No Pain, No Rain, No Maine
Appalachian Trail Trekkers find respite in the Berkshires
Joe Sokul, whose trail name is “Papa Joe,” transported 400-plus AT hikers last summer. Here, he drops “Shorts,” right, and “Glow Worm” on the trail in Sheffield.
Photo by Megan Haley
Joe Sokul, former head of the highway department for the town of Great Barrington, is a 68-year-old grandfather. But instead of packing up his golf clubs and heading to the green on these beautiful summer days, Sokul spends much of his time driving around southern Berkshire County and beyond, picking up weary Appalachian Trail through-hikers who need a hot meal and a hot shower before continuing on the 2,190-mile trek from Georgia to Maine.
“It’s almost a full-time job,” Sokul says. “In the height of the season, I transport anywhere from 14 to 18 hikers a day. The most I think I had in a day was 22. Before I started doing this, before I retired, I would pick up hitchhikers when I could. Anyone who needs help, I try to help them.”
Last summer was Sokul’s first summer as a through-hiker “angel,” and he estimates that he transported more than 400 hikers—hailing from Ireland, South Africa, Germany, South Korea, and nearly every U.S. state—who were passing through the 90 miles of the AT that traverse the Berkshires. And they all have stories. Amazing stories of retired veterans, single mothers and their children, old-timers who are on their fourth through-hike, environmental engineers, a city planner from London—all intent on finishing their journey.
“I met one couple, she was from Ireland, her name was Fairy Baby, of course, and he—his name was Cave Bear—was from the states,” says Sokul. “They met on the first week they were on the trail, just by chance, and then hiked it together. They got married about six weeks after they completed the AT. They said it was the longest first date ever!”
All of that running around, getting hikers from a trailhead to a good meal, has earned Sokul his own trail name: “Papa Joe.” A good majority of the hikers find Papa Joe on Guthook, a popular app for through-hikers on the AT, the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide trail, and other national and regional trails. His information is also on trail boards and other message boards, and, of course, social media. Rarely does Sokul get an actual phone call requesting a pickup, although, when he does, his wife is quick to hand off the phone to him. “She supports my new hobby,” he says.
“I’ve shuttled hikers into every grocery store, hotel, restaurant, and laundromat in town,” he says. “But I’m not the only one. There is a whole community who pitches in to help. Some take hikers into their homes for the night, give them a hot breakfast. That’s real trail magic.”
Sokul himself has not hiked the full length of the AT, although he did spend a good amount of time on the trail near his childhood home in New Hampshire. But he knows, through his interactions with countless trekkers, the grit—and assistance—it takes to succeed in completing the entire hike, all the way up Mount Katahdin’s 5,267-foot summit in Maine (the highest peak on the AT is Clingman’s Dome in North Carolina at 6,642 feet). There is a lore and a beauty to being part of the sojourn.
“It’s amazing, it changes your view of the world in some ways,” says Deb Phillips, co-chair of Great Barrington Trails and Greenways, a collaborative dedicated to preserving the town’s natural resources and outdoor spaces. “I met a hiker from Tennessee, and it was the first time he had been to Massachusetts. He trekked here. I think there is a fascination with the whole thing, an admiration and awe for the people who decide to do this.”
Phillips says that there has been a notable upsurge, at least locally, in through-hikers on the AT, thanks largely to Bill Bryson’s 1998 autobiographical A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, and, more recently, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2012).
Through-hikers are not necessarily lacing up heavy boots and bracing for the most isolating six months of their lives. In fact, hikers are more social than ever these days, and Phillips embraces that connection, fleeting though it may be, with the local community. Every summer GB Trails and Greenways, along with the MassParks Department of Conservation & Recreation, and AT maintainers and hikers gather for a community picnic at Beartown State Forest in Monterey. (This year’s picnic is on July 21). Word of the picnic travels fast on the trail, and through-hikers are eager to set down their packs and enjoy some free food, a dip in Benedict Pond, free tenting for the night, and the cheerful notes of the local ukulele band. Some 25 through-hikers made their way to last year’s celebration.
“They are very happy to share their stories, and we can’t help but feel incredibly proud of what they’re doing,” says Phillips. “We had one hiker, he came in just before dinner ended, huffing and puffing. He had been running for a while because he didn’t want to miss the picnic!”
Hike Into Beartown
The Appalachian Trail Community Celebration is happening again this summer, on Saturday, July 21, at Beartown State Forest on Benedict Pond Road. There will be several moderate hikes and a community picnic, free parking and swimming, It starts at 9 a.m. with volunteering for trial maintenance, then at 2 p.m. join in on a hike, and at 5 p.m. gather for a potluck dinner and meet some of the thru-hikers. (Bring your favorite picnic food to share with them, too.) gbtrails.org