In Praise of Trail Angels: An Essential Part of the AT Experience

I had no idea what to expect when I set off from Springer Mountain in early March of 2015. I had never been backpacking for longer than a few nights, and while I’d followed the trip reports of hikers from previous years, the culture of thru-hiking wasn’t quite as cemented in the general outdoors mindset as it is these days.

So while I was familiar with the gist of hiking and spending time outdoors, the idea of a trail community was new to me, and the idea of trail magic and trail angels even more so.

My first encounter with a trail angel happened as I dropped into a road crossing in the first few days of hiking through North Carolina. My hiking partner and I descended the wet, slippery switchbacks in a freezing rain, our bodies and minds not yet accustomed to the daily grind of thru-hiking. My hands were so numb I couldn’t feel my trekking poles and my knees felt like shattered glass.

As I peered through the rain, I saw a blue tarp anchored at the corners against the wind. Steam rose from behind the tarp and I saw flashes of color indicating more hikers’ rain gear. We hobbled into the gap and were immediately greeted by a beaming man standing over a portable cook set and folding table.

“Pancakes?” He held out a plate.

A hiker relaxes at Fresh Ground’s “Leapfrog Cafe.” Photo: Tim Davis

This was Tim “Fresh Ground,” Davis, of the now trail-famous Leapfrog Cafe. Since 2013, Fresh Ground (as he likes to be called) has spent the majority of the thru-hiker season — from late February through summer — setting up his mobile cafe at various points along the Appalachian Trail, traveling amongst the “bubbles” of hikers with hot beverages, fresh-cooked diner-style food, and a place to sit and relax.

For many hikers, especially in the first few hundred miles of their hike, a surprise from a trail angel can be the morale boost that means the difference between continuing on and leaving the trail.

Thru-hikers enjoy trail magic courtesy of iconic trail angel Miss Janet. Photo: Janet Hensley

There are countless reasons someone might attempt a thru-hike, but a common thread is the desire to live in the woods for months at a time, existing in a world distilled down to the singular goals of slowly whittling away the miles winding through the ancient mountains, the vision of a terminus off in the distance.

In the outside world, bad news comes in a relentless stream, and many hikers escape to the woods to reset. Despite ever-increasing connectivity, there is an undeniable separation when you set out on an extended journey on a backpacking trail.

For me, the Appalachian Trail was a break from being mired in the news cycle, spending most of my waking hours on my laptop, phone, or both at the same time. A welcome surprise for a new thru-hiker wasn’t just the escape that the trail provided, but the open-hearted community that came along with it. New thru-hikers to the community often speak of the same eye-opening experience.

There is no official definition of the term “trail angel,” though colloquially this is a term of endearment given to trail enthusiasts who have provided aid through kindness and generosity to hikers. Hiking a trail with a strong trail angel network means being part of a system that includes people who see a purpose in being of service to thru-hikers.

Photo: Sangree family

Arnold “Bloodhound” Guzman was first introduced to being part of the AT community in 2015, when he took over his sister’s local newspaper column telling stories about hikers.

He began seeking hikers’ stories to fill the column by hiking into shelters close to his home by Davenport Gap on the NC/TN border. Inspired by the conversations and hoping to learn more about the hiking community, Bloodhound started packing food and beverages with him, and it soon became part of his weekend and after-work routine during hiking season. He became enamored with the differences his visits could make, and felt a connection with the hiking community that he had been living so close to.

“I love to see the transformation that comes over a person who’s been having a bad day,” he said, remembering a particularly foul day on Max Patch.

“The wind and rain was blowing sideways, and when I went to the nearest shelter I ran into a hiker who told me he was planning to quit the next day.” It wasn’t long after talking to Bloodhound and enjoying fresh food that the hiker felt rejuvenated, resolving to continue on his hike.

“I actually enabled someone to continue their hike,” Bloodhound said, sounding amazed. “I just keep thinking that maybe I’m going to make a difference in someone’s hike.”

This is the kind of attitude that radiates from these dedicated trail angels, whether they’re recalling a specific interaction, discussing their mobile food setup, or speaking about the sense of belonging and purpose they get from being enmeshed in the hiking community. It is a sort of generosity and joy that feels particularly special to the trail community.

Few east-coast trail angels are as well-known as Janet Hensley, or as she’s known on the trail: Miss Janet. With her shock of red hair, iconic, sticker-covered van, and effervescent personality, Miss Janet has dedicated an amount of time and resources to helping hikers that is beyond measure. Growing up near the trail, Miss Janet tongue-in-cheek “blames” her mother for the direction her life took. Her mother would take in thru-hikers (far fewer back in the day), helping them with food and water and a ride back to the trail.

Thru-hikers pose for a photo with iconic trail angel Miss Janet (right). Photo: Janet Hensley

“I was probably one of the only kids in Unicoi County that knew what the Appalachian Trail was and about who these hikers were before I was in high school,” says Miss Janet, and she’s probably not exaggerating.

These days, Miss Janet hosts hikers at her house in Erwin, Tennessee, shuttling them to the trail and resupply, driving up and down the mountain roads to different trailheads, often driving her van hundreds of miles and picking up dozens of hikers before she returns home.

Miss Janet is active on hiking forums and in the social media spaces, and will be in touch with sometimes hundreds of hikers attempting a thru-hike in any given year. Her home and life is so embedded in the trail community that she will sometimes come home from running shuttles to find the hikers who are staying at her house have cooked a meal and gotten her chores done. “We kind of operate like a family on a day-to-day basis,” she says, “even though the cast of characters changes.”

Thru-hikers pose for a photo at Miss Janet’s van. Photo: Janet Hensley

She does a kind of pay-it-forward trail magic, with funds coming from alumni hikers who want to help future hikers, and she receives donations that all go towards helping hikers with food, shuttles, and accommodations at her home. All of this is done with a beaming smile and a true desire to spread the community and goodwill exemplified in the people who volunteer their time and hearts to being a trail angel for the AT community.

“I try to serve as a true Trail Angel, a good steward of the trail, and an advocate to hikers everywhere I go,” she says.

Trail angels and their trail magic can take many forms, and it doesn’t always look like a sticker-covered van appearing at different road crossings. Sometimes it looks like taking the torch for a beloved trail angel, which is exactly what Ruth Sangree and her family did in Massachusetts after the passing of Marilyn Wiley, the beloved “Cookie Lady.”

The entire Sangree family helps out during the busy season at Blueberry Hill, the farm they bought from Wiley’s daughters in February of 2021.

Left to right: Elizabeth, Ruth, and Ellie Sangree pose in front of a sign advertising their trail magic near an AT trailhead. Photo: Sangree family

“When the hikers come down our driveway in the summer, they are often amazed to see all the gardens,” says Ruth. “They love to help pick vegetables and fruit, weed gardens, and enjoy fresh vegetables and fruits. We have found that the hikers are so appreciative of our place that they want to help out, especially if they have the time while charging phones, replenishing water, or tenting for the night.”

The charming berry farm serves as a welcome respite from the muggy summer days of the Massachusetts section of the trail. At the height of thru-hiker season, the Sangree family greets many hikers each day with homemade cookies and fresh lemonade, carrying on the tradition of Marilyn Wiley in the best way possible.

Fresh Ground’s typical trail magic setup. Photo: Tim Davis

As a whole, “trail angels” are self-designated and are not typically affiliated with trail-related organizations like the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), or Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC).

The ATC in particular has historically had a complicated relationship to the practice of trail magic. When I asked the organization for clarification on their stance, I was directed to the website, which has an in-depth page outlining best practices for trail magic, and encourages trail angels to volunteer with sanctioned trail maintenance events.

I asked Morgan Sommerville, the ATC’s Director of Visitor Use Management, how the ATC viewed the benefits of trail angels. He focused his response on trail volunteers, saying “AT volunteers are true trail angels, and the AT would not exist without them.”

The importance of trail volunteers can’t be emphasized enough — I’ve helped build enough switchbacks and bog bridges to have a lifetime of respect for trail maintainers and volunteers. But within Sommerville’s response was a resistance to recognizing the self-driven type of trail angel we’re talking about here.

This stance does have backing — unintended negative impacts of trail magic can include unattended coolers, resulting in scattered trash that attracts wildlife, and the distinction between trail magic and trail angels can become nebulous.

The ATC’s website also states that “‘Hiker feeds’…when not planned properly…can cause overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and create more work for volunteers.”

Miss Janet (left) with hikers. Photo: Janet Hensley

But when it’s done right, giving hikers a morale boost with fresh food or a ride to a resupply will have little to no impact on the trail. Bloodhound hikes food into shelters to visit with hikers, then packs the trash out. Miss Janet and Fresh Ground travel with their self-contained vehicles, taking care to leave no impact in their wake. The Sangree family’s cookies, lemonade, and tenting spots are contained to their farm.

The common thread that motivates trail angels seems to be a sense of purpose-driven generosity. There is purity in the sense of not asking for anything back besides the occasional donation to help them pay it forward for future hikers. The joy they get from helping isn’t monetized, and the experiences come together to create a community separated from the outside world.

“We feel lucky to be able to cross paths with these wonderful people,” the Sangree family told me. “We love the evenings when we gather on the porch or sometimes share dinner and just shoot the breeze in conversation. In many ways the summer is like a long movie with new characters coming and going, sharing tidbits about life.”

Thru-hikers recline on the porch at Blueberry Hill farm. Photo: Sangree family

The Appalachian Trail itself is a marvel — more than 2,190 miles of public land maintained by 30 trail clubs and dozens more volunteer groups that keep the trail in top shape for the three million people who visit it each year, and the thousands of thru-hikers who attempt to hike it end-to-end.

If you zoom in on the AT, away from the greater complications of the outside world, you’ll be able to focus on the ecosystem created by trail towns, hikers, volunteers, and trail angels — a sort of haven from the rest of the world. Not immune to the outside world, but separate enough that a small act of kindness — a soda, a ride to the post office — means so much more than it would in the off-trail world.

Thru-hikers pose for a photo at Miss Janet’s van. Photo: Janet Hensley

When I set out from Springer Mountain, I expected a physical and mental challenge, and I was met with one. I expected a break from the turmoil of the outside world, and I got one. What I did not expect was the community that has grown from this trail, and the feeling of relief when faced with unbridled kindness and generosity that would come from sitting sheltered from the wind behind a blue tarp, eating pancakes by the side of the road before I kept hiking north.

Featured image: Graphic design by Zack Goldmann. Photos clockwise from top left: Janet Hensley, Sangree family, Tim Davis, Sangree Family, Tim Davis

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Comments 3

  • Drew Boswell : Feb 13th

    Meeting Miss Janet, and grabbing a Gatorade from her van, was probably the high point of last year’s section hike of Georgia/NC for me.

  • Cosmo : Feb 15th

    This is a great story about some great people. They put themselves out there to assist folks they will likely never meet again, which is amazing (and badly needed everywhere these days, not just on the Trail). However, like many things on the AT, more is not necessarily better. Just like the Trail has locations that are being degraded by overuse, the idea of trail angels may be suffering a similar fate in some places. More and more, hikers are expecting–even relying on–encountering substantial “angeling” on their journey. One of the key tenets of the AT experience is self reliance. True, that pancake on a cold rainy day early in one’s hike can be an authentic, defining moment of the journey; but pancakes at every road crossing Georgia diminishes the value of such encounters. Maybe it’s time to step back just a bit and decide what is truly “essential” for an AT experience.

  • Jingle bells : Feb 16th

    Great article. Where else in society can you find this much sheer joy in helping and connecting with others. Nothing else I’m aware of.


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