The Holidays Are a Special Time—But on the Trail, Every Day is Magic

Christmas magic. All month long, it floats through the air, drifting with scents of evergreens and home-baked goodies, sparkling in the lights and delicate decorations. As a kid, it keeps you awake at night, butterflies in your stomach with excitement for what might wait below the tree, and perhaps listening for reindeer on the roof.

For some, this magic fades as they grow up. But never for hikers. Whether or not December still holds magic for you, on the trail it never disappears.

There is, of course, traditional trail magic.

A kind, hiker-loving soul bearing food and drink to the trail, for strangers they will never see again. For nothing in return. Many times have I rounded a bend to find a smiling face and a snack waiting for me. I never expect to receive it, but few things bring a smile to my face like the gift of a free feast or even just a single pastry.

One day in the Smoky Mountains, my stomach rumbled and cramped painfully as I climbed towards Clingmans Dome. Three days earlier, I had resupplied at the marina in Fontana Dam, to unfortunate results. The store’s shelves, ransacked by the hoard of hikers ahead of me, were skeletally stocked with food, and I was unable to buy enough to satisfy my hiker hunger.

It was the only store open in Fontana Dam, so I entered the Smokies rationing the little food I had, in the hopes of making it to Newfound Gap and resupplying in Gatlinburg. To make my food last, I could only eat one poptart, three granola bars, and one half of a pack of ramen each day, for a total of 980 calories. The average thru-hiker needs 5,000.

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I’ve never been hungrier in my life. Visions of trail magic danced in my head. Clingmans Dome struck me as a feasible, but still unlikely, trail magic spot due to the road one can drive almost to the summit. Despite the low odds, I spent every step hoping and praying for trail magic in the form of any food with at least as much nutritional value as a Tootsie Pop.

trail magic

Trail friends at Clingmans Dome, including Cimba in the hat and funky blue shorts.

When I arrived at Clingmans Dome, I found tons of people, including some hiker friends. And then my friend Cimba dropped the bomb.

“You just missed trail magic!” he said. “This guy had a whole box of donuts, but I got the last one.”

My entire insides plummeted, it’s hard to say whether my heart or my stomach hit the ground first. I tried not to show it on my face, but inside I felt broken. Defeated. And oh so hungry.

“I saved half for you, do you want it?”

I saved half for you. The best five words I heard on the whole trail. Joy exploded in my chest and threatened to emerge from my body in tears, but I held them back (sobbing because of a donut is likely to scare off new friends).

It was the most amazing donut I have ever eaten: chocolate glaze with Oreo crumbles on top, and cookies-and-cream filling. Exactly what I’d been wishing for, and what I needed to fly the last few miles down the trail.

When I was five years old, it was a Jessie doll from the Toy Story movies.

For months leading up to Christmas, I dreamed that I’d gotten her and would wake up so happy, only to immediately feel sad, realizing it was just a dream. On Christmas Eve, I could barely sleep, I was so jittery with excitement and desperately wishing for a certain red-haired cowgirl to be under the tree. The next morning, I tore the wrapping off my first present to find her face staring up at me. I remember cradling her in my arms, so happy it wasn’t a dream.

But it’s not just receiving gifts that makes this time of year magical.

And the same is true for the trail. The atmosphere itself is brimming with magic. For Christmas, it’s the lights, decorations, music, wonderful smells, maybe snow if you live in the right places (I don’t). On the trail, nature creates the magic, usually in the most unexpected moments.

As a kid, and still as an adult, driving around to look at Christmas decorations is one of my favorite parts of the season. We all pile into the car, turn the heat way up, and then fog the windows as we press our faces to the glass to get the best view of the sparkling beauty. I can never stop the smile spreading across my face and the wonder that fills my heart as I gaze at the cheerfully lit houses and trees.

trail magic

McAdenville, NC, a.k.a Christmas Town, USA, is a favorite Christmas destination of mine.

The same uncontainable joy occurred numerous times on trail, but never so strongly as when I first laid eyes on Mount Katahdin. Due to night hiking over numerous peaks in Maine, I missed the first few opportunities to see Mama K that NOBOs typically get. At first, I was sad to miss these views, and kinda regretted night hiking, but I would not trade my first look for anything.

I was walking down the trail with two of my hiker friends when we saw a sign that read “View of Katahdin.” Without a word, I took a hard right onto the side trail. It dead-ended at Pemadumcook Lake, which glowed pink and gold with the remnants of the sunset.

Instant disappointment. “I don’t see it!” I shouted to the boys I assumed were behind me. I’d never been good at identifying the mountains I see, but I thought I should be able to recognize a mountain I’d been dreaming of for 13 years.

But then, before the final crestfallen syllable was out of my mouth, I interrupted myself. “Woah!”

There she was. I swear my heart stopped. Mount Katahdin in all her majesty, peaks tinted pink. Loon song echoed across the lake, mythical and enchanting to this southern girl. When my friends arrived, I watched their faces mirror the feeling in my chest. Wonder. Excitement. Joy. Like kids at Christmas, dazzled by twinkling lights.

katahdin trail magic

Mama K at sunset.

But the most magical aspect of the trail by far…

…in my opinion, at least, is the people. Because the people you meet wandering the woods can make even the most ordinary moments magical. By leaving filtered water waiting for you when you wander into camp late at night. Or watching the sunrise in reverent silence.

Re-hiking a section of trail to carry your pack while you’re puking your guts out from norovirus.

Making instant coffee in the middle of the trail on a gloomy, rainy day.

Waiting by a trailhead to drive you into town, paying for your lunch and resupply because they know you’re starving.

Plunging deep into icy water in a random pond, emerging breathless and laughing.

Offering to get a shuttle and come stay with you in the hospital, states away from where they currently are on trail.

I shared these moments with people I knew for a max of two months, sometimes a minimum of two hours. The bonds forged in the struggle and triumph of the trail are stronger than those formed in most other places and result in people being willing to help you for no other reason than that you need it. And they care.

They are real-life Santas, bringing joy to others because they want to, with no guarantee that you will ever repay them.

trail magic

Crazy, lovable hiker trash.

Trail magic, like the magic of this season, looks different to everyone. We celebrate different holidays, receive different gifts. We find magic on-trail in different places, inside different people.

But the magic itself, and the feeling it creates, are the same.

Featured image: Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).

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