Night Crawler seeks a trail epiphany

Photo courtesy of Dann Hailey

Thru-hiker Dann Hailey, trail name Night Crawler, first gained fame when popular vlogger Early Riser gave him a shout-out.

“This guy ain’t gonna be for everybody,” said Early Riser when he introduced his subscribers to Dann’s YouTube page. “If you don’t like foul language, don’t even bother tuning in – but this guy turns the camera on and talks and lets whatever’s in his head come out. He’s a gruff guy, lot of tattoos, but I really enjoy his commentary; it is really deep and thought provoking. So shout-out to Dann Hailey.”

Dann thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail this year, starting northbound from the approach trail on March 27 and summiting Katahdin on October 6. He is an Arizona native who left an 80-hour-a-week job working in a warehouse after hearing about the AT.  He announced his intention to do a thru-hike – barefoot.

As anyone familiar with the trail might easily guess, the rigors of hiking forced him to don shoes after just a couple days.

He then settled into a world he never imagined and will probably miss forever. Followers of his vlog watched as he struggled through fear of the dark and fear of heights; overloaded his pack carrying the gear of a girl with whom he was besotted; wrecked motel rooms with fellow hiker trash; chased sunrises; and mourned his cat, who died while Dann was on trail. He marveled at what he called the “glittering emeralds” of tiny spiders’ eyes that lit his path as he did the night hiking for which he earned the name Night Crawler. He gave the finger to Wildcat Mountain when he finally descended. He got lost more than once. He simultaneously cursed and laughed his way up the trail.

I met Dann at a coffee shop in Houston about a month and a half after he summited Katahdin. Standing on the corner waiting for me, he looked as though he had just stepped off the trail. As Early Riser noted, Dann is indeed covered in tattoos. He wore a kilt on the trail and continues to wear it in his post-hike life. Strips of duct tape graced several spots on his green puffy jacket. The personal aroma he and other long-distance hikers take perverse pride in had stayed with him off trail.

I was gratified to find his online persona was no different from his in-person identity. Night Crawler is not a bullshitter and neither is Dann.  He talks fast and laughs often.  He disparages himself – “who is this clown?” – he imagines people say of him.  He praises the angels of the AT: “People literally come out of the woods asking, how can I help you?”

Dann starts many of his online videos in the dark, with the red light of his head lamp giving his face an eerie, half-constructed look. He keeps his voice low in hopes of not awaking nearby campers.  According to him, he usually succeeded, hearing only the rustle of people turning over on their mattresses.

He became a connoisseur of sunrises, and an early departure from camp usually got him in position to see a beautiful one. He didn’t always succeed. Tree cover sometimes obscured his view, or he didn’t make it to a watch point quickly enough. But when he had an unobstructed view of a sunrise it anchored him to the new day.

“Sunrises gave me a purpose in the morning,” he said.

Dann started his trek with no particular purpose.  His job, he says, was mind-numbing and his long shifts left him little time to do anything outside of work.

“I would drive to work and hope I would die,” he said.  (This is in contrast to his statement in his announcement video that he was “not necessarily unhappy,” but perhaps time clarifies memory.)

He came across hiking vlogs while looking, he says, for “some way to get away from reality for a while.”

He watched Homemade Wanderlust’s and other hikers’ vlogs and joined the ranks of thru-hikers who hated their jobs enough to take off for the rigor of the trail.

He loved the AT.  He says he always loved it, every minute of euphoria, boredom, pain and relief.

“Nothing was hard enough to make me think of quitting,” he told me.  “Compared to my job, the AT was a cakewalk.  All you had to do was put one foot in front of the other and not die.”

A few weeks before his thru-hike ended, Night Crawler began to feel the anxiety of knowing he would soon face the off-trail world.

“Where’s my place in the world? I was supposed to figure that out while I was out here.  I haven’t had any great epiphanies or anything.” He stops walking and looks at the camera.  “Maybe there’s no great epiphany to be had.”

Days before he summited, he continued in this vein.

“I hope my epiphany comes soon, but that’s not likely to happen. No, I guess I gotta go walk another trail, get an epiphany there,” he muses.

He walked the last few steps to Katahdin slowly, as though marching to a funeral; among a crowd of reveling summiters, he touched a hand to the sign, turned to give the camera a final wistful look, bent his head and said, “It’s over.”

When his thru-hike ended, he wrote on Instagram that “196 days of pure joy” had come to an end.

Descending from the summit, Night Crawler knew he was walking back into a world he no longer measures by work hours or rent payments. He is now a man who talks to constellations and measures his life by the number of steps he takes on a trail.

The post-AT Dann is keeping his heart and mind open for that epiphany, wherever and whenever it may come.

This originally appeared on The Trek.