without asking for it? You know, it separated you from being a bum. You'd come out of the woods, and ask someone, 'uhh hey, do you know where the nearest grocery store is?' And they'd say 'aww, you need some food man? Come on over!'" laughed Forsyth.
According to Forsyth, cell phones and the Internet have destroyed the AT community, and he feels his role as an unofficial trail guide has diminished.
"You go to a shelter and there's 15 people on their iPhones," said Forsyth. "So everybody and their brother is an expert on the Trail now because they can sit at home and read 50 journals. They think they know everything there is to know. It got to the point that when I was working in hostels people would get there and I'd welcome them in and they'd say 'Oh, I know all about this place from Facebook' and I'd say 'okay then, you don't need me.'"
Forsyth said that now there are even large, organized hiker feeds, whereas in years past, the hike was a journey of solitude.
"It used to be you could go days without seeing anyone at all," he said. "Now you see someone every few hours. Nobody knows anyone. No one knows who is up ahead or who is right behind you. It's just no fun anymore. "
Along with the annual influx of hikers on the Trail, the Trail itself is becoming too commercialized for Forsyth.
"Everyone and their brother is making a movie. There's probably 10 or 15 books and movies a year on the AT now."
The change in the Trail is what brought Forsyth to Pocahontas County.
"I came here in 2002, I wanted to get away from the Trail for awhile," he said. "I came to Marlinton during the Roadkill Festival and said to myself, 'I want to move here.' I got out a map, saw where the whole valley was surrounded by National Forest and thought, 'yeah, I'm moving there.' So I bought this house. I tell my friends, 'you have to come out and visit ME. Everything I want in my life is within 20 miles of me."
In later years, Forsyth attended East Tennessee State, taking creative writing through the VA, and his writing has served as a form of self-therapy. He spends his days with his faithful black lab, Tucker Dawg.
"I went out west, got my dog in Idaho," he said. "He's hiked 5,000 miles with me. He can't walk anymore, he's got arthritis pretty bad and allergies. I can't hike without him. I've been there, done that, 19 years. It was fun."
Although Forsyth is taking a break from the Trail, he does admit that he catches the same affliction that most AT hikers come down with this time of year.
"We call it Springer-fever, you get it in the end of February," joked Forsyth. "Between March first and April first is when most of the people leave. About this time of year, Springer-fever sinks in."
Forsyth has spent the better part of his life helping strangers, while they struggle through a personal journey that he himself traveled, and he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I don't know how much money I've spent over the years- $15,000 a year maybe?" he pondered. "Not that it mattered. I told people when I started hiking, 'I'm retired, but I owe a debt of gratitude to the Trail.' I paid it back with interest."