This week's Sunday Long Read is the story of James T. Hammes, a fugitive from the law who was captured in May after evading the FBI for over six years. Hammes was wanted on charges of embezzling millions from a Pepsi distributor where he worked, and evaded police by living as a hiker on the Appalachian Trail since 2009. It was Hammes's double life as a hiker named Bismarck that shocked trail aficionados, because it turns out in those six years, he became something of a legend.
Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, those who walk the entire 2,100-mile trail in a single season, beginning in Georgia in spring, knew Bismarck as a smiling Catholic with a Jerry Garcia beard, baker’s belly and fondness for hammocks. They liked him. There is something hikers call “trail magic” that the Appalachian Trail Conservancy defines as “an unexpected act of kindness.” In nearly every story about Bismarck on the Appalachian Trail, or AT as it is commonly called, trail magic appears. He took to people. People took to him. Up and down the length of the trail, he was well known for his gentle, good nature. Beginning in 2010 the name Bismarck began appearing regularly on blogs written by hikers recounting their trips. His picture pops up in their snapshots.
Millions of people step somewhere onto the AT each year. That anyone stands out to the degree he did is astonishing. Yet Bismarck did. Veteran hikers, encountering newbies, sometimes asked, “Have you met Bismarck?” It was a way of gauging just how experienced a hiker was, how long they had been on the trail and how well they fit in with others. If you knew Bismarck, your boots had many worthy miles already worn on their soles. A man who hiked with him last September said the general consensus along the AT was that he was “on his way to becoming a trail legend” - someone whose story hikers share amongst themselves, one with inspirational overtones. Like that of the late Earl Shaffer, who in 1948 became the first person to hike the entire AT in a single season. Like Matt Kirk, who two years ago hiked the trail in 58 days. Such was Bismarck’s reputation that this past spring, David Miller, the author of AWOL on the Appalachian Trail, a popular book about hiking the AT, was on his phone talking with the owner of a North Carolina hostel along the state’s western edge, near Nantahala Lake. In an offhand way, the proprietor mentioned Bismarck was there, similar to the way Grateful Dead followers once mentioned an encounter with Jerry, a measure of his own familiarity of trail culture, a touchstone showing he, too, knew the ways of the wandering tribe.
When the other hikers learned that Bismarck had been taken into custody at Trail Days, shock bloomed through the AT community. Word spread along every step of the trail - hushed tones spoken at campfires from Georgia to Maine - in a matter of days.
“So many people liked him,” Susan Montgomery said. “I feel sorry for him, if he did what they say he did, because he loved the outdoors. He really did. He loved the outdoors so much.”
All I can say is this is going to make a hell of a movie some day.