The Chattanooga area has wonderful hiking trails, but for Sam Hawley who was born and raised here – he is looking for a little more adventure.
Childhood for Sam always included adventure and exploring. He doesn’t recall what he wanted to be when he was child, but his interests have always involved the environment.
“I really enjoyed discovering things and I have always had a child-like fascination with nature. Geology, mycology – which is the study of mushrooms… and I would see something and would want to learn about it,” Sam says.
Taking off on his own was always part of the adventure for Sam. “Dad was really busy so I pretty much spent my early years hiking around mostly by myself at the national park on the side of Lookout. It is where I would go to find peace,” Sam confides.
Whether he was catching crawfish, looking for arrowheads, climbing into caves or rock climbing, Sam found that whatever he did was interesting enough to learn more about it.
Attending Chattanooga Christian School, his favorite classes were biology and chemistry. He attended college at Chattanooga State and he tells, “I was an environmental science major until I realized that my only option in this town was pretty much to work in a sewage treatment plant. I thought of becoming a park ranger and did an internship for a while. I realized that if I ever wanted a family, that this wasn’t a good option because we’d be moving all over the place sort of like a military job - you get put into different parks all over.”
Sam left Chattanooga State and attended ETSU to study dental hygiene, then went back to Chatt State. At the time, he had intentions of working a 9-5 job and having a family. Sam concedes to being a ‘professional student’ and says it seems he has never stopped taking classes. He picked up a business management degree at Belhaven.
After spending time in school achieving the goals set before him, Sam’s spirit was restless and he wanted to explore beyond the trails of Chattanooga.
“I just thought that since I don’t have a fiancé anymore and I don’t have a job that is worth anything… I am relatively young and if I don’t do it now - I won’t ever do it. So I decided that I was going to go out to California,” he says.
The idea was to backpack the John Muir Trail. His mother, Claire, decided to go along with family friend Billy Ellison and Sam’s father David would come out afterward to meet up with Claire for their anniversary. Sam had joined his parents on many hikes and has recently been a part of the Lookout Hiking Club’s outings.
“When you hike the John Muir Trail, you have your class A hikers and you have more serious hikers who will hike 230 miles and then you have the Pacific Coast Trail hikers who hike several thousand miles,” Sam explains.
Hiking the John Muir Trail was on his mother’s ‘bucket list’ and Sam was ready to try it with her. “I don’t like to hike too much with people that I don’t know very well because you are stuck with that person for weeks. And if you don’t like them very well …it’s a bad thing,” he laughs.
After the first two days the trio had hiked about 13,000 feet and Claire started having hypobaropathy (altitude sickness) and had to come off of the mountain.
“As we were coming down she had torn her meniscus and I had to carry her pack and my pack. Fortunately, I found a day-hiker close to the end who asked, ‘What in the world are you carrying two packs for?’ and I told him and he helped me out. I went back and got my mom. She and Billy had not trained for the hike,” Sam says.
“I took off on my own after a few days of doing 18 miles each day, I was just beat apart. I did a good portion of it but basically threw in the towel because I had selected gear that was better suited to be carried by three people. I ended up going to San Francisco just to see the ocean and Billy was going to fly to Hawaii. I thought, ‘Why not just head south of California’ so Billy gave me a ride down and that is where I ended up meeting a fella who was a contractor named Jonesy. He told me, ‘If you try to go to New Mexico and you wander around there by yourself, you are gonna get killed’ so I went with him. He had gotten his trucking license and had gone out to move around supplies. He had been in Afghanistan, Pakistan all over,” Sam says.
The two went through Mexico because Sam wanted to get his passport stamped. When they got up to the desk the Mexican officials made Sam uneasy. His friend had several stamps on his passport from his travels and Sam didn’t have any.
“I had never traveled outside of the country before and it just made me really nervous because the guy took our passports and went to the back room and called some other people to come look at it. Everything went really well though …until we were pulling out of Mexico,” he laughs.
“Jonesy had a GEO Tracker and when we were in this little wine country, his transmission fluid started running out. Thankfully, we broke down close to a gas station and I got an armload of transmission fluid. We kept dumping it in about as fast as it was pouring out! It was just an absolute blessing that we made it,” Sam chuckles.
They were fortunate to have a downhill path during the last four miles and were able to put the vehicle in neutral and cut off the engine. When they made it back to San Diego, Billy had already left for Hawaii and Jonesy bid Sam farewell.
Meeting strangers and depending on them for a lift here and there was something Sam became accustomed to and it was part of the adventure.
“When you are backpacking and meet people, you come up with nicknames for each other. There was one guy named ‘Crazy Horse’ who was real interesting, a girl who had a tendency to wear bright colors, so she was called ‘Rainbow Bright’ and then there was a guy they called ‘Lighthouse’.
As Sam recollects asking why people called him Lighthouse, he imitates the fellow using his best Scottish accent, “Well, I had a head lamp on my head you see, and I couldn’t find me things. I kept turhning around and turhning around and someone said, ‘Hey Lighthouse! Turhn out yer light!’ and so …I was called Lighthouse’,” Sam laughs.
When asked if he had a nickname, Sam came up with two. One was a name he chose for himself as an alias when he doesn’t know someone too well before getting to know them.
“Tomothy, because it is right on the fence. It sounds kind of real and yet it kind of sounds fake and people don’t have the guts to ask you if it’s your real name or not, but also… they will never meet another ‘Tomothy’ so if anyone ever asks, ‘Hey, do you know Tomothy?’ …’Yeah’. I am the only Tomothy out there - I am sure of this,” Sam laughs.
The second nickname was given to him as a play on words of the television character ‘McGeyver’ because Sam was always fixing things with a sporting knife that he carried around.
“They called me ‘McDaggar’ because I always had a fishing blade knife and I used it for everything - cutting cords, fileting fish – everything. They would say to me, ‘Can you fix this too, McDaggar?’ There is probably only one McDaggar, too,” Sam chuckles.
One of the things Sam learned to appreciate while backpacking and hitchhiking was how helpful and kind people in California would be as he met them.
“People will bend over backward to help you out. I met a guy who stayed in a house with 19 roommates – it was really a small house, but they all lived together,” Sam says. “One of the best parts about the trip was watching all of them cook together. I was watching 19 people in a small kitchen literally dance and pirouette around each other as they all cooked simultaneously.”
Sam told the group how he had been meeting people and taking rides as he traveled through California. Someone suggested to Sam that he should try “thumb” hitchhiking and just get out and start walking.
Sam decided to try it and, after walking about 13 miles while not getting any rides, he realized that he was right in front of a compound. “It turned out that I was in front of a major mental correctional facility… I thought, ‘Great, this is just wonderful’,” he says with sarcasm.
When a car finally slowed down and pulled over, Sam ran to meet up with it. He decided to take the ride no matter who it was because he was completely exhausted. Chris, a surfer who was about the same age as Sam, asked him where he was headed. Chris had been to Asia and Europe and traveled often. He had just gotten a promotion with a solar panel company and he knew a lot of people who were involved with mycology so the pair hit it off swapping stories as they drove. “Mycology had been a hobby of mine for years and he gave me a few tips,” Sam says.
Sam took Chris’ contact information to stay in touch and thought of possibly heading back to California later. He tried to hitch another ride and people would pass him by. Noticing a family across the street at a rest stop, Sam felt it couldn’t hurt to ask if he could ride along with them.
“I ran across with my bag and I said, ‘Hi, my name is Sam Hawley and I am from Tennessee’ and I gave him the rundown of why I was there and told him about the trail and now I am here. He was just looking at me like I was out of my mind and he was trying to be polite. Then he looked at his wife and kids and when he spoke to his wife I realized that he couldn’t speak a lick of English! So I started signaling and trying to point out what I was trying to convey,” Sam says.
Sam wasn’t carrying a map so it was difficult to communicate with the Asian family. “They gave me a ride from there to close to Monterey. Out of the five-hour trip, all I was able to get out of them was that they had come to the states from São Paulo, but we were all there for basically the same reason… just to travel the coast of California. The wife and daughter were struggling trying to communicate and the wife signaled to me ‘Can I take your photograph?’ I told her yes, so she reached into her bag and she pulled out a Go-Chrome. I started to laugh because I pulled mine out and we had the exact same camera. It was just one parallel after another in that - we are all basically on the same path,” Sam considers.
After making it to Monterey and missing the bus a few times, Sam stayed at a campsite and finally caught a bus to Santa Cruz.
“I was given a place to stay in a guest room in a cabin in the redwoods for the next couple of weeks and went trout fishing and a great deal more,” Sam says.
He started his nine and a half week adventure with about $700 and did not take credit cards, a map or his cell phone.
After coming back to Chattanooga and still having difficulty finding a job for a reason to keep him here, Sam is ready to take off for California once again.
“To see the great skies, do a little mushroom hunting and to be around many folks who are so wonderful to me. I had several job offers and places to stay over the summer,” Sam says.
Leaving at the end of December, Sam has a few friends to stay with, but he is still searching for more adventure.
“This was a no brainer for me. It was either staying here at a dead end job or having an adventure of a lifetime,” Sam says. “I figured with the worst case scenario I’d just scrape by in California or I could just scrape by here… but at least in California I’d have the beach and would be around some really nice people.”