Walking Distance #12 | Trail Angels ft. Miss Janet, Rob Firmin & George Mills

In this episode of Walking Distance presented by The Trek and hosted by Blissful Hiker (Alison Young), we are joined by Janet Hensley, a trail angel on the Appalachian Trail known as Miss Janet, plus Rob Firmin and George Mills, a couple living in Whanganui, close to New Zealand’s long distance trail, Te Araroa. Miss Janet’s relationship to the AT started when she lived in Erwin, Tennessee close to the trail; she hosted over 10,000 hikers at her hostel before she was eventually drawn to the road, continuing her service with what she calls a “hostel in a box.” Blissful Hiker shares how Rob and George welcome international hikers, and her personal experience with Rob and George while hiking the Te Araroa trail.

Blissful Hiker covers the emotional bonds of friendship between hikers and trail angels, how experiencing trail magic can change people, how Whakatau – a Maori welcome in New Zealand, welcomes foreign people to the country.

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Interview with Janet Hensley

1:31 – Janet Hensley is known as Miss Janet to thru hikers on the Appalachian Trail, and her white van covered with bumper stickers is known as the Bounce Box.

2:40 – Because Miss Janet follows the hikers north throughout the whole hiking season, her trail magic is a special case for thru-hikers who may see her more than once on their journey.

3:48 – I remember putting together bounce boxes for my hikes, and would have trouble finding where to send it to. You’ve put together a different system for some people, and they get to know you. What are some stories you have?

4:45 – Miss Janet tells the story of a young women who perseveres after being abandoned by her hiking companion and gaining the help of some trail angels to make her a prepared hiker.

7:45 – You speak about many of these people as if they’re your kids, or your family. How do you feel about it?

8:53 – I wonder if hikers change after they meet you? Do they become more generous and want to help others?

12:15 – The trail allows for a bit of a level playing field and convergence of diversity, and the trail makes people stronger just by the challenges they overcome along the way.

Interview with Rob Firmin and George Mills

15:30 – Rob Firmin and George Mills live near the North Island portion of the Te Araroa in New Zealand. In this section, the trail becomes a river and many hikers hire canoes to paddle. Rob and George welcome hikers into their home, Blissful Hiker among them.

16:25 – How did you get started as trail angels, as people who don’t hike for fun?

17:00 – Do you like the term trail angel, or do you call it something else?

17:35 – I was surprised by the incredible generosity of the people in New Zealand, what’s this idea that is in the culture about looking after visitors?

18:32 – How can you afford the money and the time to take care of trampers?

19:18 – When I came through, which was getting close to the end of the trail on the island, you pointed to the American flag on your flagpole. How did your custom begin of hanging flags of different nations, depending on who was staying at your home?

20:33 – One of the great things about hiking the Te Araroa is how international it is and how many different people you meet. You help foreign visitors experience your culture in your home, how do you welcome people?

23:00 – Halfway along the south island, I hit a wall and had a breakdown. You now have a code word for hikers if they’ve hit a wall and need help, which is “high grass.”

25:00 – I want to explain to people about your house, so they might know what it’s like to be there. You told me recently that your dishwasher crapped out, but the hikers found their kitchen to be their favorite place and they didn’t mind washing the dishes.

26:12 – When I blogged about my New Zealand thru-hike and the trail magic I experienced, I inspired one of my friends from my home state to become a trail angel herself. What do you suggest for people to do to become trail angels?

28:10 – This may be a generalization, but I don’t think most thru-hikers could survive without trail magic. Trail Angels – or in the case of Rob and George, Kaitiaki, Trail Guardians – give hikers a gift far beyond treats and a safe place to stay. They’re like a mirror telling us we’re ok and what we’re doing walking a long trail is worth it – even if you hit a “high grass” moment. 

Mentioned in this episode:

Miss Janet’s Facebook (Where Is Miss Janet?)

Miss Janet’s email: [email protected] 

Rob’s Facebook

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About Alison Young

Alison Young, aka Blissful Hiker, is a former host and producer at American Public Media and professional flutist. She’s thru-hiked New Zealand’s Te Araroa and the Pacific Crest Trail, as well as long trails in South America, South Africa, Europe, Pakistan and all over the US. In her podcast Blissful Hiker, she shares personal essays from the trail along with collected sound. Her goal in life is to hike until she drops.

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