In 2006, I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, 2,176 miles from Maine to Georgia over about five and a half months.
On the journey, I had a lot of ups and downs, and I met a lot of great people in up times and down. When I met great people in down times, they always seemed to provide just the right gesture, or comment, or thing to get me back on track and to help me ultimately succeed.
There is a whole ecosystem of great people surrounding the Appalachian Trail who help hikers on their thru-hike or section hike attempts. These good Samaritans are often called trail angels, and the gesture or thing that trail angels do is called trail magic.
Sometimes the people who are trail angels have an intention to be a trail angel, and they go to the trail to provide trail magic.
For example, when I thru-hiked, I occasionally found a bin of candy or cookies on the trail, or a bunch of Coke’s or beers in a cold stream, and on occasion found someone at a trailhead handing out hot food like pancakes or burgers.
These surprises and gestures provided a tremendous lift to my spirits, helping me over the next mountain or through a difficult twenty-mile day.
Many of the people that provide these gifts are former thru-hikers who have suffered through the 2,000 miles themselves.
But it’s not just former thru-hikers or even people that know much about the AT. I had to hitchhike many times into random mountain towns for resupply, and every time I got a ride. Where the trail crosses really touristy spots in the mountains, I often had random people approach to ask me if I needed food, water, or a ride.
After miles upon miles of isolation and struggle in the woods, to emerge in an area with people and witness the generosity of strangers makes for a really special and memorable experience. That atmosphere also makes the AT really special.
I’ve provided some splashes of trail magic in the past, giving hikers a ride when I see them on the road, but I’ve always wanted to do more.
On our journey west, Katie helped me pull off a pretty awesome morning of trail magic.
We bought stuff to make burgers, chips, Coke’s and candy and setup a grill at the back of the truck at an Appalachian Trail trailhead on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee.
It was a cold and rainy morning, a perfect morning for lifting up the spirits of some downtrodden hikers.
At this time of year, there is a bubble of northbound thru-hikers making their way through the Smokey Mountains. So we expected to see a lot of hikers.
We had about 20 hikers come through, and I could see that we helped energize each hiker.
When the hikers reached our trailhead, they had been some sixty miles and several days without any resupply or town visit across the top of the Smokey Mountains. They had hiked through ice and snow and blistering wind. On that morning, most had already hiked ten miles in the rain.
I could see that we helped energize each hiker that came, some more noticeably than others. Some poured out their thanks and disbelief as they scarfed down a hot hamburger, while others quietly gathered themselves while getting a sugar burst from Coke or candy before the next mountain climb.
The morning was really special experience.
Thanks to Katie for helping me pull it together and for managing two kids in the rain on a muddy dirt road in the mountains.
Trail angels and trail magic aren’t only isolated to the Appalachian Trail. On all my adventures I’ve experienced overwhelming generosity of strangers, especially one time when we were stranded in the desert on our bike ride across America.