Legendary Trail Magic at the Wiley Shelter

On day 45 of my hike, I was getting back on trail midday after visiting a friend (who didn’t have a car). I’ve had a good experience hitchhiking so far, and I decided to hitch from Pawling back to the trailhead at the Dover Oak. I positioned myself on the road and put my thumb out. A few cars passed me by, and then a car rolled up slowly from the parking lot I was standing near. The passenger window rolled down and a woman smiled at me from the driver’s seat. I thanked her for stopping and told her I was looking for a ride to the trail, five minutes away. She was happy to take me there.

I put my pack and sticks in her backseat and got in the front. Her name was Amy, and she told me that she works at the factory I had been standing near and was on her lunch break. I thanked her for taking time from her break to give me a ride. She explained that she is familiar with the trail and the hiking community, but has never actually given a hitchhiker a ride before due to hitchhiker fear. I nodded and explained that it goes both ways, but I’ve had good experiences and am grateful there are so many people willing to give hikers a ride. It can be exhausting taking care of our basic needs and survival on the trail day in and day out, and the gear and skills we have don’t always apply in civilization, where the lack of sidewalks can make road walking treacherous. I have found my thru-hike to be an incredible lesson both in self-sufficiency and in reliance on others. I am learning how to ask for help, and I explained to Amy that hiking is helping me change my habit of not asking for help when it is the most reasonable thing to do. During the short car ride, I learned that Amy is the president of the organization that manages the Little Free Libraries I had been delighted to see on the trail in New York. I loved the LFLs in my community before trail and thanked her for her efforts on such a cool community project. When leaving to get back on trail, I thanked her for taking time out of her lunch break to give me a ride and wished her well.

I found trail magic by the Dover Oak!

As I approached the trailhead, I saw a table with goodies and a gentleman standing there. He introduced himself as Soda Bread and explained that he was doing trail magic that day. He, somewhat dismayed, stated the obvious: I probably didn’t really need any trail magic since I was just getting back from town. He was right, but I took a ziploc bag (can never have enough clean ones!) and asked him to take a picture of me hugging the Dover Oak, which he was happy to do. Thanks to Soda Bread, I got such awesome photos, so I think I managed to cash in on his trail magic pretty well!

The Dover Oak is the largest oak tree on the AT.

We chatted briefly and he asked where I was staying the night. I told him my destination was the Wiley Shelter. He nodded and informed me that he might be there that evening, while also making it clear that he wasn’t following me. I didn’t get any bad vibe from the interaction and was grateful to meet someone so supportive of the hikers. I told him it would be great to see him if he made it there later.

I hit the trail and did a relaxed eight miles to the shelter. As I was getting water, I met three new hikers: Poncho, Strawberry Shortcake, and The Bluebird Bard. When I introduced myself, Bluebird got excited and asked me if I knew Superchill. I said no. They told me someone had told them they would like Fresh Prince, and they thought it was Superchill. But then they remembered, it was Lotus! They met Lotus at the car show in Pawling, when Lotus was stuck there waiting for a new tent after losing her tent poles. Since I was behind, I had looked for the pole bag along the trail where she had dropped them, but I didn’t find them.

I found out that The Bard was doing five-mile days with zeros in between, a slow pace that would mean that most hikers they met would pass them by. But we could at least hang out for the night since we both had the same final destination: the Wiley Shelter.

When I arrived at the shelter, I was happy to meet a flip flop hiker I hadn’t seen since Pennsylvania, Robert from Charleston, who still didn’t have a trail name. I asked him and Redline, another hiker at the shelter, about the bug situation, which would determine whether or not I would set up a tent or sleep in the shelter. One hiker suggested that we need to smoke a bowl, for insect repellent. I had been spending the past few days alone and serious on the trail, and decided it was high time to join this party!

As folks were getting settled in for the night and doing various camp chores, we came together and chatted. Somehow the topic of personal urinary devices came up. These are basically funnels that let you pee standing up, if you can’t do that already. I mentioned that I had one and liked being able to go pee without taking my pack off. Strawberry Shortcake said that she used to have one, but it was annoying after a while because you have to rinse it off every time. I assured her that you do not. She was surprised and asked what I do. I told her I just shake it like they do, pointing accusingly at the men. Everyone laughed, and this is an excellent example of how hygiene standards can drop after some time living in the backcountry. We had been experiencing a dry spell, and water was sometimes hard to come by, so all the water I carried at the time was to drink, sparing none for washing up.

Water caches like this made it easier to get through dry stretches of trail because I didn’t have to carry as much water. Thank you to the trail angels who provide these caches!!

A few of us smoked up and were talking about how it just wasn’t practical to drink on trail. We hardly ever did. Drinking and hiking just don’t mix well, and booze is so heavy. But it really is nice every now and then. In town.

Almost on cue, Soda Bread approached wearing a pack. He introduced himself and explained to the crowd that he already knew me. Then he politely requested we remove our items from the table for a moment. He removed his pack and pulled out a tablecloth. Then he took out a couple bottles of wine, a baguette, and two packs of Brie. We were ecstatic to be given a wine and cheese night unexpectedly at the shelter! We thanked Soda Bread for his generosity and began to dig in. He asked if anyone was gluten free and no one said yes. He sighed and said he was disappointed that he carried the few ounces of gluten free bread for nothing. At that moment, The Bluebird Bard showed up, and I asked if they were gluten free and it turns out they are! In fact, since they have a restrictive diet and can’t eat cheese, the gluten free bread was the only thing they could eat in the spread. It wasn’t unnecessary weight after all! And, side note, it was the best tasting gluten free bread I’ve ever had.

Soda Bread with the provisions he packed out for us, posing in front of the lovely decor on the Wiley Shelter.

We chatted a bit about trail magic, and someone asked an interesting question: what trail magic would you most like to receive? We looked expectantly at The Bluebird Bard to give the first response. They sat thoughtfully for a moment, and Robert offered, leather? We all laughed at the unexpected suggestion, including The Bard, who had just met Robert. Bluebird was forthcoming in response, saying they do have such inclinations, but how would Robert know, why did he say that? Robert just laughed. Bluebird also asked, did anyone else see the leash hanging from a tree down the trail today? And confided that they definitely posed with it and took some selfies. We all laughed so much at this exchange. I had not noticed a leash on a tree as I walked the trail that day. You never know what you’ll find out here.

By this point, I suppose it’s clear, we were all feeling very silly and having the time of our lives, perhaps not in quite the frame of mind to thoughtfully answer meaningful questions like the one posed about trail magic, but I hope to enjoy a serious conversation with folks about that some other time.

Soda Bread even brought candlesticks!

Then, unexpectedly, the conversation among me, Bluebird, and Robert changed to the topic of artificial intelligence and open problems in computer science, since The Bard and Robert were both in the field. Initially they must have thought I was stoned out of my wits nodding as they spoke about such esoteric topics as P = NP, polynomial equals non-polynomial, and other related open questions, like since computers can write their own code, are they conscious now? Eventually they learned that I had studied computational neuroscience, knew what a connectome was, and was following along with everything they had been talking about. I enjoyed this seemingly improbable nerd convergence!

We chatted about the food trucks that had been on trail earlier that day. Robert and I had both stopped at the Malaysian food truck and enjoyed the food very much. I stated that I loved how you could come upon such exciting food right on trail, but why did it always happen before a big climb? Robert agreed that it was inconvenient, but better than not having the food. Then he excused himself and went over to his tent site, returning with a ziploc bag. He had eaten a full meal at the food truck and then ordered another one, packed it into a ziploc, and brought it along to have for dinner. Genius! Since we had so much cheese and baguette, he shared the short ribs with us.

I enjoyed this delicious beef dish from DC Malaysian earlier that day, complete with Thai iced tea boba.

Around this time, the light was beginning to fade, and Soda Bread told us he would be heading off. As he packed up to go, he explained that he recently had cardiac stints put in, just four weeks earlier. Poncho, who is a nurse, couldn’t believe it. He had hiked up a short but steep hill to get to us, and we were especially grateful for his efforts under those circumstances. There was a bit of wine left, and we insisted on pouring it into cups to drink later so that Soda Bread wouldn’t have to carry the additional weight when packing out the bottles. He nearly left behind the tablecloth, but thankfully we all realized just in time!

Living my best life.

After Soda Bread left, we continued to snack on cheese and baguette and drink the remaining wine. A few of us were also helping Robert with his short ribs and discarding the bones into a big pile. Strawberry Shortcake came to the table to get more cheese and saw the rib pile, but couldn’t quite tell what it was in the fading light. She said, “Eww what is that?!” To which Robert responded merrily in his buttery Charleston accent, “That’s my rib pile! Every man has his rib pile, don’t you know?” We cracked up and I suggested to Robert that his trail name should be “Rib Pile.” He laughed and eventually said, you know what, fuck it, I’m Rib Pile now! I’m not sure if he kept the name once he was sober again, but it sure was an amusing name for him to adopt for the night.

Rib Pile with his rib pile. <3

Around this time, Redline began making a campfire and we continued chatting and being silly and having a great time. It was one of those nights I stayed up way past hiker midnight (9:00 p.m.) and was glad to not be a super serious high-daily-mileage hiker. I had neglected to set up my sleep system in the shelter earlier, and around 10:30, eventually retreated to get myself set up and go to bed. The Bluebird Bard was quietly chatting with me in the shelter and I must have passed out while we were talking. All that excitement wore me out, but it was a super fun night.

The Bluebird Bard being silly with Rib Pile.

I feel so grateful for the culture of generosity that I’ve had the privilege of experiencing during my time on trail. Thanks again to Soda Bread for such an amazing night!

I put a record of our legendary trail magic in the shelter log book, aka hiker social media.

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