Trail Angel Spotlight: Fresh Ground and his Leapfrog Cafe
The first time I met Fresh Ground, it was where the Appalachian Trail emerged from the forest at NOBO mile 240. In a small clearing beside River Road on a sunny but chilly February afternoon, the roar of the Pigeon River in the background blending with the whizz of trucks on nearby I-40, was where I discovered this unassuming man.
Upon first view of his camp, with his rusty, beat-up blue ’96 Camry parked beside it, a lot of the paint peeling up off the front hood, I thought he might be some kind of drifter or squatter camping out in a free space for a few days while holding up a “Hungry and homeless vet. Please help. God bless” cardboard sign. I could just see him asking for donations from cars as they came off the interstate. But upon closer examination, I could make out a clean-cut man, appearing to be in his mid-50s, standing beneath a makeshift awning of tarps, busy cooking a grill cheese sandwich and ladling up a steaming hot bowl of vegetable soup for a young hiker (Hot Legs) who had his tent set up beside the encampment.
When I walked up, I was greeted by an average-sized man with a genuinely cheerful smile who introduced himself as Fresh Ground, aka Tim Davis, of Roanoke Rapids, NC. He got his name from his brother, who on his 2012 thru-hike attempt he sent to the store to get coffee for him, reminding him “make sure you bring fresh-ground beans.” Soon his brother began calling him Fresh Ground, and he’s been Fresh Ground ever since. On the trail, fresh-ground coffee is one of the things that he’s become known for.
As he showed me his simple setup, consisting of a folding table, several camp chairs, a gas stove, pots and pans, a water jug, boxes of food, a cooler, thermoses, serving utensils, and disposable utensils, he began to explain his unusual brand of trail magic; something he calls “The Leapfrog Café.” How it works is: he starts out in February, in Georgia, feeding the early hikers as they pass by, and, after a week or so of doing this, he packs up and leapfrogs ahead, setting up his trail feed many miles in front of where he anticipates the hikers he fed on day one would be. He said he usually does this for several weeks, until his money runs out; usually somewhere in central Virginia.
The Leapfrog Café: “It’s My Calling”
But Fresh Ground wasn’t always the loving, selfless, caring man he is today. In earlier years, he struggled with a cocaine addiction off-and-on for about 15 years. Somewhere along the way, he felt the call and turned his life over to God, whom he credits for leading him out of a life of addiction.
He continued in this new life for years, growing in his faith, and although he wasn’t perfect, he was on his way to becoming a better man.
In 2012, Fresh Ground decided to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. So, without any backpacking experience, he set out on May 15 from Springer Mountain, GA. He admitted that “My pack was way too heavy and I did everything wrong.” Still, he managed to make it to Erwin, TN, before ending his hike due to severe pain from a pinched nerve in his neck stemming from a past spinal injury. However, after going home, he promptly returned with his car and continued to support his tramily with trail magic for a while. This is where the idea to follow a group of hikers began to materialize.
For months after that, he felt a tugging at his heart to do something for his fellow man. Finally, during a one-month period, between December 2012 and January 2013, he kept getting awakened in the middle of the night with a recurring message that resounded throughout his heart: “feed hikers, feed hikers, feed hikers…” Believing that it was important to act upon this calling, he spent the next few months working and earning enough money to go out on the trail and do just that. “It’s my calling”, he says plainly.
In March 2013, he drove down to Georgia, having only enough money to fund the Café for two ten-day setups. There he began serving hikers. As hikers availed themselves of his services, some of them suggested he set up a donation jar so that he could keep going further. He said that at the end of a day of running his café, he lifted the lid off his jar to see how much money there was, and, “The lid came off and there was so much money crammed into it, it popped out like a jack-in-the-box.” And he said that it wasn’t just small bills. With the extra cash he continued to receive from this donation jug, he was able to stay out on the trail for six ten-day setups and make it all the way up into central Virginia. With a cost of $70 to $100 per day, he was able to afford to feed a lot of hikers.
In March 2014, he returned to the trail and did the same thing again, staying out for 2.5 months. After two years of doing this, he found that the numbers of people he was feeding were just too much for one person, sometimes feeding as many as 40 people a day, which adds up to 400 people in a ten-day setup. Since hikers seemed to be starting the trail earlier and earlier each year, in order to keep the numbers manageable, he decided in 2015, his third year, to start in February so as to stay ahead of the main hiker bubble. Again, he did this for about 2.5 months.
For the next two years, 2016 and 2017, he took a break from running the café so that he could do LASHs (Long Ass Section Hikes).
In 2018, he started the Leapfrog Café again. This time he began hearing from different people (ridge runners, park rangers, and national forest officials) that his collecting of money on the trail is against ATC regulations, for it crosses the line between being trail magic and soliciting of services on the trail. Not one to break any rules, Fresh Ground established a fundraiser on his Fresh Ground Leapfrog Cafe Facebook Page. That way, he was able to avoid any conflicts of interest. To demonstrate his commitment to hikers, he added, “I still fund the first two weeks out of my own pocket.”
No Jesus Burgers at the Leapfrog Café
On some online hiker forums, there have been hikers who have referred to religious groups doing hiker feeds, while passing out Christian literature and actively proselytizing, as serving Jesus Burgers. But Fresh Ground is not this type of trail angel.
From the moment Fresh Ground did his first setup at a road crossing in Georgia, he believed in his heart that this was what he was supposed to be doing. When asked if he considered sharing his faith with his fellow man, he said that although that’s what some of his Christian peers suggested that he do (and sometimes chided him for not doing), he told them that he that he doesn’t believe he possesses the gift of evangelism. Rather, Fresh Ground said he believes that he’s been given the gift of helps, which means that his responsibility to hikers is just to “feed them and to love them unconditionally” and to help them in any way he can, and not “hit them over the head with the Bible.”
Fresh Ground’s ministry is built upon trust: trust between him and his supporters, and between him and the hikers.
To gain the trust of his supporters, he said he funds the first two weeks of his trail magic with his own money. He does this to prove to the people who donate that he’s got a vested interest in feeding hikers and to assure them that he’s going to be responsible with all of the funds that he receives. To ensure that most of the money donated goes to feeding hikers, he keeps his overhead extremely low by sleeping in a hammock beside his setup rather than staying in costly hotels. He said that in the five months he was out in 2018, he only slept in a hotel five nights.
To earn the trust of the early group of hikers, he is faithfully there every day at his setup, during good weather and bad. After his first leap ahead, when many get served a second time, a bond of trust begins to form between he and them, where they know he’s going to be there for them for the many miles to come. In many instances, this trust has buoyed the spirits of many hikers, giving them incentive to keep on hiking, knowing that they will soon get to meet this cheerful man and receive a hot, delicious homemade meal.
No Matter the Weather, Fresh Ground Is There for Hikers
Since Fresh Ground starts out so early in the year, he often finds himself out in some of the coldest and most miserable days of the hiking season. He’s had to endure wind-driven snow, sleet, and freezing rain. Not only does he serve three hot meals a day in these conditions, he also sleeps out in these elements every night in his preferred sleeping system: a good-quality hammock. Nevertheless, he’s dedicated to being there for the hikers and never leaves when the going gets tough.
An Evolving, Seasonally Adaptive Menu
He has learned through much experience to know what hikers need. When it comes to his belief in his cooking, being a long-distance hiker, and being around hikers for four years, he has absolute faith in his menu. “I’m not saying this arrogantly; I truly know what you need.” He said he cooks mostly Southern style—a lot of butter and a lot of salt—food high in calories that hikers are deeply in need of. When the weather is cold, he likes to serve hot soups, stews, chili, and hot beverages. When it’s warmer, he switches to hamburgers and homemade French fries, fresh fruit and a thermos of fruit-punch flavored Kool-Aid. No matter the weather, he always serves banana pancakes for breakfast.
Getting “Fresh Grounded”
Though Fresh Ground never intends to hold people up at his little setups for long, his giving, welcoming demeanor, along with his hot-cooked meals, and comfortable camp chairs, causes them to relax, let down their guard, and, as they used to say in the Deep South: “Set a spell.”
Being a long-distance hiker himself, Fresh Ground said, “I know what hikers need. My motto is, ‘All you can eat, all you can drink, all you can tote out; nobody leaves here hungry.’ Whatever you want; if you want the cooler, I will strap it onto your back” With hikers consuming as much as 5,000 calories a day, Fresh Ground feels that has to make sure hikers get all the calories they can. To do that takes time, causing many hikers to linger longer with him than they’d intended.
Feeling a need to name this phenomenon, Ben Crawford, in an interview with Fresh Ground, coined the phrase, “When you’ve been stuck at the Fresh Ground Café, we call that getting fresh grounded.” Since then, other hikers have admitted to having been fresh grounded. News of this term traveled up and down the trail.
A Day in the Life of Fresh Ground
Fresh Ground has said that his ministry is a labor of love. To understand how much labor goes into this labor of love, one must understand what he actually does in a typical day—and he does this day after day, for months
Every morning at 4:30, he gets up and makes himself a cup of coffee, and reads his Bible to spend time with God in prayer and meditation. He said, “When I wake up in the morning, I get excited knowing I’m getting ready to feed people; I get excited knowing that I’m going to make them eat more than they want to eat.” He likes to get everything prepared before daylight so that he can be ready to serve the first hikers who come his way. It usually takes him around three hours to get done with breakfast. For lunch, it takes around 2.5 hours, and for dinner another 2.5 hours. But his day is not all work. Often, in the afternoons, Fresh Ground lies down and takes an hourlong nap or reads books. About two to three days a week, he makes a run into town to resupply and do laundry.
Hygiene and LNT
Fresh Ground says he goes to great lengths to ensure he keeps a clean, hygienic operation. He stresses how he uses water from his two seven-gallon jugs, along with bleach, to ensure everything is sanitary. From the washing of his cookware, to the cleansing of the hikers’ hands, he makes sure it is done correctly. The first thing he does before serving is to wash down his table with bleach water, then he sets up a handwashing station with soap and water for removing trail grime, followed by a basin of bleach rinse water to kill germs, then provides clean towels that he washes in hot bleach water at the laundromat for hikers to dry their hands on. And if that weren’t enough, he also has a dispenser of hand sanitizer available to those who want a little extra protection.
He heats water every day to give himself a sponge bath and changes into clean cloths often. He even puts on deodorant. He says that once a week he goes somewhere to take a proper shower.
Fresh Ground is careful to thoroughly clean up around his setup, hauling off his and hikers’ trash daily. He tries to do his setup in a way so as to not cause damage to the local flora.
He said he often gets visited by ridge runners, national forest officers, and park rangers to ensure his compliance with good hygiene and Leave No Trace practices.
A Symbiotic Relationship with the Crawford Family
Fresh Ground first met the Crawford family in Killington, VT, at the top of the ski area. They were looking for a place to sleep and he said he gladly gave up his stealth spot so that they could set up their tents.
Right away, he fell in love with this family of eight, whom he’s since developed a close bond with. And they began to like him as well, often mentioning in their videos how much they were looking forward to Fresh Ground’s cooking, and his congenial company.
The first couple of days he fed them at road crossings in Vermont. Later, he met them at Rattle River and was there for them at various road crossings in Maine.
While in Monson, ME, he worked out a plan to slackpack them through the entire 100-Mile Wilderness: him doing all the logistics, and serving them every meal, while all they had to do was hike. Fresh Ground gives credit to Poet, the proprietor of Shaw’s Hiker Hostel, who gave him that idea and who showed him how to read the detailed maps that enabled him to navigate that remote region. Not only did Fresh Ground manage the seemingly impossible task of cooking for them, and the hiking clans—The Trailer Park Boys and The Degenerates—for five straight days, he somehow pulled off fitting all the Crawfords’ packs in and on his junky little car.
It was in the 100-Mile Wilderness where Fresh Ground revealed his secret to why he believes his grill cheese method is the best on the Appalachian Trail. It was recorded for all to see in the Crawford family’s video.
Throughout his time with them, Fresh Ground found as much purpose in serving and loving them as they found comfort in the companionship of a man who met and exceeded all of their needs.
The Retirement of Stinkbug and the Introduction of a Full-Sized Van
In all the years he’s been running the Leapfrog Café, Fresh Ground has relied on his faithful 1996 Toyota Camry—that he only paid $250 for—to economically and efficiently supply all his transportation needs. Because this car, which has over 400,000 miles on it, was used to shuttle so many smelly hikers, along with their filthy packs, it picked up a funky scent and earned the name “Stinkbug.”
To make it official, one of the hikers he helped, Pee Wee (Amanda Bess), who created one of the most entertaining and informative how-to (and not to) hike the AT in her YouTube video series, drew the word “Stinkbug” on the trunk, in one of the finest examples of freehand calligraphy you’ll ever see.
To be able to fit all the things he has been able to get into his little Stinkbug, Fresh Ground has had to be a bit of a magician. For instead of pulling a rabbit out of a hat, he has pulled some of the best trail magic on the trail out of the seemingly bottomless depths of his humble little Camry. Having to squeeze more items into a small sedan than is physically possible, Fresh Ground has been told by many, on more than one occasion, “You need to get a van to do this better.” This winter he’s done exactly that. With the acquisition of this ’08 Ford van, with a large custom luggage rack on top that he built himself (nearly big enough to fit his Camry), Fresh Ground plans to do what he does best a whole lot easier than ever before.
Besides upsizing his transportation, he’s also added another touch: he built a portable, custom wood stove sitting atop short metal legs, so that he can have a warm fire on those frigid days and nights that hikers can sit around, slipping their feet underneath the barrel to warm their toes and to dry out their shoes without burning them as hikers often do around campfires.
Physical things are not the only things that have changed: he’s made changes to his methods and practices as well. Since his six-day setups have caused so many hikers to congregate in one area, he noticed that it left a bit more of a footprint on the local flora than he wanted. His plans for this year have evolved to him moving his setup more frequently, so that he doesn’t stay at any on any piece of ground for too long.
Not only has his transportation and equipment improved, he now has the capacity to provide shuttles to more hikers and their gear; all still free of charge.
Living a Life of Selflessness
Because Fresh Ground has his house, his vehicles—everything he owns—completely paid off, plus having never had a wife or kids, along with a place of employment that graciously allows him to take off half the year, he has been able to resist getting pulled into the standard American Dream, to dream even bigger and better dreams of his own.
When Fresh Ground considers words of wisdom that he could impart to up-and-coming trail angels, he says, “First of all, you should not seek to draw attention to what you are doing.” Rather, he thinks you should “Follow the need and make sure you’re always looking ahead, not back because your head will swell.” He believes that in doing so “You’ll stay effective; always moving in the right direction”.
One thing Fresh Ground says he has learned throughout this whole experience: “It’s great to be called, but awesome to be used”.
Someday, when Fresh Ground leaves the trail for the last time, he will leave a legacy of kindness and good works that, hopefully, will be emulated by many who follow in his footsteps.
Fresh Ground is currently raising money for the 2020 season. Follow him on Instagram here.
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