Phantom and Blush settled down for their daily picnic beside the white-blazed Appalachian Trail in New Jersey. Without a care, they kicked off their boots and spread out a meal in the middle of the forest.
In the racket of chipmunk and squirrels, a loud rustle in the underbrush caused Blush to spin quickly around. Her hummus sandwich halfway to her mouth, she jumped up from her bedroll.
A small black bear lumbered through the forest, walking lazily toward them.
“I really had no idea what to do at that point,” Phantom recalled. “I just jumped up and waved my arms, yelling at it and trying to act big — It didn’t really seem to notice.”
As the bear wandered, they frantically packed and laced up their boots. The initial shock abated, and Phantom considered taking out his camera. Then he looked up to see an even larger black bear standing atop a distant hill.
“That’s when I said, ‘Go! Go that way,’” said Phantom, his eyes lit by the exciting memory. Blush smiled at him across their table at Bangor’s Nocturnem Draft Haus, one of their favorite places to enjoy a beer and watch live music.
The Nocturnem staff call the two 25-year-olds “the trail lovers,” because it was the bear incident, and all of their other experiences on the AT, that transformed them from strangers into a couple.
Of course, Phantom and Blush are their trail names. Now that they’ve been off the trail for more than a year, they have transitioned back to using their legal names, Elias Hershbine and Cindy Koscielny, respectively.
The two met as children in Sunday school at Saint Anne’s Catholic Church in Dexter, but that relationship didn’t extend beyond reciting hymns and sharing snacks.
Because they lived in two different towns — Elias from Exeter and Cindy from Dexter — they never spent time together growing up.
When they did reconnect through a mutual friend, timing wasn’t great. They began dating just a month before Elias and his best friend Robert Richards embarked on a seven-month trek on the AT. Cindy, eager for adventure, considered joining them.
“I was kind of hesitant if I wanted go or not,” she said. “So he left in March . But I knew that if I didn’t go at some point that it wouldn’t turn out the way it has turned out.”
Soon after starting the trail in Georgia, Elias became the Maine Phantom after fellow thru-hikers realized he was signing shelter logs with random names. Meanwhile, Cindy was completing her spring semester at the University of Southern Maine.
Though Cindy is admittedly a quiet person, she’s also quite bold. Just one week after the classes ended, she boarded a bus for Virginia to meet up with Phantom and hike the rest of the trail, more than 1,000 miles, at his side.
“I ended up waiting around in town for six days waiting for her,” said Phantom, who had separated from Robert because of their different hiking paces. “It was a complete leap into the unknown.”
When a bearded Phantom met Cindy at the bus station wearing a hiker’s kilt, she was taken aback by his appearance. For their first night together, she had a difficult time sleeping in the hostel. He fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.
“I had been out there two months already,” Phantom explained. “I had a total mentality that everything was natural, and she was coming out of college. It was a huge transition. And obviously we had a lot of getting to know each other to do.”
“I had no idea what I started,” said Cindy, who earned the trail name Blush after her pink hiking gear and a box of blush wine she found on the trail. “It was pretty tough for me at first. I was carrying too much weight, so we switched packs — but I looked forward to it every day because I saw different people on the trail and different scenery. There were always obstacles, but you had to find a way to just go with it.”
Their life slipped into a routine, a pattern of walking, tenting and hitchhiking to various towns. In the evenings, Blush set up camp while Phantom found water and cooked freeze-dried pasta.
“Usually we’d just watch the sunset, watch the clouds, listen to birds,” Phantom said. “We’re both kind of quiet people and didn’t talk as much as you’d expect. That’s probably why we got along so easily.”
In fact, the biggest fight they can remember was about a burnt pancake. It didn’t last long.
It took about two months before, in Phantom’s words, “it just fell in place.”
And along the way, they met several other couples, including Connan and Backwards, Door Mouse and Dirt Stew, and Moonshine and Sideways D.
“Trail lovers,” as it turns out, aren’t all that uncommon.
The couple took their time in Maine, visiting beaches as they hiked north to the trail terminus.
“We were famous for going into town and getting a loaf of bread, a block of cheese and a bottle of red wine,” Phantom said.
Their families joined them on the summit of Mount Katahdin to celebrate the last steps of their journey.
But descending the mountain, Phantom felt deep regret, a sadness in losing all the freedom he had experienced over the summer. And Blush worried that their relationship might end with the trail.
Blush-Koscielny began work at Backyard Farms, a year-round tomato farm in Madison, and Phantom-Hershbine returned to Cianbro in Pittsfield as a welder. Integrating back into society was difficult, but their loving relationship was the one thing that stayed the same.
A year later, on Sept. 24, 2011, they returned to the AT. From Crawford Notch in New Hampshire, they hiked to Webster Cliff, and Phantom proposed. Blush accepted, and that night, they camped out in the wilderness once more. Blush now wears a dark blue diamond embedded in white gold.
For Valentine’s Day, they plan to go out in Bangor — nothing elaborate. After all, their wedding is in August, and they’re saving for their honeymoon: hiking in Colorado. And some day, they hope to take another long walk, perhaps on the Pacific Crest Trail or the Continental Divide Trail.