Living Out Loud

Trail Magic


The experience of hiking the Appalachian Trail with my wife on our honeymoon, a 156-day, 2189-mile adventure was probably the most life changing thing I have ever done. I was a different person at the end of the journey, physically and mentally. Although I had to make every single one of the estimated 5 million steps of the trip by myself, in no way was it a solo effort.  We were helped by many people in a variety of ways.

Long distance hikers on the AT, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail refer to unexpected largesse from strangers as trail magic. The people who provide trail magic are known as trail angels. Wonder Woman and I received trail magic from the very first day of our hike, in the form of anonymous care packages left at the first hostel we stayed in outside of Harper's Ferry West Virginia to our final hour at the base of Springer Mountain in Georgia in the form of gifted candy bars from day hikers.

Along the way, trail magic took many different forms. On one of our first days on the trail in south central Pennsylvania, we encountered organic apples and generic root beer left beside the trail by some benefactor. Fresh fruit is too heavy for backpackers to carry routinely and the standard drink on the AT is purified creek water, so finding those treats just waiting for us was a spiritual uplift. 

Often trail magic takes the form of a ride from a mountainous road crossing into the nearest town so that hikers can resupply and perhaps wash their clothes at a laundromat. Hitch-hiking is the standard way to accomplish this and we never had to wait long for someone willing to give us a ride, which is a really nice thing to do considering that we were often several days from our last showers and had the characteristic hiker stench. We got a ride in the middle of driving thunderstorm in New Jersey and once in Virginia after a bug flew into my wife's ear all the way to her eardrum, we hiked three miles to the nearest road where we got a ride in literally 15 seconds all the way to an urgent care 20 miles away. In southern Maine I loaned my hiking poles to a woman having difficulty descending a steep mountain, and in return, she and her husband drove us 50 miles out of their way to a hostel in the town of Andover.

In Connecticut, we hiked by a group holding an antiwar demonstration on the way into a small town to resupply. I went over and spoke to them, having a background in the peace movement myself. Later, outside of the grocery store we were approached by a member of the group who had questions for us about our trip. After rapping with him for awhile, he pulled out a $100 bill and gave it to us with the instructions that when we climbed the highest mountain in Massachusetts, Mt. Greylock, we were to have dinner on him at the inn that was near the trail. We were all total strangers to each other and he felt called on to be generous like that.

Many times while were hiking we received care packages from friends back home with things like good socks, gluten free foods for Wonder Woman, who has celiacs and even art work from my young niece. Although we had access to some stores, you never knew the quality of food they would offer. Imagine having to go grocery shopping in a 7-11 for the nest four days when your body is going to need thousands of calories to fuel climbing mountains and fording rivers. Those care packages were golden.

I blogged through the entire trip and just north of the Tennessee line when we were on the southern part of our journey, I got an email from a lady who offered to put us up in her mountain home for a couple of nights.She would ferry us by car to the beginning of each day's hike and pick us up at a road crossing at the end of the day so that we didn't have to carry our packs. She fed us home cooked meals and told raucous stories of her law enforcement career. 

Once, in Maine, I managed to get a horribly infected foot that threatened to take me off the trail. For $5, the owner of the hostel where we stayed carried me two towns away to a hospital, stayed in the parking lot waiting on me for two hours and then took me to a pharmacy to get prescriptions filled for steroids and antibiotics. 

In New England we came out of the woods in a thunderstorm to cross a Housatonic River bridge in the middle of a downpour and a man ran out of his house to offer us a place to sleep in his barn for the night. Things like that happened more than once. We also slept in a barn full of vintage motorcycles and in the morning before we left to get back in the woods, the owners made my wife gluten free french toast for breakfast.

The kindness of strangers is one of the fondest memories I have of the experience and one on which I will owe a karmic debt until I die. Whenever we are near the Appalachian Trail on our frequent trips to the mountains, we are eagle eyed for any hikers we see, eager to buy them a meal or give them a ride. Many was the time when we would be hiking on an otherwise deserted mountain side only to encounter a former through hiker with a backpack full of cookies and sodas looking to pay back the hiking community with his own bounty. In my most cynical moments, it helps me to remember all the people who helped us, expecting nothing in return but our gratitude.