The Trail Angel Aikens
Trail Magic: unexpected acts of kindness; a quintessential part of the Appalachian Trail experience for many long-distance hikers.
On the Appalachian Trail, I’ve been lucky enough to encounter the phenomenon of “Trail Magic,” which is A.T. slang referring to the random acts of kindness performed by locals, day-hikers, and any others willing to spend their time and money for the well-being of thru-hikers (as we generally are dirty, hungry and pitiful). The generous people that conduct the Trail Magic are called “Trail Angels.” Trail Magic can vary in degrees of intensity and awesomeness, ranging from something as simple as a box of Twinkies left at a road-crossing, to the absolutely ridiculous experience I had a few weeks back.
Several weeks ago, I woke up in the morning to freezing rain, snow, and the same piercing wind that had kept me awake in my tent all night. My hat, gloves, socks, rain gear and hiking clothes were completely soaked from the torrential rain of the day before. I stuffed my blistered feet into damp, semi-frozen boots (which I’ve since replaced with trail-runners two sizes up) and limped/shivered my way down the hill towards the road where a county transit bus was scheduled for arrival within the hour. When the bus pulled up, it was already jam-packed with thawing hikers from an earlier stop along the trail, but there was one spot left above the wheel-bed. I folded myself into the seat and as we rattled down the mountain towards Franklin, N.C., I finally began to realize how tired and demoralized I felt. I was cold, hungry, and completely unprepared for the rigors of my first two weeks on the A.T. Thoughts of quitting the trail altogether floated through my mind.
There was, however, one bright spot in my morning. I had made plans to rejoin some friends in Franklin. From there we were to meet with the parents of one of the girls in our group–Berkley Aiken (aka Ten)–to spend a few days of much-needed rest at their family cabin.
The others in my hiking group, because their feet were not as ruined as mine, had made it into town several hours ahead of me. When I arrived in Franklin, I only had to wait about 5 minutes before the Berkley’s family (parents Joey and Martha and older brother Mitch) pulled into the parking lot in two SUVs. The instant kindness of the Aiken family was striking. Mr. Aiken and Mitch shook my grimy hand with wide smiles. Despite my filthy clothes and undeniable stench, Martha jumped out of the driver’s seat to give me a hug.
From the moment I got into the car, the discomfort of the last week on the trail became a distant memory. We drove straight to the nearest Walmart. The Aiken’s flew around the store, and slowly their enormous shopping cart began to fill up with potato chips, burgers, hot dogs, doughnuts, beer, and everything else I had been dreaming about in the mountains. When Mr. Aiken saw my small shopping basket filled with a few things I had picked from the aisles, he gestured to his own cart.
“You might want to put that stuff back.”
From Walmart, it was just a short drive to the cabin. In my head, I had imagined a simple structure with running water and a fireplace. But the Aiken family cabin is much more. We walked through the front door and straight into a beautiful, rustic kitchen. From the living room, I could hear the leather furniture calling me by name. Outside, a huge porch complete with rocking chairs overlooked a deep blue lake and a mountain skyline. Downstairs, a bed with clean sheets and a real pillow awaited me.
We all went downstairs to take showers and get laundry started. By the time we made it back to the kitchen, Joe and Martha had filled a huge platter full of burgers and brats. After our meal, which was amazing, we attacked the fridge stocked with beer, which I’ve learned tastes better after you’ve been in the woods for a week. Three hours later, they fed us a second dinner of chopped BBQ sandwiches.
When I asked Joey, an experienced hiker and outdoorsman, if he thought my blisters were infected, he looked at them for a moment and said,
“No, but go sit in the hot tub and I bet they’ll feel a lot better.” There was a hot tub.
Over the next day and a half, the Aiken family fed us at all hours. They took us into the town of Sylva, NC to buy us lunch. On the way home we stopped at a bar where Joey bought us all a round of drinks. Martha baked brownies and pies. On our last evening with the Aikens, they served filet mignon. On quiet nights in my tent I still ponder how many calories we consumed over that two day period. By the time they dropped us off back at Franklin, I felt rejuvenated and ready to hike again.
When I first saw the Aiken caravan coming down the road, Joey, Martha, and Mitch were complete strangers. 48 hours later, I felt like I’d gained a new family. The inexplicable generosity I’ve witnessed on A.T. is a major reason why I’m loving my time out here. The Aiken’s had absolutely no obligation to show me so much kindness, to feed me, or to provide me with many comforts that had been absent from my life since leaving home. The farther north I walk, the more I realize this spirit of hospitality and goodwill is more infectious than Giardia or norovirus, and it exists all along the Trail.
I’ve met hundreds of truly kind people so far, but in the world of the A.T., Joe, Martha and Mitch Aiken are no doubt the poster-angels of Trail Magic.
I’m doing much better now than when I met the Aiken family. It took me a while to settle in/get better at long-distance backpacking, but I think I’m finally starting to hit my stride. Made it in to Hot Springs, NC as of April 18th. Here are a few pictures from my trip thus far. Thanks for reading.
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