“Magic” is my most treasured memory from the Trail – "trail magic." That is a hiker term for acts of grace and giving that seem to permeate the trail for all hikers.
On the simplest of levels, this “trail magic” refers to feeding hikers. On a broader level it is helping and caring for other people in any way.
It refers to people – called “trail angels” – who come out on the trail or set up where the trail crosses a road or a parking lot somewhere in the middle of nowhere and feed (primarily) thru-hikers. Sometimes it was as simple as an angel bringing a cooler of cold drinks and handing them out. Sometimes it was a hiker mom dropping 30 1-gallon containers of water at the trail head every other day because she knows that all the water sources on that stretch are dry. Other times the magic was on a larger scale involving multiple tents, grills, sodas, beer, snacks, burgers, hot dogs, omelets and more.
The extent to which many of the trail angels went to take care of me and my hiker peeps, in almost every state, in all weather conditions, and on all terrain still brings me close to tears. Nothing in my pre-hike life prepared me for this. Nothing.
And, significantly – at least to me – these acts of grace were personal, very personal and unconditional, in that I believe is found much of the other magic that has so moved me. They were not corporate acts.
So, let me share with you some of the trail magic I was lucky enough to have encountered on the Trail.
* Roughly two hours north of Dahlonega, off a forest service road, I encountered my first trail-magic experience. That afternoon we hikers encountered two pickups and at least one trailer full of food and drinks. Grills were going. A number of coolers were located near the trucks with juices, sodas and cold water. Burgers and hot dogs were being grilled, and it seemed like every hiker snack one could ever wish for was there on the beds of the pickups in boxes opened and ready for hikers: from Snicker bars, to raisins, Cliff bars, jelly beans, fruits, Reese’s cups and more. A man and wife and it looked like probably a grandmother were in there helping, as were three younger children in their teens and younger. All were busy waiting on the hikers, chatting and enjoying the company.
When I asked the dad if they were local he said that “no, we drove up from Augusta. We’ll be out here tomorrow, too.” A quick calculation in my head told me that this family had just driven about five hours with all this food just to feed us. I didn’t know what to say, so, being the newspaper guy that I am I asked him “why?”
Almost without looking up he immediately replied, “I’m a hiker. I thru-hiked in ’11 and people took care of me. I wanted to give back. That and I want my kids to see and understand what it means to give.” His response was a simple statement from him – one void of pretense. I just stared and nodded my head. Again, I didn’t really know how to respond.
“Thank you, thank you so much” I finally uttered.
* Somewhere in Tennessee we hiked out of the tree line and onto a wide open bald. Off to one side was a road and a parking lot. As we walked across the bald, a figure walking from the direction of the parking lot began to approach us. We met and he quickly asked if we were thru hiking. When we told him we were, he shook his head and then began all the questions that so often we would get when people realized that we were crazy enough to be hiking a couple thousand miles. We spoke for a few more minutes then we started to leave.
“Wait” he said, and ran off back toward the parking lot. He returned about five minutes later carrying a very large pizza box.
“Here, I know you guys are hungry,” he said and handed the box to me. It was still warm. “I come up here to eat my lunch sometimes. That’s the best pizza in this town too. You guys enjoy it," he said and started to leave.
We couldn’t believe our good fortune and opened the box. There was a large complete pizza inside. I called for him to at least come back and eat with us so he wouldn’t go hungry but he refused.
“You guys need to eat that pizza more than I do. Enjoy,” he said and left us.
* I had heard about him since the day before – trail magic just on the other side of the forest service road up the trail. Mistakenly I believed the location was much, much closer than it actually was, so I had hiked in high gear for what seemed like an eternity – actually since that morning – and did not arrive at the service road until almost 5 in the afternoon. I was so worried that it would be too late in the day and that he would be gone by the time I got there.
He wasn’t. I walked up to his spot just off the trail. He had set up several tables, coolers, a gas stove, and stacks of boxes of various types of food. He was sitting on a lounge chair – the kind you might find at the beach.
“Can I make you an omelet?” he asked me. “But I have to warn you that all my omelets are five-egg ones!”
His name was Carl, and he was an almost retired teacher I believe. He told me that he currently did magic 2-3 days a week in his spot and that as soon as he retired that he would be out seven days a week cooking food and taking care of the thru-hikers. I promised him I would send him a column if I wrote about him, so now I will be able to keep my promise!
* The mom and son are from Canada and are only on the trail for six weeks. I have seen them on the trail and greeted them but nothing more. Once when I was trying to get a bunk in a hostel I am told there are none. The mom overhears and tells me that I will stay in the extra bed in the cabin that they have rented. Really? She doesn’t know me from Adam. Trail magic.
I remember sitting outside of a Wal-Mart packing the groceries I have just bought into my pack. Up walks a tiny and very old lady who stops right in front of me.
“Young man, I have to go in here to get some shopping done but if you are still sitting on this bench when I walk out I’ll take you any where you need to go.”
I experienced kindness and generosity on the Trail that I did not know existed. I saw with my own two eyes people give with no thought or expectation of anything in return. I saw it over and over and over. One day, it occurred to me what this reminded me of and it is the title of this column – “A washing of feet.” The older I get the more I believe that our lives are closely measured and we are never alone.
Maybe some day I will understand why I do not see as much of the kindness I saw out on the Trail, off the trail. Maybe it is there and I am missing it. Maybe not. I think perhaps the success of our lives may be measured by how much we give, and for some reason people find reaching out to these crazy folks trying to walk a couple thousand miles with their tent and sleeping bag and food in their pack simply a wonderful excuse to embrace their fellow man and help another. Maybe God just uses the trail to remind us how much he loves us by showing us how much we love each other.