Meet Maria, a Comforting Angel for Weary Hikers

As I emerged from the woods onto Route 44 outside Salisbury, Conn., drivers and pedestrians squinted and gave me and my pack a wide berth. My clothes were well past a week’s laundry and my hair and beard were matted with a grime of sunscreen, dirt, smashed bugs, and last night’s soup. I limped along the shoulder to a mint green house close to the center of town, unsure of what I’d find. A sign hanging from the lattice assured me I had arrived at my destination:

“Maria loves hikers,” it said.

Maria McCabe.

I had arrived at the home of one Maria McCabe, a Salisbury resident who has been hosting hikers in her home for over 20 years. On arrival, Maria instructed me to drop my pack and have a seat in a lawn chair. She went into the kitchen and emerged with a carton of grapefruit juice and a glass, which she placed on a table next to me.

“Such a big pack!” she gasped as I poured my first glass of juice. “And you, so small!”

Just as she loves the hikers that stay with her, they clearly love her as much in return. In her living room, she showed me a box overflowing with the letters, postcards, and photos that past guests (and even her guests’ families) have sent her, thanking her for her hospitality, or updating her on their progress on the trail or where life has taken them after their journey ended. Maria continues to receive updates on marriages, divorces, career changes, and more. She said she’s even received an ultrasound image of a hiker’s new baby. She has stacks of guestbooks, all overflowing with words of praise and thanks. She has a list of hikers who return every year.

I enjoyed a leisurely zero day in Salisbury. When I wasn’t working at the library, chewing through a box of ice cream sandwiches outside the grocery store or guzzling non-instant coffee at the bakery, Maria and I sat in lawn chairs on her breezeway, watching the hummingbirds buzz to the feeder. She shared the trick for attracting these tiny, weary travelers:

“You have to make it extra sweet for them because they’ve traveled so far to get here,” she said. “And when it’s time for them to go, you need to make it extra sweet then also, because they have to keep going.”

Hikers, it would appear, are much like hummingbirds, and Maria knows how to treat them. In the evening, Maria and I watched game shows on TV and ate ice cream. In the kitchen, she handed me the biggest spoon in the drawer and a deep bowl big enough to feed a Great Dane.

“More,” she said as I doled out a serving for myself. “Take more, young man. I don’t want you getting too skinny on that trail.”

She called me “young man” for the duration of my stay.

Maria takes an interest in all of her guests and encourages them to relax, unburden themselves, and share what’s on their minds. She asked me about my family and my childhood in Vermont, what I studied at school, my work, and what possessed me to start walking some 1,100 miles. When I returned to the trail after two nights, I walked feeling rested in my body but also soothed and recharged in my spirits.

This trail has has its share of angels, both known and unknown, who go to great lengths to ensure hikers’ safety and comfort. Since West Virginia, I’ve experienced too many instances of what thru-hikers call trail magic, but Maria McCabe provides magic of a very distinct sort. While thru-hikers storm trail towns, hungry for pizza, burgers, beer, showers, and other creature comforts of home, Maria provides the compassion and human warmth that we can miss when we leave our friends and families for extended periods. There are lots of high-fives, Gatorades, and Clif Bars handed out between Springer Mountain and Katahdin, but for those hiking alone, there aren’t too many hugs or times when a person looks you in the eye and asks you plainly and earnestly: Well, how are you holding up?

With the approach of her 89th birthday this year, she said she’s unsure how much longer she’ll be able to host hikers. It will be hard to imagine the trail without her presence.

There are many trail angels between Georgia and Maine, but only one Maria McCabe. What a treasure we hikers have in her.

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