Trail Angels and Trail Magic on the Appalachian Trail
The original Trail Angels and Trail Magic post originally appeared on my personal website the Good Badger back in 2011, during my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. In the spirit of giving season, I wanted to honor those who give more to thru-hikers and the AT community than anyone else. Thank you, Trail Angels. You inject a tremendous amount of color, encouragement, and gratitude into this community.
(Warning: this post is long. If you’re pressed for time, skip to the last section to get the best bang for your buck.)
This is Bruce.
Bruce is not your average dude. Bruce, is a trail angel.
Trail Angel: a person who delivers trail magic.
Trail Magic: a random act of kindness uniquely provided to long distance hikers (mostly the Appalachian Trail) whereby an individual delivers a good deed to a hiker in need; most commonly in the form of food, beverage, and/or transportation. Trail Magic has a knack of occurring when a hiker’s spirits are approaching the danger zone. Pure serendipity. (source: Zachopedia)
After the day’s largest ascent immediately followed by a steep downward shimmy- I could feel my legs beginning to signal fatigue. We were already on mile #12, and with it still being the first week of the trail, I was ready for the day to be over. Unfortunately we still had three miles to our intended destination. In relation to 2,181 miles, three seems almost too insignificant to mention. When your legs feel like jello + fire, however, three miles is nothing short of an eternity.
As occurs from time to time- the trail calls for you to cross the occasional country road before proceeding back into the woods- and back onto the next ascent. As I raised my slouched head to find the trail inlet on road’s other side- I noticed something in my path: an older gentleman, his sedan pulled off into the ditch, some lawn chairs, and a couple of storage tubs. The only visual stimulus I had seen for the previous three days were smelly hikers, tents, and woods. Needless to say, the sheer newness of this scene immediately grabbed my attention- especially in the middle of no where Georgia.
As I walked closer- I finally grasped what was before me: FUCK YA TRAIL MAGIC. Bruce, our trail descendant from heaven, had taken a few days to provide the masses of thru-hikers (since it was still the first week, even the wanna-be hikers have yet to drop out), with pop (soda for you weirdos), beer, cookies, fruit, water, and trash bags (try carrying all of your own garbage with you for a three day span, and you’ll understand how beautiful this really is).
As I’ve mentioned in the past – the whole concept of the AT is built upon the highs and lows. Just when you’re reaching your peak misery level, something will happen to remind you of life’s simple beauties. This might range from the sun breaking from behind the clouds on a cold, windy day, to cookies and beer (I prefer the latter).
Trail magic acts as a quick shot of life energy to help an irritable hiker get through a challenging day.
I assure you, trail magic gets even more elaborate.
Last week, we had been warned that a cold front was rapidly approaching (which turned out to be our coldest trail day to date). To someone who hasn’t spent much time sleeping outside, it may be hard to grasp the degree of how bitter this information is. To help gain some perspective, it’s sort of like being told, “you’re probably going to get kidney stones tonight.” Needless to say, our moods were soured.
And then right on cue, approximately three miles prior to arriving at our intended shelter for the night, we encounter this:
Grits (pictured to the right), a former thru-hiker himself, took an entire week’s vacation to cook burgers, hot dogs, and supply fruit, pop, and beer for all thru-hikers that came across his food circus. Not only did he stuff our large group full of warm food and beverage (+47 points on a cold day, as demonstrated by Whoops highly contracted posture), but he also shed a good deal of valuable trail information regarding the upcoming towns and terrain. Nourishment for the mind, body, and soul. Mostly just the body though.
(Side note: Grits is a great guy and big fan of Big Agnes tents. If I were an employee of Big Agnes – I would definitely supply him with more quality Big Agnes gear so he can continue his angel like behavior for frigid hikers.)
Of course, not all trail magic is as glamorous as Grits’ food circus. Sometimes, this good deed is as simple as a garbage bag propped on a rock along the trail, filled with trail essentials (e.g. Ramen, oatmeal, dried fruit, etc.). Although in comparison to a hot meal and High Life, dried goods may seem second rate. Don’t let the relative comparison fool you; a hiker still very much appreciates these seemingly simple acts. For someone who has under budgeted four days worth of food, 900 extra calories from the mystery garbage bag may very well be the difference between hiking hungry and hiking perfectly satiated.
After the long and hot ascent to the summit of Max Patch, I come across a group of people enjoying a picnic. From a distance, nothing of this scene seems out of the ordinary. As I draw closer, however, I realize many of these faces are of familiar thru-hikers, including Whoop. One of the only two people amongst the group that I don’t recognize, interrupts their conversation, looks up at me and says, “hey thru-hiker…would you like some pizza, beer, or champagne?”. Almost instictively, I respond with, “you just said all of my favorite words.” My only other option was to cry.
Kathy and Robert were celebrating their 40th anniversary the only way proud parents of a thru-hiker knows how- in case you didn’t guess, trail magic.
Taste Science: Pizza + Beer + Hiking > Pizza + Beer + Not Hiking
I save the best for last.
It’s 6:30 pm. The sun is already getting close to tucking away behind the mountains. We had just completed mile #19 in order to get away from another hiker who has consistently and independantly scared the bajesus out of numerous fellow thru-hikers with his erratic and fugitive-like behavior (demanding pictures of him be deleted, keeping his contents locked inside of his backpack, eye color: black, etc.). I kid you not when I say this guy is by far and away the most widely talked about individual on the trail this year. Apparently giving off serial killer vibes is good publicity.
Just as we drop our packs in a state of complete exhaustion (but mostly relief to have escaped) and start to mentally prepare for our short 4 mile jaunt into Franklin, NC the following morning, there, in the distance, heading toward the very same shelter is none other than Captain Crazy himself. I had hiked an extra six miles already to avoid becoming the sequel to Deliverance.
At this point, we realized there were two options:
1) Force a few extra calories into our system, ignore the our body’s signals of over-exhaustion, and go the extra four miles into Franklin.
2) Fall victim to RapeMurder
So, as we’re hiking back to Franklin, Badger, Whoop, and Road Dog (who has formed the third head of our hiking trio of late), unpleasantly discover that the majority of these four miles are uphill. For those who have never tried hiking uphill with 30 lbs on your back, after already expending all of the day’s energy, you can experience this pain for yourself by having someone push a fully stacked library bookshelf on your defenseless body. And the bookshelf shall remain there for two hours. And then you must birth octoplets. Five of these octoplets must go onto be offensive linemen in the NFL.
Two hours of hyper-misery later, we arrived to our destination, the highway – but we’re still 12 miles outside of Franklin. It was now time to find a hitch into town. Again, there were a few problems:
1) There were three of us. Three people + three packs is simply too much matter for most vehicles.
2) It’s dark. Not only has the traffic flow dropped drastically, but cars usually can’t see you until it’s too late to pull over.
3) We’re too tired to get up from the lone patch off grass which sits about 30 yards off the road.
There we are, easily the three most pathetic guys on earth at that exact moment, hopelessly waiving our thumbs at the rare occurence of a car racing by. None of us get cell service, and quite frankly there’s not enough bloodflow left in our brains to brainstorm options.
Then arrives Jeff.
Out of nowhere a hatchback sedan bypasses all the parking spaces in the lot, and pulled his car directly in front of us the small patch of grass we had sprawled out across. A gentleman in his late 20s/early 30s steps out of his small car.
(Whoop, Road Dog, and Badger share a general sense of confusion.)
Jeff chuckles to himself, “You guys sure look tired. How far did you hike today?”
“Whooaaa. That’s crazy! You guys are insane. That’s way too far!”
We offer a mixed bag of chuckles and shrugs. Too tired for anything more.
Hold on one second.” (Jeff goes to his car to get something. He starts passing us business cards.) “Here, take these. My name is Jeff. I live in Waynseboro, VA, which as you probably know, is right on the trail. My wife says that I’m ‘allowed to’ take in one group of hikers each year. You’re the first group I’ve come across and seem like a good group, so definitely let me know when you’re in town.”
This is awesome. Awesome in the way of future events though. Our current situation was still broken so we couldn’t yet fully appreciate how awesome this was. And then right on cue….
“I’m guessing you guys are looking to get into Franklin, right? I just came from that direction. Boy, I wish I didn’t have all that junk in the back of my car.”
There was a lot of stuff (from a guy’s perspective, definitely not “junk” though): a kayak, a fully packed backpack, cables, and misc. boxes.
With that said, we wished so too.
At this point, it was apparent that Jeff was seriously perturbed by the dilemma that lay infront of him- as was clearly demonstrated by the intense head scratching.
“You know what, let’s see if we can’t make this work.”
I don’t know how, but Jeff made it work. He took what was already a very small car with a very large amount of “junk”, tied some things to the roof, waved a magic wand, did a tribal Indian dance, and voila– we piled our bags and extra-smelly bodies into the perfect Tetris shape needed to fit our total mass into the car. There wasn’t a square inch of available space left in the car. It smelt as if port-o-poty was hosting a burnt hair convention. I’m guessing he has since torched the car.
It was at this point, it occurred to me…
“Wait, didn’t you say you just came from this direction? Where were you headed?”
“The other way, but that’s fine. Don’t worry about it. I was just going to go camp somewhere closer to Asheville. I have a flight to catch tomorrow morning.”
“Are you sure?”
Enthusiastically, “Yeah! I love helping hikers. Not a problem.”
Not only did Jeff take us to our motel in Franklin (a half hour out of his way, after getting lost a couple of times due to not knowing his way around the area), he waited for us to check into our room so he could join us for dinner.
As any decent human beings who have just received the world’s largest series of favors would, we insisted upon buying Jeff’s meal. When the waiter arrived to our table, Jeff immediately announced our meals were going on separate checks.
“You guys need to save that money for beer.” He was right. He’s so wise.
At 6:30pm we were living with the very real fear of MurderRape. By 9:30pm we were eating burgers the size of our head, slathered in pimento cheese, and BBQ sauce, drinking cheap pitchers of extra cold beer, and having passionate conversations about frisbee golf and sociopaths with our new friend, Jeff.
We all got a tad drunk, Jeff included. To err on the side of not getting a DUI, Jeff sheepishly asked if he could crash on the floor of our motel. We were negative 94 in the favor department so not only did we oblige, but we forced him to have his own bed (also we were tired enough that we could have easily slept on a mattress made of chainsaws, sandpaper, and Draino).
Jeff’s flight was extra early the following morning, much earlier than three exhausted bodies were going to wake up. By the time the first person finally arose, there was no trace of Jeff to be found. We wondered if perhaps Jeff was some sort of exhaustion induced delusion, a hiker’s mirage. Then, when I walk into the bathroom, this is what I see:
How fitting the term trail angel is.
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