Trail Magic

“No one is more grateful than a hungry hiker,” said the nice man feeding us this morning when asked why he was sharing this particular “Trail Magic” with us.

He’s not wrong.

This morning at the Laughing Heart Hostel in Hot Springs, we woke to a sign on the screen door that read “Trail Magic” with directions and a time and dates on it.

For the uninitiated, Trail Magic is when a person, couple, or group sets up a little station with food of some kind. It can come in the form of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a fresh orange, banana, or apple, or a full pancake breakfast. Sometimes a thru hiker will come down to a “gap,” where the trail crosses a road or maybe has a parking lot at a trail head, and she’ll find a cooler filled with ice and cold beer, protein shakes, water, and/or soda. Heaven. Absolute heaven. Which is probably why we refer to these folks as Trail Angels.

In this case, it was scrambled eggs, bacon, fried potatoes, toast with butter and buckwheat honey, and our choice of drinks. It was served on the deck of an Airbnb right around the corner from the hostel.

Four former AT Thru-hikers, Nightingale, Woodford, Wildcat, and Becky, rented it out and spent part of their vacation “giving back” to the Trail community by feeding us all a free breakfast.

Trail Angels seem to show up at exactly the right time. The PB&J pictured above was hands-down the best one I’ve ever had. I was coming down off the mountain after 4 straight days of rehydrated meals, and you’d be amazed how a real sandwich can raise your spirits.

I’ve experienced Trail Magic in the form of cold protein shakes left in a cooler beside the trail, a full pancake breakfast cooked on a grill at a gap, and several gifts of oranges, bananas, chips, and candy.

I heard tell of kebabs and lamb pitas and other hard-core Trail Magic, too.

See my “Pictures” tab for pics of more Trail Angels and Trail Magic!

Trail Magic comes in other forms, too, which is why we say “the Trail provides.”

Yesterday, a hiker here at the hostel came in having left his phone charger, cords, power bank, etc. at the last hotel where he’d stayed.

Within just a few minutes, other hikers went through their extra electronics and provided him with everything he needed: a charging block, a power bank, and the two charging cords he needed.

That’s Trail Magic.

Randomly showing up at the same shelter, campsite, hotel, or hostel with a hiker you haven’t seen in weeks is Trail Magic.

Finding a hiking partner or Tramily (Trail Family) when you need one is Trail Magic.

We also use phrases like “trail magic” and “trail angels” and “the trail provides,” though, in an attempt to convey the sharpening of our instincts and the profound repairing of our souls that can occur out here as we live this lifestyle and attempt this journey.

Like all pilgrimages, I think, hiking the Appalachian Trail is primarily a spiritual experience for many hikers.

It’s a tough concept to put into words.

There is something so fundamental, elemental, natural about this way of life.

I know many readers of these blogs are looking for gear reviews, technique advice, best practices, and general hiking insight.

I didn’t read any of these prior to starting my hike. I didn’t watch a single YouTube video. I did research lightweight gear because I have an injured body. My spine and hips and Sacro-iliac joints can’t support weight like they once could, so I knew I’d need the lightest tent and sleeping bag I could comfortably afford.

But there is no gear to support a broken soul.

And the truth is, my soul and spirit need more healing than my body, and all the steroid injections in the world can’t do that.

I’ve met a great many people out here searching for the same kind of healing. Many of us seem to have broken, jagged edges that keep us from fitting into traditional spaces. It’s common to sit around with virtual strangers (fellow hikers) and ask, “What brings you to the Trail?” and to then hear extremely personal responses.

Responses I’ve heard to this question have included all of the following:

  • A wish to forgive others
  • A need to forgive yourself
  • A desire to prove your worth
  • The time and space to process grief
  • The call to adventure or to the performance of extraordinary deeds
  • A wish to live an extraordinary life
  • A longing for connection to anything
  • A need for an accomplishment no one can diminish or take away
  • A desire to escape a situation or station in life
  • A safe space to consider transitioning to something new
  • A distraction from a stressful situation
  • A simpler place to detox
  • A shield for both internal and external criticism
  • An escape from judgment
  • A need to feel discomfort after a life of privilege
  • An untangling of the many voices in your head in an effort to find and identify your own

I am only 40 days or so into what will be a 180 day trek, and I have been through an absolute roller coaster of emotions.

Seriously: pain, elation, self-pity, joy, loneliness, awe, isolation, guilt, desperation, connection, superiority, inferiority, confidence, sorrow, despair, insecurity, contentedness, etc.

Sometimes all before noon.

For a person who likes very much to be in control, I’ve found the instability and constantly changing nature of the trail less freeing than unsettling.

I wasn’t always this way.

I used to be reckless; spontaneous and light; absolutely joy-filled.

But that smiling, carefree fearlessness I appeared to have disguised a self-sabotaging, painful insecurity and some carefully hidden trauma.

And the Trail is bringing it all out.

Every step I take on the Trail is like the pump on an oil rig. It digs deep and churns up all the sludge and drags it (oh, so unwillingly) from the depths of my psyche to the surface of my mind to be processed and refined into useful fuel.

Sometimes it becomes so overwhelming I have to stop walking and just lean on (or hug) a tree or sit on a rock or zero at a hostel to regroup.

(And thank goodness for these hostels, where we come together to laugh and chill out and stretch and sleep in community with one another.)

The friction created by our sustained, daily walking irritates not just the soft skin of our feet, but also the inner pachydermic skin we’ve built up around our trauma.

But somehow, I manage to connect with the people whose perspective I need in that moment.

Like these two, Showpack and My Grandma:

Because the Trail provides.

Like the blisters on our feet and the gashes on our arms and legs, our internal wounds also require tending. Out here, they can be acknowledged and treated and cared for and ultimately, healed.

And that, too, is Trail Magic.

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Comments 4

  • Showpack : May 13th

    You’re awesome!

  • Jim Gradine : May 14th

    Tree Hugger, What a wonderful surprise to read this article after meeting all of you on my section hike that ended in Hot Springs! I really appreciate your style and insight and I’ll be following your blogs through the rest of your journey.

  • Kelli : Jun 2nd

    That was just beautiful:)


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