Hiker Feeds: Abhorred by Some, but Mostly Adored

A phenomenon occurs at various places along the Appalachian Trail each spring, especially in the Southern Appalachians: large hiker feeds. Surprisingly, some harbor opinions against it. This story is dedicated to discovering the truth.

For some, every silver cloud has a dark lining

Last year, when I first became a trail angel, I had always assumed that trail magic  was generally a good thing. So, I  was shocked when I read my first article that cast trail magic–especially large roadside hiker feeds–in a negative light.

So, to get to the bottom of this issue, I decided to wait till the beginning of the 2017 hiker season to interview the people at some of biggest of these ‘offensive’ feeds.

In the meantime, I scoured the internet and compiled and memorized a list of the most commonly held negative beliefs concerning hiker feeds and asked every hiker and trail angel I could find what they thought about the issue.

  • They encourage and enable moochers, drifters, and drug-addicted hobos to linger and cause trouble for other hikers
  • They take away from the pristine, natural beauty of the Appalachians
  • They encourage littering
  • They weaken the hiker’s ability to rely on their own skills at planning and preparing meals, foster a dependence upon, or an expectation of hiker feeds. “People are like bears; you shouldn’t feed them” (from a comment on the White Blaze)
  • They cause many hikers to cluster up for too long in one place, causing them to overwhelm the next shelters.
  • Sometimes there are hiker feeds hosted by church groups who harass hikers with aggressive proselytizing, handing out tracts and pamphlets, which often get dumped on the trail or clutter up hiker boxes at hostels

Unicoi Gap, Georgia (3-31-17): Today’s hiker feed sponsored by ‘Mind the Gap Ministries’, Keith Ivey, ‘organizer in chief’

From the moment I pulled up to Unicoi gap (mile 52.6), I knew that this was going to be a special day. The overnight thunderstorms had just been blown away by light breezes and wispy clouds had taken their place in the bright blue sky.

The large roadside parking lot at Unicoi Gap had a carnival-like atmosphere. Several canopies were scattered about, sheltering folding tables, loaded with food and sundry items. Beside them were a few charcoal grills. Many cars and trucks were also crowded into this rather large gravel roadside parking lot.

There was lots of activity going on. A large group of healthy looking bicyclists, having stopped to take a break, were just departing for adventures of their own, while hikers, some with dogs, came streaming off the trail into the makeshift gathering. Many hikers were already there, resting in the numerous cloth camp chairs arrayed throughout, absorbing the warm rays of the midday sunshine.

Interview with Keith Ivey: Minister, Eagle Scout and scoutmaster

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Talking with Keith Ivey, coordinator for church groups at Unicoi Gap (Photo by Arnold ‘Bloodhound’ Guzman)

Keith and I sat down on the tailgate of my F-150 and I listened to him tell me how he came to be an organizer for hiker feeds at Unicoi Gap. It started about 10 years ago when he began to realize that there was a great opportunity for outreach to a group of people who were near and dear to his heart: hikers.

Being an eagle scout and now a scout leader, Keith said that he loves everything about the outdoors, so it was natural the he wanted to connect with people who were experiencing he place he loves. He said that it became clear to him that many people who set out to hike the trail are searching for “something more” in life and he thought that he may be able to help some of them find the meaning they were searching for.

Keith now coordinates with church groups throughout the ‘Bible belt’ and today’s church group, Spring Valley Baptist Church, from Springville, Alabama, was hosting the feed

From what I saw of them, they were a group of kind, caring souls who wanted to feed and provide for the needs of hikers. One man I talked to, Lynn Brownlee, shared how they don’t push Jesus on people, but they do provide a few religious materials on some of the tables. He told me, “We just want to share the peace that we’ve found”. While I was there, I witnessed one hiker ask for them to pray for her, and the group did gather around her and do just that.

When I presented Keith with the ‘negative’ views on hiker feeds, he winced, shook his head and said that nothing could be further from the truth. He explained how all of the hikers who’ve partaken of the feeds can’t say enough good about them and that it’s a rare thing to see a hiker pass them by.

He said that he makes sure that church groups adhere to the ‘Leave no Trace’ philosophy.

I randomly asked hikers there about the negative impacts of the hiker feeds and got a resounding NO to the list of negatives, telling me how much the hiker feeds meant to them.

I watched one hiker accidentally drop his hamburger on the ground, and while the server was insisting he allow her to give him another, he stooped down, picked it up, brushed off the sand and gravel, put it back on his bun and ate it, saying, “Food out here is precious, and I don’t believe in wasting it”.

Meet Baloo, the Gentleman Giant

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Baloo, from Germany. At 6′ 7″ and over 300 pounds, he very well could be this year’s biggest through-hiker. Note: his staff was given to him from trail magic. (photo by Arnold ‘Bloodhound’ Guzman)

Striding around the hiker feed, in dark plaid kilt, complete with a ‘sporran’ pouch, suspended from his leather belt by two chains, was this large, imposing form of a man I just had to meet.

Though he was 6′ 7″, and about 320 pounds, he was a complete gentleman, offering first to serve a cup of coffee to me, before we settled into chairs for an interview.

Rubbing his big belly, he unabashedly told me the origin of his trail name, “Because I’m big and fat, like the Jungle Book bear”!

He told me he was from Villengen-Schwenningen, Germany, and had worked as a restaurant manager/cook.

After asking how he could leave everything to hike for 5-6 months, he said, “After working my ass off for 17 years, I just quit everything (except my girlfriend) to hike the A.T.”

Baloo told me that to prepare for hiking and camping in the woods, he trained in the Black Forest.

He said it was difficult finding gear big enough for him, and the cost of the oversize tents, backpacks and sleeping bags was higher too.

Unfortunately, Baloo had turned his ankle coming down the steep boulder field from Blue Mountain a few days prior, and has been camping out at the camp these past few days, per his doctors’ advice. He said it has been great because he’s been eating well on the hiker feeds that happen there a lot.

When I told Baloo about the negative aspect of hiker feeds, he was astonished to hear that there were people who actually think hiker feeds were a  bad thing. For the record: he loves them.

Blue Mountain Shelter: Backcountry Trail Magic
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This hiker, missing his dogs back home, spent nearly two hours petting the snoozing Beau-Diddley and Sweet Caroline, my hiking companions. (photo by Arnold ‘Bloodhound’ Guzman)

After the big hiker feed at Unicoi Gap was over, I shouldered my large military duffel backpack, loaded with goodies, and me and my two bloodhounds headed 2 miles south on the A.T. to Blue Mountain Shelter.

At a little over 1000 feet elevation gain, most of it in the first mile, carrying 30 pounds of trail magic really makes your legs feel the gain.

Arriving at the shelter, I was amazed to see how many people were there. Normally I encounter a lot less people at the shelters hundreds of miles up the trail were I live, but at mile 50.5, they haven’t dropped out yet.

Today’s Trail Magic: strawberries and blueberries, topped with Cool Whip, followed by Triscuit crackers, a block of Colby cheese and a large summer sausage. To drink: a 3 liter box of Corbett Canyon Chardonnay.

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Scattered about the shelters’s table were 16 bowls of fresh strawberries and blueberries, topped with whipped cream (photo by Arnold ‘Bloodhound’ Guzman)

From the looks of the ‘newbies’ who were setting up camp as I arrived, they’d not ever dreamed they’d be getting trail magic at this shelter. As I announced today’s menu, some just stared in disbelief.

I set out 16 bowls and set about cutting up the strawberries and dividing all the fruit up equally. While they were waiting for their fruit, one of the hikers passed out Dixie cups of chardonnay all around. Soon everyone was enjoying wine and fresh fruit.

Afterward, I passed out trays of hor d’oeurves,  consisting of cheese, crackers and summer sausage.

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Who doesn’t like cheese & crackers and summer sausage? (photo by Arnold ‘Bloodhound’ Guzman)

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Just a week or so into their hike, these hikers had on clean, neat clothing. They didn’t even have the ‘hiker stench’ yet, and were still building fires (photo by Arnold ‘Bloodhound’ Guzman)

All around the shelter, the hikers mood was upbeat and cheerful. Happy conversations filled the air.

When I asked if anyone felt this was a bad thing, someone said, “How could this be a bad thing”? Of the 16 people I served, plus the newly arriving hikers who missed out on the trail magic, I could find nobody who thought trail magic was in any way negatively impacting the trail.

Snowbird Mountain hiker feed: 4-2-17
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L-R, Clayton Hall, Big Shane Clevenger, Patsy Waskey, and Linda Clevenger. (photo by Arnold ‘Bloodhound’ Guzman)

After a long, grueling 4.5 mile climb from Standing Bear Hostel, with an elevation gain of over 3000 feet, the bright white cone-shaped aircraft beacon came into view. The beacon sits atop a small bald, with excellent 360 degree views.

It was a sterling day on Snowbird Mountain; one of those rare days when there wasn’t a cloud in sight, with humidity so low, you could see for probably 70 miles or more.

But today this was more than a little lonely patch of the Appalachians; it was a gathering of friends. Big Shane Clevenger, a man easily visible from afar, was walking up to and cheerfully greeting hikers with a  big, strong handshake and a warm welcome.

Seated behind him were hikers, lounging in cloth camp chairs, munching on bananas and PB&J sandwiches, and drinking ice-cold beverages.

What do you get when you combine an electric generator, an electric churn, salt, ice, and liquid ingredients? Well, on top of Snowbird it’s still called HOMEMADE ICE CREAM! At leased this is what Big Shane had promised when I’d spoken with him earlier in the week. Unfortunately, the truck they normally haul the churn and the generator with was unavailable. Shane promised it would be there every Sunday from now on, from 10am-2pm throughout the rest of the nobo season.

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This pic was from a previous hiker feed, where they were literally ‘churning out’ homemade ice cream.

As we sat in the brilliant sunshine, soaking up the warm spring day, I spoke with the soft-spoken Clayton Hall, the one who first started doing this about 6-7 years ago. When I asked him why he does it, he said, “I like to see the smile on their (hikers) faces and their surprised looks, because they didn’t expect it (trail magic)”. He said he wasn’t doing this as a church ministry. He summed up his trail angel philosophy when he said, “As much as they (the hikers) like it, I like doing it more”. He’s a true trail angel.

He told me he’d never heard anything negative about his hiker feed, as everyone who passes by comes up to partake of the trail magic. He said that sometimes, “People are so happy to see the trail magic, they begin to cry”.He said they routinely get close to 50 hikers on a busy day, and today already there were 48 signatures in his guest register. I asked several of the hikers how they felt about the negative side of trail magic and a few young men from Great Britain told me that the trail magic was one of  the highlights of their hike, allowing them to witness firsthand the local cultures and experience the unique kindness of the American people.

Almost every time I encounter hikers on the trail, I meet someone unique and interesting. Today was one of those times.

Right as they were starting to pack up their stuff, we got word from one of the hikers that there were two elderly ladies coming up right behind them. When the silver haired woman, Drag’n Fly, 77, and her friend, Freckles, 70 walked up, they just seemed like ordinary hikers. Then big Shane leaned toward me and said in a low voice, “I’ve heard from other hikers she’s the oldest woman to have ever hiked the trail”. Now that was remarkable!

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Drag’n Fly atop Snowbird Mountain. Still the record holder for the oldest woman to have ever through hiked the A.T. If you look really hard, you can see the bald of Max Patch below her right elbow. (photo by Arnold ‘Bloodhound’ Guzman)

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Drag’n Fly, 77 and Freckles, 70–some of the most inspiring women in the country–enjoying trail magic and living life to its fullest

She and Freckles looked tired, hot and thirsty. After settling into a soft chair, getting refreshed with good food and cold drink, Drag’n Fly began telling me how she came to be the current record holder for the oldest woman to have ever through-hiked the A.T. She said that she’d been content to just hike sections, so the year before her 2014 record setting hike, she and Freckles did just that. She laughed as she told me about the following year when, “Freckles tricked me into doing the through-hike”, meaning that she probably never would have done it without her good friend of 9 years.

Dag’n Fly assured me she’s not doing a through hike this year. She’s just going to hike until Memorial Day, which Freckles said would place them somewhere in Pennsylvania.

Happy trails ladies!

Conclusion: I couldn’t find anyone who thought hiker feeds were a bad thing.

Not to say that they aren’t out there, but during the many hours I spent at the feeds, the shelters or trailside encounters, not once did I find one person who had anything negative to say about hiker feeds or trail magic

If there are ‘Feed Haters’ out there, they must be a rarity….?

 

 

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Comments 6

  • Kathryn Herndon-Powell : Apr 10th

    Hi there! Feed-hater here. I’m glad you had a good time and met grateful hikers and kind, generous trail angels. But I have to question the methodology of this supposed expose’. The question is not, “do hikers like free food?” or “is it fun to feed hikers?”. The question is, “have hiker feeds become so ubiquitous that they are damaging the Trail and the A.T. experience?” To answer that question, you need to talk to the people who deal with the effects. Talk to Ridgerunners, Trail Club volunteers, ATC staff, and personnel from the National Forests and Parks through which the Trail passes. Those are the people who can tell you about the condition of a trailhead 5 years ago, before it was occupied for weeks on end during the early spring. They can tell you about the clean-up required at shelters nearby after a hiker feed has caused 40 or 50 hikers to clump together. They can tell you about problem bear activity caused by food left out for hikers, and about rescues required for under-prepared hikers who might not have made it to a remote location “by their own unaided effort”. Talk to someone who thru hiked 10, 20, 30 years ago and hikes through Georgia today with a feed at every road crossing–they may enjoy the food, but can also tell you what has been lost in the experience. I don’t think you’ll find a single “feed-hater” who will disagree that trail angels are nice people who mean well, or that hikers thoroughly enjoy being fed. But perhaps we have more than enough hiker feeds. Perhaps they could be done more responsibly, like moving to nearby A.T. communities. Perhaps those who want to “give back” could give a little of their time or hot dog money to the organizations who are stretched very thin this time of year trying to protect the A.T. experience for generations to come.

    Reply
    • Ernie Osburn : Apr 10th

      I’ll chime in with a former thru hiker’s perspective. First of all, everything Kathryn says is correct- if you want to find negative views on hiker feeds, ask people who have to deal with the effects, not the hikers themselves (who doesn’t like free food?). On top of the environmental impacts of the feeds that Kathryn mentioned, I noticed a negative effect of trail magic on the attitudes and behaviors of some NOBO thru hikers. I hiked SOBO and when we met the NOBO bubble in New Hampshire and Vermont, they all had stories of being treated with hot meals or at the very least a cooler full of goodies every time they crossed a road in the south. I noticed that some of these hikers had developed a pretty strong sense of entitlement towards the trail after being treated like royalty early on in their hike. Some hikers hiked with less food or water than they needed with the expectation that they would run into trail magic before long and would be able to supplement their supplies. Some hikers had unfair negative opinions of trail sections in which they were not given special treatment because of their thru hiker status, such as the Mid Atlantic states and the Whites. I even saw some NOBO hikers try to pull “trail seniority” on section hikers and SOBO thru hikers at shelters and campsites. Of course, the vast majority of NOBO hikers were awesome people, but the few times I did observe these things it was always from a NOBO hiker, which leads me to believe that the overabundance of trail magic for NOBOs has something to do with the entitled attitudes. Then again, maybe I’m just bitter about receiving very little trail magic on my SOBO hike 😉

      Reply
  • Cosmo Catalano : Apr 10th

    Thanks for the summary Bloodhound. I was interested to note that the folks you interviewed pretty much have at least some factor of self interest. Religious organizations are laying out large quantities of food (we’ll have to trust that they are taking some basic food-safety precautions) for the opportunity to display a few brochures, and help their fellow humans (who BTW, are on their vacations spending thousands of dollars to hike the Trail). Couldn’t that effort be put to better use in their own communities? Imagine if your church provided tables full of food in front of the church in your town every week–helping people who really can’t afford to eat 3 squares a day.

    Another of your interviewees generously hikes 2 miles up to a shelter with food and alcohol (and presumably does not serve it to minors and hikes the trash back down). Imagine that kind of energy being offered to the local trail club.

    Finally, another “angel” brings a generator to the trail–WTF–a generator, really? (This is supposed to be a wilderness experience, right?).

    I’m not a Puritan. I’ve experienced trail magic and I thoroughly enjoyed it. As an old fart, I can (and will) complain about the ongoing diminution of what it means to hike the Trail. Seems that folks are out there expecting to encounter regular offerings of free food. There’s nothing magical about this–the magic happens spontaneously–between two people who didn’t expect it. Self-serving promoters and hikers with entitlement issues combine to drive another stake into the heart of the AT.

    Reply
    • Elle : Apr 24th

      “Imagine if your church provided tables full of food in front of the church in your town every week–helping people who really can’t afford to eat 3 squares a day.”

      It’s not an “either/or” scenario. The churches also feed the local hungry, have free clothing, housing and grocery vouchers. They have multiple outreaches, the AT is just one.

      Reply
  • LongShanks : Apr 13th

    I’ve witnessed trail angel hiker feeds clean up and take all the trash with them. If hikers are littering that’s on the hiker who should know the LNT philosophy, that’s not on the person who provided the food. I’ve seen messy shelters littered with beer cans and trash you can’t just assume it came from a hiker feed. Many times litter comes from day hikers and weekend warriors out partying. I can’t think of a trail angel or thru hiker I’ve ever met that littered.

    Reply
  • Salty Dog : Aug 17th

    If you don’t want to participate or have a philosophical abhorrance to such activity…keep hiking. Similar to channel surfing.

    Reply

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