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A thru-hiking 'dirtbag' undaunted by COVID passes through Flagstaff
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A thru-hiking 'dirtbag' undaunted by COVID passes through Flagstaff

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Here’s an existential conundrum that Stephen Ashworth, a thru-hiking veteran who moseyed on through Flagstaff last Friday on his months-long Route 66 pilgrimage, probably had plenty of time to ponder as he hoisted his bulky backpack ready to ramble:

If your trail name — that distinctive moniker that these ambulatory nomads are fond of adopting — is “Smiley the Champ,” but, because of COVID-19 concerns, no one can see your smile through your mask, will you suffer an identity crisis?

Smiley barked out a guffaw at the prospect. He was sitting on a brick ledge near the corner of Milton Road and Route 66, noshing on a burrito that a kind stranger handed him from the continental breakfast bar at a local hotel and swigging water from his gallon antifreeze jug (presumably well-washed beforehand), watching the traffic blow by before hoofing it toward Williams.

“Yes, COVID’s made it tougher out here,” said Ashworth, 46, originally from Terrell, Texas. “Harder to get Wi-Fi for my Facebook posting. Being outside, I don’t wear a mask much. I’m kind of lax when I take selfies with people. If someone’s wearin’ a mask, I’ll put it on. I might’ve had a touch of it, like, back in New Mexico, around Vega. Feelin’ really tired. Beat. But I didn’t have a fever or anythin’. I have a really strong immune system. I might’ve had it and not known.”

He shrugged, took off his hat to rub his balding dome, then pulled down his black face covering to chew off another hunk of his burrito. Smiley, his preferred form of address, proudly calls himself a “real thru-hiking dirtbag” in his distinctive Texan drawl. (Unless otherwise stated, just assume he’s always dropping his “g”s and extending twangy syllables.) He completed the iconic Appalachian Trail in 2012, the Pacific Crest Trail the next year, the Arizona Trail a few years back, and his first 5,000-mile Walk Across America in 2015.

And now, as other thru-hikers have eschewed long excursions because of the pandemic, leaving something of an economic and cultural void in a popular stopping place such as Flagstaff, Smiley has forged ahead on his latest venture, traversing Route 66, from Chicago to Santa Monica.

It might be a little risky to do so in these pandemic times, but Smiley’s the kind of guy who cannot stay sedentary for long. Gotta keep moving, ambling down the lush trail or lonesome highway, not walking away from responsibility but rather toward adventure. Granted, he has made a few concessions to coronavirus concerns. He took nearly two months off during the initial surge of the virus, last spring. And he has made the decision, for the sake of is health, to take it slow, enjoy more days off ("zero days," they call it) to recover, and make a vow to sleep outdoors under his tarp even when indoor options are available.

In between thru-hikes, Smiley works, but the last full-time gig he had was when he ran a custom landscaping company in 2004. Since then, hits the road whenever the mood strikes. His Route 66 odyssey has been long planned, and he embarked shortly before COVID hit America’s shores.

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“I originally planned on next spring for my next walk, Route 66, but I decided to start (last winter),” he said. “Looking back, if I’d waited, I would’ve been laid off and out of work like so many people once the (pandemic) hit. So I got a head start.”

He made it to Oklahoma City on the Mother Road just as the COVID crisis was cresting last spring and decided, prudently, to take a break until he could assess how severe the chances of contagion might be out on the road. His family in Texas picked him up and took him home. But, two months in captivity was too long, and Smiley resumed his march. He’s been poking along ever since, figures he’ll make it to 66’s end on Santa Monica by mid-February, or maybe March. No date is set in stone for Smiley; he likes to keep his options open.

Which is why he took three zero days in a row to hang out in Flagstaff, one of his favorite “road towns.” He likes it here. He found a great deal on a new lightweight down jacket at Savers, was able to use the free Wi-Fi at the Flagstaff Mall, since the library was closed, and has had several people notice the sign zip-tied to the back of his backpack stating “WALKING ACROSS AMERICA” and give him money or food.

Smiley is cagey when answering the whole question of how he finances his walkabouts. He said his sister “sponsored” his PCT thru-hike but, mostly, Smiley gets by piecemeal. He never stays at a motel and even got rid of his tent, preferring only a tarp now. He subsists, he says, on “my dirtbag dinner special — a $1 package of hot dogs and $1 can of chili.” He has frequented perhaps every Dollar Store along Route 66’s path. That empty antifreeze container he snagged while dumpster diving costs a lot less than a fancy Nalgene water bottle.

“Like, on the American Discovery trail, it’s harder to get (freebies) because people don’t see you, because you’re hiking through national forests and on trails,” he said. “But road hiking, like this, people see you. That lady today staying at the hotel gave me this continental breakfast, but now it comes in doggie bags because of COVID. But, man, I’m loving it. Burritos.

“I do get mistaken sometimes for being homeless-homeless, not thru-hiking homeless, but, yeah, I don’t sleep inside at night and I do all this on a budget. I have really nice gear, though. Don’t skimp on that. I’m from the extreme where I don’t stay in hotels. I don’t take too many showers. You can probably smell me. I’m what you’d call a Super Dirtbag.”

Before he scarfed up the last burrito, Smiley reflected on his life and times. He’s loving life, now having racked up 17,000 miles on his journeys. He harbors no regrets about his lifestyle choice. He speaks in admiration of lifelong dirtbaggers.

“You know about Billy Goat?” Smiley asked. “He’s in his 70s, walked 50,000 miles. I know he’s been through Flagstaff. I’m going to do this as long as I can. I’m just 46. The only thing that might change is if I met someone (romantically) who doesn’t like hiking. Maybe we could do the van-life thing then.”

He guffawed once more, lowering his face shield to show a truly sparkling smile.

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