No Wings Necessary
There have been more than a few prominent figures throughout the history of the Appalachian Trail. Many of these individuals are trail angels, some of whom spend the entire season supporting hikers and conducting various kinds of trail magic. Here I will introduce the very first five trail angels I met during my thru-hike in 2015. I will also explain how I got my own wings.
It was early March, barely the second or third day of my northbound thru-hike. I had not yet experienced this type of trail magic. I hadn’t even gotten my first blister or dug my first cat hole. The trail opened up into a clearing and I saw a long, folding table full of hot food and drinks. There was a man serving up plates of steaming goodness to the line of hikers in front of him. “Fresh Ground,” he replied to the hiker who’d thanked him asked his name, “and that’s what I’m here for.”
What a weird thing to see in the middle of the woods! He had chili dogs, various sides, cold drinks, snacks and more. Perhaps the strangest feeling I dealt with was how to interact with this person. He was just grilling hot dogs and brewing coffee like this was a normal thing he did every day. Here I was, standing there with a growling belly and dumbfounded look on my face. There was nothing short of a miracle being performed right in front of me. “Dig in, help yourself,” he said. I thanked him more than once and grabbed a plate.
I’d done about 6 months of research to plan my thru-hike, and much of that involved reading numerous books about the AT. You couldn’t finish a publication about modern-day trail life without seeing a mention of Baltimore Jack. He was born Leonard Adam Tarlin and rumor has it that he hiked the Appalachian Trail 8 or 9 times- consecutively! There was an air of notoriety wherever his presence was writ. Would I see this famed serial thru-hiker during my own pilgrimage? Baltimore Jack intrigued me.
You’ve only hiked 30 miles northbound or so by the time you reach Neel Gap, however, those 30 miles are brutal on green legs. I limped into Mountain Crossings and secured a cabin for the night, not knowing if I could walk the .1 to get there. There were many hikers around, and a local church group was grilling burgers on the back patio… more trail magic. As I looked around for a place to sit, I saw him. It wasn’t hard to miss Baltimore Jack. His long, white hair accented the rosacea on his cheeks. Appalachian Trail necklaces hung over a black AT shirt. He was wearing a blaze-orange hat and bright yellow vest.
Just to spot and recognize such a trail celebrity blew my mind. Without hesitation, I quickly walked up to him as though he would vanish before I got close enough. He turned to me when I appeared in his peripheral vision and I blurted out, “I know exactly who you are!”
I’m still not sure if that is the best way to introduce myself in any situation, ever. It did get his attention, and he sat down beside me and we were able to talk for quite a while. He was such a great speaker. He helped thousands of hikers by giving them priceless advice. I consider myself very fortunate to have had at least 3 encounters with such a trail legend, the second being at Trail Days. I sat with him once again outside a coffee shop in Hanover, New Hampshire a few months later.
Baltimore Jack passed away unexpectedly in Franklin, NC in early May of 2016, less than 2 weeks before Trail Days. I’m so thankful to have known him. A legend was lost, but his spirit will forever live on through everyone he touched.
It was one of those days in early April where I was dodging lightning on a ridgeline in Tennessee. I’d met another hiker who invited me to stay at a trail angel’s house with him. I was basically told to look for a big, white van named Casper, parked at a rural dirt road crossing. The dark clouds were threatening to open at any moment, and I felt as though I couldn’t move fast enough. Finally, I spotted the van. There were already a couple of other hikers sitting in the back, enjoying snacks and drinking cold sodas from a cooler. I quickly joined them and soon we were headed for showers and clean clothes.
Rob Bird lets hikers stay at his house in Unicoi, TN at the beginning and end of hiking season. In the summer months, he rents a cabin in Massachusetts to accommodate the hiker bubble. I was fortunate enough to stay with him twice. “The Birdcage South” is what he calls the apartment in Tennessee. Rob is Native American and you can tell by the strategic decor in his home. He perpetually smokes cigarettes and will play and sing you a song on guitar. His voice is deep and soothing. The only rule is that you must take a shower before you sit on the furniture.
It just so happened that Rob’s birthday would be the following morning after he picked us up. Although we all had full food bags, I sneakily asked him to bring us to the store to “resupply.” I bought a cake mix, a card, food to cook breakfast, and a bunch of balloons. It was the least I could do to repay his genuine kindness.
The next morning before first light, we woke and blew up all the balloons, made the cake and cooked breakfast for him. We spent the day cleaning his house, changing lightbulbs and helping him use his computer. He played ‘Rocky Top’ for us. Although I’ve spent a lot of time with Rob throughout the years, that was my favorite time.
A year or two later I sent a random hiker resupply box down to The Birdcage South. I asked Rob to give the box to whichever hikers he had there that night. In the box, I included a cake mix, candles, and decorations. I also wrote instructions so the hikers could help make his birthday a memorable one. He deserves it.
To say I’d heard a lot about Miss Janet would be a severe understatement. Based out of Erwin, TN, Miss Janet is possibly the most prominent trail angel spanning the entire AT. Her van, aptly named The Bounce Box, traverses the AT every year, conducting trail magic, giving seasoned advice, and shuttling hikers. She puts on the famed Hiker Thanksgiving each year, feeding a very large group of individuals.
Miss Janet knows the Appalachian trail quite possibly better than anyone. She picked up a group of us at the Mountain Inn in Erwin and brought us to KFC and Walmart. Before we were allowed to enter the store, she made us each pick out a tie- yes, a necktie- from a large box in her van. “Y’all wear these when you get your groceries. You’re hiker trash, but the tie will remind you to keep it classy.” I still have my tie to this day, and I will never forget that lesson.
This past summer I was doing trail magic at my usual spot in the Whites at rt. 302 when Miss Janet’s van pulled into the parking area. I’d been talking with some hikers when she arrived. “You know who this is, right?” I asked the bewildered hikers. “That’s Miss Janet.”
They were nearly in shock. It’s funny, you hear so much about some of these trail angels that it’s easy to almost become starstruck upon finally meeting them. Funny thing is, I can justify being starstruck by a trail angel more than any celebrity in Hollywood.
Since that day, I’ve had many run ins with Miss J, be it at Trail Days, at my birthday parties in Catawba, up at Abol Bridge, or while doing my own trail magic. I’m very proud to call her a friend and be a part of this amazing community of wonderful people.
It was much too early to stop hiking for the day when I climbed down from Dragon’s tooth, but my friend convinced me to stop by Four Pines Hostel in Catawba, VA. If nothing else, we’d been told there were cold sodas and popsicles there. A bunch of other hikers we knew were staying there, too. We emerged from the woods and barely had made it to the pavement when a wildly painted blue van stopped in the middle of the road and we were instructed to get in.
Chickens and guinea hens scattered as we rode up the driveway, shitty top 40 music blaring from blown speakers. I don’t think my window rolled down. I was surprised the van, dubbed “The Dragon Wagon” even ran at all. The air smelled like pulled pork, beer, chicken shit, and hiker stink. A few hikers were playing cornhole. Just as immediately I met Joe Mitchell, I felt a connection to him. It seemed as though he was an uncle or dad-like figure to me and whatever it was, I welcomed it with open arms because I got an amazing feeling about this place. Four Pines Hostel is one of the select places where I truly am at home.
When I asked Joe what was the best way to hitchhike back to Damascus for Trail Days that weekend, he recommended that I just stay at Four Pines Hostel and ride with them. In the meantime, there were 30 pork butts to pull, multiple coolers to load and plenty of other preparations to be made. That is exactly what I did.
I could write an entire novel about Joe Mitchell and Four Pines Hostel. Four Pines has so much of my heart that I go back every six months if I’m not out hiking somewhere else: for my birthday in November, and for Trail Days every May. I even performed Joe and Miss Donna’s wedding ceremony one year in Damascus. These days I just call him dad.
Getting My Wings
I’m a firm believer in trail magic in the sense that it does so much to keep the spirit of the trail alive. So many people donate their time and money and heart to help other hikers. I could never repay the kindness I’ve been shown, which is a great way to think. In actuality, I’m sure I’ve done tenfold the trail magic I got on my thru-hike. But that’s the best part; there’s no limit on giving back. Thru-hikers do some of the best trail magic because we know what hikers love. I will never stop supporting hikers.
To introduce myself as a trail angel would be a bold move. I’ve made my own rule, however, and it goes like this: I believe that if you’re called a trail angel multiple times by other hikers, you get your wings. Angels don’t make angels, hikers make angels. Some freelance filmmakers from REI in Albequerque interviewed me a few years ago for a film about trail angels. One of the things that stuck in my mind was actually something I said myself, “I’m not sure who needs who more.”
Many angels are former thru-hikers like me who want to keep the magic alive for years to come. Doing trail magic and staying connected to the trail community has greatly helped me deal with my own post-trail depression through the years. Of all the time and money I’ve spent doing trail magic, the best feeling in the world is knowing that you’ve shared something wonderful with someone who is going through the same things you were. You can’t top that feeling. Allow me to spread my wings.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.
To quote the last line of my favorite movie, “Attaboy, Clarence”.
Your wings are well deserved. Thanks for sharing and Happy Trails in 2022!