The Infamous and Beloved Cody Coyote
The last we saw of him was in Vermont, between Manchester and Rutland. After a while we assumed he had turned south again. He just up and disappeared so unceremoniously, as only Cody Coyote would. Many months after that, months after being off the trail even, I heard from a friend, a fellow hiker, that he had seen Cody headed south. He was going back down to the Long Trail and wanted to make it up into Canada. It is good to hear our assumptions confirmed. Cody had been saying for a while that he was done with the Appalachian Trail. It was roughly his third time around and he had been walking this footpath for nearly three years by that point. He mentioned the Colorado Trail from time to time and we all hoped that maybe he had just caught a hitch west on the fly somewhere, no time to say goodbye.
Regardless of where he was or where he was going, I wished there was some way to stay in touch with him. He wasn’t like the rest of us. He didn’t search for an outlet to charge his phone every time he was in town. He didn’t choose restaurants based off of Wi-Fi availability. He didn’t feel the need to update a blog in every town. Cody’s most tech savvy moment was when he found a small transistor radio. He would tie it on the top of his backpack and tune into whatever local station the mountains allowed him to receive. It was intriguing to hike with him as Beyoncé blasted through the small, over exerted speakers. How could he listen to this? Did he even know who this was? What she looked like? But that was Cody. It didn’t matter what genre it was, suddenly he could listen to music. It didn’t matter if he found winter boots in the middle of summer. He would do a bit of converting and they would be breathable and light enough for the heat. One time he found a backpack with a fantastic frame, but he didn’t like the pack itself. After a bizarre sort of patchwork surgery he had rigged up a waterproof casing for his gear that he would latch on to the pack’s frame. We often joked about Cody’s ultralight set up. It was a coveted and expensive style of backpacking, unless you were as resourceful as he was.
This ability to make do with what you have and be very thankful for it was only one of many lessons we learned from Cody Coyote. He taught us about edible plants in the mountains. He told us about up coming terrain and what to expect. He gave us suggestions about what to do and where to stay when in towns. He told nonchalant stories of overcoming nature at its most brutal and through action he taught us how to live a minimalistic and sustainable life. But most of all Cody Coyote was a test and we all failed… at first.
Thinking back on it, I find it so strange that we would all go out into the woods thinking we were so big hearted and open minded in doing so and then experience the self check that is Cody Coyote. Who of us could say we knew all along that he was going to be at the height of our affections and that we would so strongly yearn for his well being in life? Which of us could honestly say we pinned him as the upstanding center character of an ever-evolving epic that we all longed to know the ending of?
When we met Cody Coyote just outside of Erwin, Tennessee, none of us would have predicted those things. We all shared the same feelings towards him and I am sad to say that they were not the most positive. First off, he looked like the type of person your mother warned you not to associate with. His pants were too big and sagged around his waist. He wore a faded black, cotton shirt sporting the Pearl music company logo on it and a baseball cap that covered a curly, wild mess of brown hair. With all repurposed and sometimes charred black gear, he looked and smelled like a homeless Kurt Cobain fan on a backpacking expedition. Secondly, he was quiet. So quiet that it was hard to get a reading on him. That quietness accentuated our misunderstanding of him.
It wasn’t until one or more of us finally broke through this shyness that we slowly came to know Cody Coyote. After nearly a week of sharing campsites with Cody we began to see that we had nothing to worry about and he began to feel more relaxed as well. As we built friendships with Cody I began to realize that despite all we had taken him for, he was playful, whimsical and creative, yet his life had wrought an uncanny fortitude within him. After much coaxing we were able to get several stories out of him about his time on the trail. Some starred past thru hikers and a plethora of cheap beer. Others were persuasive tales of particular hostels and trail towns not to be missed. The most intriguing and unsettling of them came from the winter southbound hike he had completed not long before we met him. He recounted many times that he had to sleep next to a fire in order to stay warm enough throughout the night. This explained the singed parts on much of his gear. He even told us of a time, when after days of waiting out an ice storm, he was forced to fashion a pair of crampons for his shoes out of soda cans he found in a shelter. Many shelters have a contraption used to hang food bags out of the reach of mice made by stringing cord through a can or bottle. He ripped apart and remolded the aluminum around his shoes just so he could climb up the slick, icy façade of a mountain and down into town.
These stories helped grow the fame of Cody Coyote as we walked northward along the trail but his reputation preceded him wherever he went. Even after those of us who were closest to him fell in love with this unparalleled character, there was always a handful of hostility towards him. Cody wasn’t to be trusted in many people’s eyes.
He was once blamed for stealing cookies from the church hostel in Vernon, New Jersey. There was a table of food provided for hikers in the free hostel with signs that asked for donations based on how much was taken. When an entire package of Oreos went missing, it quickly spread that Cody was the culprit. My hiking partner and I had stayed there the night before, along with Cody. When another hiker angrily alerted us to the situation, we asked the accuser if he had been seen with the cookies. She said he hadn’t but it only made sense because he often chose to eat whatever food he may find in a hiker box. A hiker box was a designated place in many outfitters and hostels for hikers to leave behind unwanted food or gear they had or to pick up what they may need. Her assumption saddened us because we had no doubt that he would not do such a thing. Later in the day we caught up with Cody on the trail and told him what we had heard. To us it seemed to be a petty and foolish accusation from a stranger, but I could tell it still bothered him. I couldn’t help but notice that when the three of us stopped for lunch that afternoon Cody only had his typical merger rations. No Oreos to be found.
Though his looks did not suggest it, Cody Coyote was an innately virtuous person. He retained his humble and good natured qualities even when poor judgment got the better of him. As even Odysseus of the Odyssey, the most famous epic in literature, eventually experienced, every man has a flaw. Cody was not exempt. One of the last times we saw Cody before he disappeared was a sunny, hot morning in Bennington, Vermont. Bennington is known among hikers for its uppity atmosphere. The town isn’t too pleased with the yearly plague of offensively fragrant and uncultured mountain men and women that pass through their town. One can imagine their feelings towards Cody. Particularly when the local authorities apprehended him for sleeping in a park, hand still clasped around a mostly empty tallboy.
He was taken to a halfway house in town and told to sleep it off, that he couldn’t leave until later in the evening. When he awoke that afternoon, sober and clear minded, he realized that there was nothing holding him there besides the instructions he had gotten before. The authorities at the house told him they couldn’t make him stay but that it had been suggested for him to do so. Despite the fact that they also could not feed him and he was not allowed to cook his usual dinner of Ramen noodles, he chose to follow their guidelines and wait until they officially released him. No paper work was filed, no charges were given, and yet for some reason he stayed.
As we sat outside of a laundry mat the morning after this incident, Cody admits to being a bit angry, mostly about not being able to eat. It seems he also got a lot of hassle for his expired, broken drivers license as well. He hadn’t been back to his hometown in years and I was surprised he even had one still. My hiking partner asked him why he didn’t leave when he woke up and Cody didn’t really seem to have an answer other than that he was just doing what he thought was best. I couldn’t help but admire that train of thought because I am not sure it would have been my own.
Cody Coyote was easily mistaken for a vagabond, both on and off the trail, but it took a lot of work to see him for the inspiration that he was. It was simple to pity him and or fear him, but it was difficult to get into his world and understand it. I’ll be the first to admit that in the early days of knowing Cody I was afraid to hike alone with him. The closer we all got as friends, the more he and I opened up to each other and Cody became one of my favorite people to hike with. He taught me how to play a game that made the miles fly by even on the roughest days. One of us would think of an object, anything in the world, and the other would guess what it was. It was such a simple and pure game. It was very Cody. He was a lot better at it than me, or maybe he just caught on to the pattern that my objects seemed to always involve food. We would take turns at guessing for miles and miles, hours and hours, as we hiked along.
Slowly, I began to see into the world of Cody Coyote. You could sense Cody’s small town upbringing in his slow, backwoods drawl but I soon learned that his hometown of Cumberland Gap, Tennessee had a population of less than 500 people. From what I could tell he was an only child, never mentioning any siblings, and even from a young age he seemed to not get along with his mother very well, never mentioning his father either. He told me stories of growing up in Cumberland Gap that lead me to believe his training in self sufficiency began long before his days on the trail. As a child Cody once built a fort in his back yard. Most young boys do this but he took it to the next level and ran an extension cord from the house, wiring up lighting and small appliances so he could live there until the winter cold drove him back inside. He said he “preferred” it.
Preferred it to living indoors? Possibly. He had become quite the mountain man in the years he had been on the trail. But a part of me believed what he meant was that he preferred it to his home life. From the very beginning, many of us suspected that Cody Coyote was running from something back home or at very least there was nothing left for him there. We never came to find out what it was and I can only imagine that is the way Cody wanted it to be. Many before us have been left to ponder his mystery and I am sure many more will join us.
Ever a wanderer, ever drifting, he came into our lives, like he has done to so many others, and taught us to be mindful of our perceptions and judgments. Our consequences for failing to do so may include missing out on a great friend and a beautiful character. Maybe next time we will all think of him before we make our rash assumptions about a new acquaintance. In the meantime, winter is coming and as far as any of us know Cody is still headed north for Canada. I am hoping that some where along the way he meets some one with a truly big heart and open mind, who passes the Cody Coyote test, so he can settle down in a warm and safe place for the winter.
Cody Coyote, from the lens of my hiking partner Gonzo.