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Travel

The Story of Dakota Joe, a Jailbird on the Appalachian Trail

Dakota Joe’s life was a mess of crime and addiction until, following a stint in prison that got him sober, Joe decided to do what he wanted to since he was a little kid: hike the Appalachian Trail.

by Dan Schneider
Sep 30 2014, 7:50pm

Photos courtesy of the author

It was the winter of 2013, and Dakota Joe thought he was about to die. Hail was beating a crater into the mountain’s bald face, and his Kmart jacket had stopped keeping the cold out a long time ago. His pants were soaked through to the skin—wet denim is slow to dry and wearing it on the Appalachian Trail is generally a bad idea. Every muscle in his body was tense from miles of hiking through the Georgia wilderness. There was no feeling left in his arms and legs, just a stinging cold and more than a little fear.

If it’d been summer, Joe might have taken in the panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He might have looked down on the half-dozen towns dotting the Trail, catching a glint of the sun off some aluminum siding on barns or shabby general stores. Instead he had to turn away from the summit and slide inch by inch down the icy path, each rickety step putting him on the verge of a twisted ankle or a deadly tumble.

Somehow Joe managed to make his way onto a dirt service road. There, a state trooper picked him up and brought him out of the wilderness, although not out of kindness. Dakota Joe was wanted in Florida for violating his probation. A warrant was out for his arrest.

Within a few weeks, Joe was booked and shipped off to Punta Gorda, Florida, for an eight-month bid at the Charlotte County Jail. It would be a year before he’d see the Trail again.

In early 2014, a crippling cold front had dropped temperatures in my hometown of Milwaukee to a wind-chilled 50 degrees below zero. A few friends and I decided that it was the perfect time to drive down to Georgia to hike the first 40 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

Known affectionately as the AT among trailblazers, the southern tip of the 2,181-mile long path stretching from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine, felt like anything but a winter wilderness. Although most of the trees were already stripped bare by the frost, the area’s thick rhododendron bushes and dense mist gave the forest a jungle-like feel, abetted by the occasional waterfall and stream.

We first encountered Dakota Joe on the approach trail to Springer. He scurried up to us while we were eating lunch, wearing a dopey grin and drops of sweat dripping from his bald head the sides of his bony, freshly-shaven face.

As he greeted us with a chipper Floridian drawl, the first thing I noticed was his backpack. He was carrying over 60 pounds of equipment, food, and water, all loaded together in a heap. He had just started to hike that day, too, and found out very quickly that he’d overpacked.

“When you’re on the [Appalachian Trail] you ultimately pack for what you’re afraid of. Afraid of running out of food? You’ll pack too much. Running out of power? Extra batteries,” he said.

Joe was incredibly upfront, telling us about his divorce and recent release from prison with a casual boredom usually reserved for mailmen and checkout clerks. It freaked us all out, this raggedy man sharing the details of his tumultuous personal life in the middle of a half-frozen Georgia forest no less.

We decided to let Joe hike with us after that chance meeting. Partly because we were already headed in the same direction, partly because he had a transistor radio that got regular weather updates, and partly because the fear of being stabbed to death in our sleep by a stranger was outweighed by our deep-seated Midwestern fear of being impolite.

In the 40 miles we hiked between Amicalola Falls and Lake Winfield-Scott, Joe stayed mostly silent. We knew his pack was weighing him down, putting a strain on his spine that he clearly wouldn't be able to endure for the next 2,000 miles of wilderness. Talking became a luxury reserved for infrequent smoke breaks and when we settled in for the night.

Still, we did learn choice pieces about his past, usually over a cheap dinner of pasta and salami after we’d set up camp in one of the wood shacks along the Trail. He told me about the ice storm that nearly killed him in 2013 while I was filtering water for a few of us in a trickling, forgotten mountain stream. You need to do that to ward off Giardia, a parasite that can turn any outdoor adventure into an unending nightmare of cramps, shit, and puke.

Joe, of course, drank straight from the stream.       

“I didn’t know what the hell I was doing last time,” he said. “Going up there in denim like a damn idiot, no cell reception, nothing. This whole adventure is harebrained, but at least this time I know how to take care of myself.”

He certainly had a system and a plan, and then enough food, supplies, backup batteries, and fuel to last him for a few weeks until he needed to resupply. His point about packing for what you’re afraid of was true—and after nearly dying on during the ice storm at Dick’s Creek Gap, he was a little afraid of everything.

Most impressive of all was his body of work. Joe would walk and take pictures on his flip phone all day, sending updates along to a friend in Florida who would post them on a Facebook fan page titled “The Adventures of Dakota Joe.” While the page only had several hundred likes at the time, Joe was confident that the meandering soliloquies and gorgeous landscape shots he posted would soon attract more.

“People are already rooting for me out here,” he said. "I’m getting food drops after a few hundred miles or so, and it’ll mostly be from people who believe in me, and want to hear my story.”

Originally born Chad Ferguson, Joe’s initiation to a life of petty thievery and chasing highs started on his 18th birthday when he robbed a Domino’s Pizza. That and some furniture robberies in Tennessee earned him his first stint in prison, a four-month bid that did little but cement his burgeoning drug addiction.

“After jail l I got into drugs really hard," he said. "There’s not a drug I haven’t put in my system. I’ve had my heyday with crack cocaine, heroin, LSD, ecstasy, all that stuff, and I would’ve robbed my own mother for money.”

After burglarizing a church in 2008, Joe was sent to a federal prison in Florida where, on his first night, a fellow inmate was stabbed in the bathroom. The next morning Joe decided that he was running out of time to get his life in order. He vowed to get clean and never, ever go back to prison.

After eight months the state released him, and he found himself free from his most serious drug addictions and ready to get right. He settled into a little home in Fort Myers, Florida, got a full-time job and even a serious girlfriend he eventually married. Things were finally starting to settle down. Unfortunately, right after his marriage fell apart in 2012, Joe was stopped by a local cop and charged with driving on a suspended license. He was stuck with three years’ probation and the life he’d built seemed to be slipping away.

Joe decided to do something drastic in response, something he’d wanted to do since he was a little kid: hike the Appalachian Trail. No time to flesh things out, no time to save up money for the trip. He was just going to do it, planning be damned.

That hike was interrupted after he nearly froze to death at Dick’s Creek Gap and the cop that picked Joe dropped him in Charlotte County jail for violating the terms of his probation.

Stuck in prison once again, Joe tried to keep his head down. He took on extra work, acted like a model inmate, and controlled his temper. Through it all, the only thought on his mind was getting back to Georgia so that he could finish the hike he’d barely even started.

On a breezy September morning, the gates to the jail opened. A part of him thought that he should just cut his losses and settle down again. But to Joe, this felt like a final shot to make something of himself. Maybe not something extraordinary, but something. So he set out on the Trail again.

When he began to post about his plans on the Appalachian Trail hiker forums WhiteBlaze.net, Joe expected people to be skeptical of his second attempt. But the derisive response he got from his fellow online hiking junkies surprised him.

“Oh gosh not this dude again,” one hiker wrote.

“We’ll be taking quarter bets on how long it takes him to violate probation. I’ve got 72 hours or the first Friday after he’s released,” said another.

Joe was understandably pissed off, but it would come in handy over the next eight months. Before, he’d wanted to fulfill a little childhood dream and hopefully write about his experiences along the way. Now, he had what every good visionary needs: haters.

Instead of folding, he decided to double down and show those bastards who he really was. He wasn’t just going to hike the Appalachian Trail, he was going to hike there and back (or “yo-yo”) and do it all on half of a shoestring budget.

On October 13, 2013, Joe got himself a bicycle and rode it all the way from Port Charlotte, Florida, to a run-down town on the edge of the Chattahoochee National Forest in northern Georgia armed with nothing but a few dollars, some basic gear, and a food stamp card. A few weeks later he was standing next to me on top of Springer Mountain.

“It’s Dakota Joe, don’tcha know?”

This cheesy salutation heading each Facebook post endeared me to Dakota Joe’s writing early on—that and his rabid dedication to the task. During the 2,181-mile journey, Joe compiled an impressive body of work matched by few on or off the Appalachian Trail. It’s common for hikers to document their journeys with a post every few hundred miles and a couple photos, but rarely has the Trail been so deeply documented, each rugged, muddy day of the hike so carefully described and captured for posterity. And Joe did it all on a cell phone made during the Bush administartion.

After we parted ways in northern Georgia, Joe was able to lighten his load somewhat and continue his hike with a smaller pack. It was still February, and even in the South the winters can still bring a bitter cold, with snow up past your ankles and wind that threatens to rattle the skeleton apart.

Joe trekked through the snow for weeks, almost never encountering another human being—no hikers, no Conservancy volunteers, no one. For weeks at a time it was just him and the Trail. Fifteen miles of hiking a day, a small pot of warm mush for dinner, and the odd deer for company. These were meditative times. Joe didn’t know and stopped caring whether or not another person would come along before winter’s end.

But when Joe crossed into North Carolina in early February, he met the man who would become half of the Appalachian Trail’s strangest dynamic duo.

Phil, a lanky and laconic German grad student, happened upon the itinerant ex-con in a North Carolina shelter. He recognized Joe almost immediately from the notorious posts about him on WhiteBlaze. The two immediately took a shine to each other in a way neither could really describe, although both did suggest sitting down to watch Deliverance as a defining moment in their peculiar friendship.

Phil was hiking the AT while his girlfriend worked in Washington, DC for the summer. He would eventually propose to her that Independence Day on the summit of Mount Katahdin. Together, Phil and Joe set out to cross the Smoky Mountains.

They quickly acclimated themselves to the Trail life, slowly ramping up their daily mileage. First 12-mile days sufficed, then they went up to 16, then suddenly they were hiking 20 miles a day with ease, enjoying the first signs of spring thaw and the newfound hiking companions who began to show up on weekends. Although they mostly continued to sleep in the wood shelters, the pair began to take infrequent stops at hostels in the booniest of boonie AT towns.

“Our first night in Virignia we stayed at a hostel in Damascus," Joe said. "Me and Phil both got sick from Norovirus and the guy who owned the hostel still charged us 25 bucks a night to stay. I paid $175…to vomit and diarrhea my brains out for five days straight."

Food was rarely plentiful, and tobacco (one of Joe’s few remaining habits) was even rarer. Adjusting wasn’t too hard for Joe following eight months on the prison diet, though, and the endorphin rush of every peak and every scenic outlook made it all worth it.

All the while, Dakota Joe’s Facebook presence continued to grow. Now, each of his posts would reach 10,000 or more people. On top of that, the haters on WhiteBlaze began to simmer into grumblings about his use of food stamps—petty shit that indicated everyone realized that Joe was really going for broke.

A little love from the fans certainly helped, be it in the form of an online comment or the odd care package left at some wayward post office. It didn’t change the weather or make his legs stop hurting on the bad days, but it did make it all a little more bearable. Joe understood that this is what it took to get an eyeful of America’s remaining wilderness, and it was worth it.

Joe never said this out loud, nor did Phil. When I reconnected with them in May for a ten-mile section hike—at that point child’s play for the two of them—they had long since stripped their minds of such ornate excess in order to make room for a shark-like internal propulsion system that hummed, Keep moving, keep moving forward.

Phil was pissed off that I’d shown up just as they were about to hit the home stretch. He had a girlfriend to propose to, and here I come along to do a measly ten-mile hike—not to mention give Joe an inflated sense of self by writing about him. After talking for a few minutes, Phil wandered off to cook a chicken sausage and go to bed, just as the sun was setting.

Sitting on the Killington shelter’s slanted metal sheet roof, just a few hundred feet from the top of Killington Peak in Vermont’s Green Mountains, I could see that Joe had changed since I’d seen him over 1,500 miles earlier. Maybe it was just the copse of facial hair he’d acquired, but he seemed to have to grown into a mature calm.

“This is really a job now," he said. "I’ve got a few hundred miles left, and after Phil does his proposal I’m gonna rip back down to Georgia. Phil’s pretty fast, but walking with a second person does slow you down. I’ll bet I can do 30-mile days like nothing.”

It was quite a claim to make, but I was ready to buy it. Wanting to see the view from Killington myself I started to head back up the mountain, a climb that takes you up several hundred vertical feet. It’s a tough-but-doable ascent for a novice like me.

Joe nearly sprinted the entire way. He was up there well before me, taking in a gorgeous view of Vermont for the second time that day, and I realized that he really had come into his own. This nutty guy could set a record, I kept thinking. he could actually do it.

After a quick ten-mile hike the next morning, we said our goodbyes outside of a Walmart in Rutland, Vermont, where Phil and Joe bought supplies and siphoned off some electricity to charge their phones. From there the two bounded towards the White Mountains, arguably the most beautiful and challenging part of the whole Trail. Southbound hikers cheat themselves by tackling this monstrous slice of the Northern New England first, both in eating up the most stunning spectacles at the outset and forcing themselves to do the hard stuff before they’ve even earned their trail legs.

It was no sweat for them. Their entire world was one long hike at this point. What was another 6,000-foot-tall mountain compared to what they’d just done?

Finally, with just two weeks to go before Phil’s proposal set to take place on Mount Katahdin, the pair reached the final stretch of the AT: Maine’s Hundred-Mile Wilderness.

“We were sick of the fucking trail,” Joe said. “We had to ford a river naked because we didn’t want to get our clothes wet. Plus it’s a bit of financial burden once you get to Maine, because you’re running out of money and it seems like all of the hostels in Maine exist purely just to rip you off.”

Of all things, money was high on Joe’s mind. Phil was about to go back to DC, but Joe had to turn around and do the whole damn thing over again with only a food stamp card and the good graces of his fickle fans.

But Dakota Joe is nothing if not bold. And fortune, it seems, truly does favor the bold. During a patch of strong cell phone reception in the Hundred-Mile Wilderness he got a call from an old friend named Teddy who whispered an endless stream of miracles in his ear.

I got some work out in North Dakota, Teddy told him. There’s a gold rush out here. You show up and I’ll get you a job, no questions asked. $20 an hour and a per diem to boot. Lay water pipes all day and live like a king.

Dakota Joe hadn’t heard that North Dakota had recently been experiencing an energy boom, thanks in large part to the explosion of the natural gas and oil industries in the region. He had no strong opinions on fracking, much less flaming water taps and polluted reservoirs. Even if he did, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. This was more money than he’d ever made in his life.

But what about his promises of a yo-yo? Joe had spent two years building up an online persona, and said over and over again that he wasn’t just going to do the AT one way, but both. The last thing he wanted to be was a fraud.

Somewhere in the middle of Maine a switch flipped. He was about to do what no one on Earth would’ve bet he could have a year ago. On paper, people like Dakota Joe aren’t supposed to hike Triple Crown trails. That’s for the Bill Brysons of the world, for the young and parent-supported, for crunchy baby boomers wanting to "get away from it all." It had been the stinging rejection from WhiteBlaze that had doubled his trip to yo-yo status, and with the end of the Trail nearly in sight an adult level of reasoning took over.

Dakota Joe didn’t need to do anything crazy to make his life worthwhile. He’d already done it.

In the most bizarre, roundabout way possible, the AT had done for Joe what two stints in prison had thoroughly failed to do: rehabilitate him.

At the Trail’s end there were no plumes for Dakota Joe and Phil the German. The only fireworks were far in the distance, marking a Fourth of July that neither would celebrate or even care about. For Phil there was a woman he loved, and for Joe there was only a plaque bearing the words of deceased Maine Governor Percival Proctor Baxter: “Man is born to die. His works are short-lived.”

“I was really emotional, now that I had an actual life to begin,” Joe said. “What I would do when I got back had been on my mind the whole time. I could’ve yo-yo’d the trail, achieved the dream, and come back to nothing.”

Returning home confirmed that for Joe. Most of his possessions had been sold during his time on the trail, pawned off for drugs by his old junkie friends. So Joe said a few goodbyes to those loved ones still sober enough to say goodbye back and left for North Dakota.

Dakota Joe has settled down for the moment—out of jail, out of the woods, slowly working his way up the ranks into the American middle class. Working and resting, working and resting, every day without fail, laying water pipes atop the Bakken formation in rural North Dakota.

“Everywhere you look there’s oil pumps, fire shooting out. It’s the craziest thing I’ve seen in my life,” he told me.

I wanted to say something to him about the potential environmental impacts of fracking, or at least point out the painful irony of harvesting oil after spending six months in the woods. But I didn’t. Joe had managed to silence all of his WhiteBlaze haters by finishing the Trail and getting a job, so it felt weird to piss on the track in the middle of his victory lap.

For now, Joe will keep working and writing for whoever’s willing to pay attention. That may bear fruit, as he’s already got a bigger and more dedicated following than most writers I’ve known.

There are still two legs of the Triple Crown for him to see, with a combined 5,754 miles between them. There’s also the Florida Trail, a thousand-mile endurance trial of swampy misery that no one has ever yo-yo hiked. Although he’s more focused work than the lure of a trail at the moment, a glimmer of possibility remains for Florida.

Joe may yet take that long walk through his old backyard, as a truly free man for the first time in years.

Dan Schneider is a freelance journalist and law student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Follow him on Twitter.