Kokopelli is the fertility god of many Southwest Native American Cultures. He oversees childbirth and crops. He is a trickster. He is music. When I was little my grandparents bought me a subscription to Muse, a magazine for children that focused on science, history and art. Different muses from history appeared in the margins of the articles. Of all the muses Kokopelli was my favorite and I felt some immediate connection to him. When I was in high school my brother found me a ring with Kokopelli on it. I am wearing it right now, some 12 years later. I actually considered getting a Kokopelli tattoo for years and it is still on my mind. Needless to say when I met Kokopelli on the AT (the man, not the muse) I liked him immediately. To me he embodied the spirit of the muse in so many ways. He was rough and crass, just like I imagine the muse being. Witty and opinionated, outspoken and wise. He played a pan flute, which, no doubt, is how he got his trail name in the first place, although I realize now I never asked him to share that story. This last week the trail community received the news that Kokopelli has died. I want to honor him by sharing what I can remember, although my memories aren’t very crisp so I wouldn’t call these stories facts about Kokopelli, they are legends, impressions, myths. Now that he has passed from the realm of man, into the world of the muse, I think it is necessary to share the inspiration he was.
We met Kokopelli fairly early on in our hike. We hiked around the same pace as he did, so we continued to run into him all the way to Maine. We also met DD, his dog. She was a little chow mix, I think. We started calling her the Lion Dog after he had her body shaved but left her head fluffy. In the southern states you never wanted to get too close to DD because she was always covered with ticks. But that didn’t keep us from getting to know Kokopelli. I remember being at a shelter with him one night, cooking dinner at the picnic table, and him regaling us with stories of working in the desert on a ranch of sorts with kids who were recovering addicts, or reformed criminals. Also there were stories of Alaska, of sled dogs…
In Virginia, in the Shenandoahs: we had our friend Chris hiking with us and we were at a particularly loud shelter one night. Too loud. Kokopelli, not giving a shit about what anyone else thought, growled at everyone to SHUT UP! We were thankful to him for having the hutzpah to say something, especially Chris because he hadn’t been sleeping well. The next morning Kokopelli played the flute as everyone packed up their stuff. It was hauntingly beautiful.
Kokopelli had hiked the AT before, which I will talk more about in a minute, but I remember him telling us at one point how much DD loved the hiking in Maine. He described in detail the joy with which DD would leap off boulders, flying through the air, paws outstretched. He loved that dog. That was why it broke my heart when I learned that Kokopelli had had to send DD home somewhere in Vermont. The last time I saw Kokopelli was when we all stayed at the Green Mountain Hostel in Manchester Center together. We were there with four or five old guys. Kokopelli was one of them. We all watched movies together and ate Ben and Jerrys.
One of the things that Kyle and I discovered on the AT was that we actually connected better with the older hikers than we did with people our own age. Part of this was because we didn’t love to party, we liked our peace, quiet and solitude, and we didn’t want to be part of a group. The other part of the connection to an older crowd had to do with integrity. We felt frustrated by many of the younger hikers skipping sections and still calling themselves thru hikers. We felt a strong camaraderie with people like Kokopelli, together we would all grumble about the youth these day and their lack of a moral compass.
If there is one person who embodies integrity, it was Kokopelli. His story is the story I tell to explain to people what it really means to be a thru hiker.
The year before we met him, Kokopelli had attempted the AT. He had gotten within 70 miles of Katahdin when disaster struck, he fell and shattered his knee cap. He described the pain as unbelievable. It was all he could do to set up his tent and get into it and then, later, crawl out of the mountains. All the time DD stayed nervously at his side. That ended his thru hike, only 70 miles from the end, and he didn’t get to take the title of thru hiker as his own. The next year, the year we hiked, he had decided to go on a reunion hike with some friends starting at Springer Mountain. It was only supposed to be a couple of weeks, but when everyone else got off trail he kept going. He had decided to try it again, because without completing the trail from beginning to end, he would not call himself a thru hiker. He told us that story the first time we met him and it stuck with me for the entire hike. I like to think of myself as someone who has integrity but hearing what he had gone through, how much it meant to him to complete something the right way, without hedging or sneaking around or making excuses, that stuck with me and hardened my resolve to honor the title of thru hiker. For me Kokopelli is an inspiration, a reminder that being honest with yourself is crucial, and that there is no shame in starting over from the beginning.
I know that I will continue to tell his story because it has become part of rich tapestry of legends that help me live my life. As we gear up for another thru hike, one which we might not complete, I have been thinking a lot about Kokopelli and what it means to be a thru hiker; what it means to undertake such an incredible journey. The year after we hiked the AT Kokopelli went on to hike the PCT. We will be following in his footsteps as we journey from Mexico to Canada. Thank you Kokopelli, for being a muse to all thru hikers.