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Latest Aid on Trail: E-Mail

Technology: Hikers on long treks can get help from libraries or 'trail angels,' who provide access to a variety of information.


PATTEN, Maine — Mother Goose meets Twisted Sister II: It's not a summer movie hit, and it's not the latest Stephen King spine-tingler. It actually happened, along a road in northern Maine.

Veteran hiker Bonita Helton, known by the trail name Mother Goose, and Ellen Wilcox, aka Twisted Sister II, greeted each other and embraced like long-lost friends when their paths met for the first time.

The rendezvous between Helton, 54, a waitress from Woodbine, Ky., and Wilcox, 42, a teacher from Bedford, Nova Scotia, speaks to the latest craze to hit the trails crisscrossing the continent.

Along with tents, sleeping bags and cooking gear, hikers are stowing hand-held computers. For those without Palm Pilots or similar devices, there are always desktop computers in the libraries or in the homes of people called "trail angels" who help hikers along the way.

E-mail is the latest signpost to help hikers find a place to do laundry, get shelter, food, water or other kind of assistance, said Bill Miller, a trail angel whose home in New Brunswick, Canada, is frequented by hikers.

"Everybody checks their e-mail when they get to the library," said Helton, who packs a Pocket Mail Composer so that she can add entries into her journal every night and keep in touch with fellow trekkers all over the country.

Wilcox e-mailed Helton and a dozen or so other hikers before she began her southbound trek from Quebec's Cape Gaspe in June. With e-mail, she could monitor their progress, keep them updated on what to expect, and give tips on where to eat and drink.

They had never met face-to-face before Aug. 5 on the International Appalachian Trail, which picks up where the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail ends. The 663-mile IAT extends from northern Maine's Baxter State Park to spectacular Cape Gaspe.

Wilcox, who teaches business and computers at a community college, yearned for a break from the keyboard and decided not to pack a hand-held herself. But she couldn't break away completely and uses a library computer once a week or so.

"I said right from the get-go, this would be electronic-free," Wilcox said as she sat in a trailside diner for a lunch break. "My mother would have loved it if I had one so I could write every day. She worries about me."

As Wilcox spoke, Helton composed and sent an e-mail from the remote Maine woods to a hiker she knows in Nebraska.

Helton, who had just completed the Appalachian Trail for the fifth time and was on her way toward the Gaspe, guessed that 10% of the hikers carry wireless e-mail devices such as hers. Wilcox thinks that it's closer to 50%.

No one knows for sure because it's still new.

"It's definitely a very recent phenomenon," said Laurie Potteiger of the Appalachian Trail Conference in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., which manages the Georgia-to-Maine Appalachian Trail. "It's only been the last two or three years since people routinely ask, 'Where can I check on my e-mail?' "

Many hikers check e-mail from their cell phones, and global positioning is an option for hikers with Palm Pilots, said Steve Jones, a professor of communications at the University of Chicago at Illinois.

Cell phones have improved to the point where batteries can last a couple of weeks if the unit is not turned on, he said.

But Charles Golvin, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, cautioned that hikers should not substitute a cell phone or personal digital assistant for proper planning before heading into the woods. Cellular companies have invested heavily in their networks, but many sparsely populated areas still don't have coverage.

"It would be a mistake for a thru-hiker to simply grab his connected PDA and assume he'll be able to arrange the next food drop whenever the mood strikes," he said from his San Francisco office.

Some hikers, like Suzanne Allen, who is hiking the 1,150-mile Pacific Northwest Trail from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean, keeps in touch through her Web site, called Suz' Adventures.

On the IAT, one of the continent's only long-distance international trails and one of the newest, hikers use e-mail to keep in touch with the trail's president and founder, Dick Anderson.

"Hikers are outspoken about trail conditions," he said. Through e-mail, Anderson has gotten word of blow downs and beaver dams that block or flood the trail.

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