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