Miss Janet’s 8th Annual Hiker Thanksgiving, 2021

This Thanksgiving, legendary AT trail angel Miss Janet, along with the help of a host of fellow trail angels and former thru-hikers, rounded up hikers from places all up and down the trail in the southern Appalachians who are on the last legs of their hikes and brought them together for a happy time of food and fellowship at the beautiful Laughing Heart Lodge and Hostel, in peaceful Hot Springs, North Carolina.

A Gathering of Plenty

This week, I received a private message from Miss J, asking if I would swing by my sister Maria’s Standing Bear Hostel and scoop up hikers to bring to her gathering. It just so happened that there were two SOBO thru hikers staying there who wanted to come, trail names: Puddles and Ed in Wild.

As I drove down into Hot Springs, the lowest spot around for miles, it was a little saddening to see the normally lush green mountains surrounding this little hamlet wearing its winter face: defoliated and brown. However, it was hard to be sad here for in the midst of the town was a cheerful gathering of hikers who were living their lives to their fullest.

Laughing Heart is a grand, old lodge. Photo: Arnold “Bloodhound” Guzman.

As we turned into the grounds of the beautiful Laughing Heart Lodge, we saw hikers milling about, some playing frisbee in the main courtyard, while others were gathered around a smoking campfire.

My two hikers eagerly jumped out of my truck and helped me carry my big pot of pozole (spicy Mexican hominy soup) and other fixings into the main chapel building, where there were several tables loaded up with Thanksgiving bounty.

Miss Janet’s Bounce Box, complete with stickers and custom artwork, done by Paint Splash! Photo: Arnold “Bloodhound” Guzman.

After dropping my food off, I drove into the parking lot and parked my truck beside the highly recognizable camper van: Miss Janet’s famous “Bounce Box.” Standing behind the van, with her bright red hair flowing in the afternoon sunshine, was none other than the much-loved Janet Hensley, whom I regard as Queen of the Appalachian Trail.

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Miss Janet, I noticed, was walking with quite a noticeable limp, caused by what she said was a torn meniscus. While we were walking and limping up the lane to the hostel, as soon as the throng of hikers spotted her, a cheer arose from among their ranks, for she is adored by many. This seemed to cheer her up considerably.

As more cars drove up with more and more food, the inside of the chapel was beginning to look like there wasn’t going to be any room left for people!

While waiting for everyone to assemble, Miss J chills out on the lawn to give her knee a rest. Photo: Arnold “Bloodhound” Guzman.

Before the meal, Miss Janet took a few minutes and organized the hikers in the courtyard for a group photo, the first one that’s been done in years.

Checking out one of several food tables, Miss Janet makes one last-minute check to make sure everything has a serving spoon or tongs. Photo: Arnold “Bloodhound” Guzman.

Once the group photo was done, a line formed, and they began to file into the main chapel.  With hiker hunger foremost on their minds, these wiry, thin people were not modest when it came to filling up their plates, many carrying two piled-high plates of food to their tables.

A good time was had by all. Photo: Arnold “Bloodhound” Guzman

With everyone seated and hungry bellies getting satisfied, happy conversations began to echo around the vaulted ceiling of this A-frame chapel.

Q & A with Miss Janet

Who could resist such a cheerful face! Photo: Arnold “Bloodhound” Guzman.

With feasting well underway, I pulled up a chair and sat beside Miss J to ask her a few questions about how things in the last few years have been going for her, and here’s how it went:

Q: When and why did you start the Hiker Thanksgiving here in Hot Springs?

A: She told me that back in 2013, the parents of a young hiker reached out to her about arranging for someone to take in their son, who happened to be nearing Hot Springs, for Thanksgiving dinner. So, one thing led to another, and not only did she provide Thanksgiving dinner for him but was able to serve other hikers who were in the area. It was such a success, it sort of grew from there.

Q: Why didn’t you hold a Hiker Thanksgiving last year?

A: She said that back in March of 2020, when news of trail closures due to COVID-19 caused so many hikers to leave the trail, followed by the authorities discouraging people from meeting in large groups, she thought, “taking a break would be a good thing.”

Q: How has COVID-19 affected you in the last year?

A: She said that last year she met a lot of people in distress on the trail. There were some hikers from other countries who were suddenly banned from traveling back to their home countries and stuck here with no other place to stay besides the trail. And there were also many Americans who had sold homes who also had no other place to go so they too decided to keep on hiking. She and others, like the Hiker Yearbook’s Matthew Odie Norman, did everything they could to help the hikers who had no place to go to either stay on the trail or get someplace to wait it out.

Sadly, Miss Janet went on to tell me about her brother who died of COVID just a few weeks ago and about one of her sisters, who just got out of the hospital after having a rough go with COVID, which is all the more reason while she was here celebrating life with those she loves.

The people that you meet…

Hikers come from many walks of life and some of them have quite interesting life experiences. Among the people I saw there, besides Miss Janet, were Meg Greenlee, hiker/trail angel/social media personality, whose life is often centered around assisting hikers, and Tigger and Chuck Norris, former hosts of Laughing Heart hostel.

Chuck Norris and Tigger, former hosts of Laughing Heart Hostel. Photo: Arnold “Bloodhound” Guzman

One of the hikers who rode with me from Standing Bear was 67-year-old SOBO thru hiker “Greg in Wild” from Portland, Oregon, who got his trail name during his 1995 thru-hike of the PCT. The reason for his name comes with a story about a chance meeting with an internationally famous hiker/writer: Cheryl Strayed, author of the book Wild, in which she mentions him as Greg.

67-year-old Greg in Wild. Photo: Arnold “Bloodhound” Guzman.

Trail angel, Meadow Ed, and Greg in Wild, 26 years ago in 1995. Photo: Arnold “Bloodhound” Guzman

Greg (not his real name, but a name given to him by Cheryl in her book) tells about hiking NOBO. Near Spanish Needle Creek, he said, “I heard a young woman say hello, which surprised me because there were so few people on the trail that year. She introduced herself as Cheryl and was in the process of breaking camp.”

He told me that they spoke for about 15 minutes and that brief conversation was mentioned in the book and captured in the movie Wild. Greg went on to tell of a funny story when they met up later at Kennedy Meadows, being given trail magic by one of the first trail angels on the PCT, Meadow Ed. Greg said, “He was a trail angel before angels were present (on the PCT).”

When Greg walked up, he said she was in the process of having a pack shakedown by a man who did this to help hikers lighten their loads, when suddenly a pack of condoms fell out!

Seated: Cheryl Strayed and Greg in Wild, and standing: Doug and Pete, all of whom were mentioned in her book. Photo: Arnold “Bloodhound” Guzman.

Greg in Wild said he wants to stress to everyone to “be kind and helpful, for you never know whose life you are going to affect.” For the day he encouraged her, she had just written “Quit” in her journal, signaling that she had made her mind up to quit the trail. Greg said that because of his and other hikers’ encouragement, she made the decision to keep on going and he feels good to have played a small part in helping her to continue her hike.

Before moving on, Cheryl shared her desire to be a writer with Greg. After her hike was over, Greg said she went back to graduate school and got the skills needed to do just that.

A Time for Rest Before Resuming Their Hikes

Thru-hikers have resting down to a science! Photo: Arnold “Bloodhound” Guzman.

After the meal, some hikers returned to sit by a campfire beside the hostel, while others sat and visited over steaming cups of coffee or glasses of wine. Some gave in to the L-tryptophan in the turkey.

The grounds at Laughing Heart Lodge and Hostel are simply peaceful. Photo: Arnold “Bloodhound” Guzman

Thanks to Laughing Heart Hostel, Miss Janet, and all the trail angels who helped put this dinner together. This year’s feast made all the difference in the lives of some very special people and will always be a testimony to the love and devotion Miss Janet Hensley has for hikers.

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