×

A Life: ‘Baltimore Jack’ Tarlin Thru-Hiked the Appalachian Trail Eight Times

  • "Baltimore Jack" Tarlin in an undated photograph. (Courtesy Mike Sisemore)

  • Natalie Sisemore, 10, of Sunapee, N.H., speaks with "Baltimore Jack" Tarlin in their Sunapee home in 2015. (Courtesy Mike Sisemore)



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, May 22, 2016

Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack, I went out for a ride and I never went back, Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing, I took a wrong turn and I just kept going.

— “Hungry Heart” by Bruce Springsteen

Hanover — Seventeen years ago, Mike Sisemore was heading north on the Appalachian Trail and found himself on a slow-moving stretch up a hill in Virginia. About 100 yards ahead he saw a disheveled form. Another hiker, presumably, but this one was different.

His backpack was crooked, with long straps hanging from its sides. His shoes were untied. He wore a bandana on his head. He wore black nylon shorts and a black T-shirt. As Sisemore put it, the hiker was “bouncing” along the trail.

And then Sisemore saw him fall, slip on a mud patch and front flip into a bed of rocks. When Sisemore caught up, the hiker was sitting on the ground holding his broken glasses.

“You got any tape?” he asked Sisemore in a grizzled voice.

It was, Sisemore knew immediately, Baltimore Jack, a legend along the Appalachian Trail.

Leonard Adam “Baltimore Jack” Tarlin was known for his gruff personality, his deep knowledge of history and his uncanny thoughtfulness. He also had strong roots in Hanover and thru-hiked the Trail eight times.

“(Jack) had no need for the finer things in life,” Sisemore said. “He was absolutely content sleeping in a sleeping bag in the middle of February under a tree in New Hampshire. Nobody could understand that about Jack. He just didn’t need a lot of things in his life. He was mobile. He carried his life in his backpack.”

Tarlin died at Angel Medical Center in Franklin, N.C., due to heart complications on May 3. He was 57. As many remember, Tarlin was both approachable and coarse, charismatic and curmudgeonly, free but shackled.

But what made Tarlin renowned in the hiking community, besides a trail name inspired by Bruce Springsteen, was his wisdom, his selflessness to others, and his complicated relationship with what he called the “Other World.”

Since his death, an outpouring of condolences and support has appeared on Facebook and on Appalachian Trail message boards. Encounters with Tarlin have been relived, stories of his generosity remembered. To some, he was the Trail veteran that all knew and many had met. To others, especially those in the Hanover community, he was more than that.

“Looking back on my life, it’s amazing how many things he randomly introduced me to,” said Jen Whitcomb, a Dartmouth graduate who met Tarlin at the Dirt Cowboy as a freshman in 1996. “He was like Uncle Jack, half big brother and half uncle. A lot of people knew the trail legend, the hard drinker and the hard partier, the turbo hiker. He was so much more involved than that, like some big complicated package.

“I miss my Uncle.”

I met her in a Kingstown bar, we fell in love I knew it had to end, we took what we had and we ripped it apart, now here I am down in Kingstown again.

Tarlin was born Nov. 12, 1958, in Brookline, Mass., the youngest of four children, three older sisters, raised within the safe, comfortable confines of the “Other World,” which he grew to dislike. But what made Tarlin stand out, even at an early age, was his uncanny intelligence and his quick adaptations to reason and understanding.

“He was always the smartest kid around,” his sister Erika Tarlin said. “People were always impressed by how smart he was, how funny he was.”

Tarlin’s parents died when he was young; his mother when he was nine and then his father seven years later. The losses affected him in ways that, most of the time, were kept just beneath the surface.

“For a while, our father brought us up,” Erika said. “Adam was in his last year of high school (when their father died). That was not easy. I’m not really sure why anyone chooses the path, but I know he certainly did a lot of questioning after something traumatic like that.

“Growing up where we did, you sort of follow a path of high school, college, get a job, get married, all that. You’re fortunate because there’s this nice path that’s already laid out for you in Brookline. At some point after college ... he spent more time hiking, more than usual. I can’t say what pushed him to do that. He clearly loved it, and he obviously has the respect from the other hikers. That was his life.”

Tarlin graduated from Brookline High School in 1976 and from Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., in 1980 with a degree in history. In 1983, Tarlin met Allegra Brelsford, a student at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., at a party to watch The Day After, a television film about nuclear holocaust in Kansas. Brelsford later said she was drawn to his charisma.

“What really attracted me to him was that he was so smart,” she said. “He had a really big presence in the room. In his youth, he was really a dashing figure. Long black coats, tall jack boots. It was like something out of romantic poetry. He also had this sense of humor. He was very intelligent, really articulate. I really liked him,” she said.

The pair were married in 1984 and had a daughter, Jillian, the next year. But it became clear relatively quickly that Tarlin wasn’t built for a homestead life. When the finances became too much, Brelsford and their daughter moved back in with her parents. Tarlin disappeared.

“Looking back on it now there’s so much wanderlust,” said Brelsford, who remarried in 1989. “Adam couldn’t be pinned down anywhere. ... We could never really rely on him to come home. Can you imagine him cooped in a tiny, two-bedroom apartment in the city? He did his best.

“It’s just one of those things. People around him were saying, ‘This is your chance to get it together with a good woman and a child. It was just never him. And that’s OK. ... He found this amazing life for himself up and down the Trail. It was perfect for him in retrospect.”

Brelsford said she was grateful for what Tarlin passed along to their daughter, namely a relentless curiosity and an uncanny intelligence for the world around her.

“Jillian really inherited the best stuff from him,” she said. “I’m going to miss the relationship he and my daughter may have had together, understanding who she is through him.”

Everyone needs a place to rest, everyone wants to have a home, don’t make no difference what nobody says, ain’t nobody like to be alone.

Jen Whitcomb wasn’t sure what to expect when she walked in the Dirt Cowboy in 1996. The plan was to look for Baltimore Jack for advice on how to prepare for a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, someone had mentioned he could be found there.

What she got was a lifelong friendship.

“He struck me as classy, right away,” said Whitcomb, a Dartmouth grad who now lives in Alaska. “He had all this tattered stuff on, like some grizzled Vietnam War vet. His knees were always wrapped with tattered stuff. ... Encountering him on the trail, you’d just discard him out of hand. But once he opened his mouth ... he had a way of speaking. He always struck me as carrying an air of class, of learnedness. He had the accent of a professor.”

Hanover became the perfect place for Tarlin, close enough to the Trail with an Ivy League library within walking distance to keep his mind engaged.

“What brought him to Hanover was the Dartmouth library and having interesting people to talk to,” Whitcomb said. “There were professors he enjoyed chatting with. He needed people. He liked being around educated people. ... He really knew so much about so many things. He was a wealth of knowledge.”

Tarlin worked primarily at Stinson’s Village Store during the winter months, getting enough money to buy food and supplies for his travels. Whitcomb thru-hiked the Trail with Tarlin in 1997, dropping out of classes at Dartmouth to do so. She later returned to Hanover to finish her degree.

“You develop a certain intimacy with the people you hike with,” she said. “(Tarlin) would show up with his backpack and just be there in the dorm. ... He reveled in intellectual connection.

“I was 18 or 19 years old, just learning about the world. ... It’s really weird, he was the one who kind of taught me about gentlemanly behavior, or behavior I should expect from men. Despite his look, he was way classy. This man in my dorm room sleeping on the floor, he was a total gentleman. ... He was like family.”

Lay down your money and you play your part, everyone’s got a hungry heart.

When Sisemore first encountered Tarlin on the Trail he was walking away from everything. Sisemore had finalized his divorce, quit his job, packed a bag of his belongings, parked his car at the southern edge of the Appalachian Trail with one goal in mind: head north. He was never going back to Georgia.

More importantly, he needed a place to stay. Sisemore was homeless and the Appalachian Trail was coming to an end. Somewhere in the White Mountains, Sisemore hinted to Tarlin that he was looking for a place to live.

“Come to Hanover,” Tarlin said.

Sisemore settled in with David Vincelette for a few years, was introduced by Tarlin to his wife, Amber Grantham, of Danbury, N.H., and started a new life in the Upper Valley. He now works as a social studies teacher at Lebanon High, and will never forgot the guidance that Tarlin gave him in his time of need.

“Jack was a really complicated guy,” Sisemore said. “(The Trail) became his life, his value, his self-worth and happiness was all centered on the Trail, in whatever capacity he could interact with it.”

Hikers honored Tarlin’s memory with a tribute at Trail Days earlier this month in Virginia, an annual gathering of hikers. Ron Haven, who owns a hostel in Franklin, N.C., where Tarlin was staying when he died, said he’s planning on renaming his place “Baltimore Jack Tarlin’s Hiker Den.”

“Nothing will compare to what Jack really was,” Haven said. “I think (renaming the hostel) would be the honorable thing to do. Jack was an honorable person to hike for. ... Everyone has either heard of him or knew him personally. That’s the way it was with Jack.”

Will Greer, who completed the Trail five times with Tarlin, said Tarlin’s charm was being the same charismatic person with both old friends and strangers.

“Without a doubt, this was his life,” Greer said. “For a lot of us, it’s a three-month thing. A lot of people, this is just something they do. They go, hike, and move on with their lives. This was the life for Jack.”

In 1998, Tarlin was approached by a man fascinated with his lifestyle in Shenandoah Park, as he recalled in a interview for WTVF, NewsChannel 5, in Nashville.

“ ‘Well, this has been fascinating,’ ” Tarlin later recalled the man asking.’ ” This is a side of the world I never knew existed. But what do you do in the real world?’ ”

“In the real world, I hike,” Tarlin responded. And then he walked away.

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or at 603-727-3306.