Clinic Stories

Trail Magic

Trail magic occurs when a person, know as a trail angel, does something helpful for backpackers along a long distance trail like the Appalachian Trail (AT). Their efforts go far beyond giving directions.

For nine years I maintained a section of the AT through the New York/New Jersey Trail Conference. My section included the “Secret Hostel”, a place where people could set up a tent or sleep in a shed with a well and a kitchen area stocked with items like peanut butter and marshmallow fluff. Hikers hear about it through word of mouth or happen upon by following a sign pointing off the trail reading “Well Water – 100 Yards”. The property owner – I got to know him personally while working on the trail by his land - does not want it listed in trail guides. For a few years he lost his guests to the mayor of a nearby town who purchased a house for hikers to use and provided shuttle service to and from the trail. After the house was sold The Secret Hostel was back in business. There are other secret hostels along the Appalachian Trail, properties where trail angels provide hiker services for free marked by little more than a sign on a tree or in a shelter.

The AT passes through Dalton, Massachusetts for ten blocks or so, a convenient place to resupply while hiking. There is also a man who gives haircuts, gratis, on his front porch to backpackers who happen by. Pass through Damascus, Virginia with a backpack and there is a phone on a front porch that you can use for free. With cell phones it is more likely that people charge their phone while having lunch. Pass by in December, like I did, and you will be offered a candy cane.

As many people provide help to hikers I have always built some time into a hike in the event someone needs help. Along the AT I encountered two hikers who asked if they would be able to hitchhike out at the next road crossing, a few miles on. I said no, it was a dirt access road without through traffic, but asked why they needed to leave the trail. When they explained that one hiker was injured I told them I would be reaching my car late in the day and could circle back to get them. When I arrived the healthy hiker had continued on and I drove the second hiker 50 miles North to a motel where he planned to rest for three days and rejoin his partner.

At the end of a July day when the mid afternoon temperature was over 90 degrees I stopped at a shelter. As I approached I saw five pairs of trekking poles, all in pristine condition and appearing to be used for the first time. Five hikers lay in sleeping bags with a five inch loft, prefect for winter hiking, meaning that they were carrying a lot more weight than needed and were not properly outfitted. As I poured water into a cup a man nervously asked where I got the water. About three miles back, I said, and I asked if he needed water. No, he replied, but asked a few other water related questions before I settled into my light Summer bag. I was the first up in the morning and again he asked about water. I explained that I was fine and would reach water in a few miles, and he gratefully accepted my supply.

I once met up with a through hiker who suddenly realized he had lost his watch. Knowing I had a second watch in my car and I would be there late the next day, I gave him my $10 Wal Mart watch.

The Post Office in Caratunk, Maine maintains a food pantry for passing hikers maintained by locals. Fresh fruit, a delicacy when your diet is heavy on cous cous, instant mashed potatoes, nuts and tuna, is generally eaten on the spot.

The most common form of trail magic is a trailside cooler a short distance from a road crossing filled with cold drinks. It hits the spot and feels good knowing that angels are nearby.

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