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Trail Magic: Angels Are Out There

by Noah C. Kady

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The following is the first in a three-part series on trail magic, which are acts of kindness to Appalachian Trail hikers, and the trail angels who provide it. Despite its benefits to hikers, trail magic sometimes has negative consequences. This installment focuses on the different types of magic that angels provide.

It looks like a lot of food for the one man sitting at the table.
There are two kinds of deli meat, turkey and chicken. Two kinds of bread, oatmeal and potato roll. Three kinds of salads, macaroni, potato, and garden fresh. Peanut butter and jelly. Salt and pepper. Ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. Fresh strawberries. A stack of paper plates a foot high and a big box of clear plastic knives, forks and spoons. And drinks. Lots and lots of drinks. Icy cold green, blue and orange Gatorade, Mountain Dew, orange juice, apple juice and bottled water.
It has all the standard elements of a Sunday basket lunch, only there’s more of it than the average family can handle. Presiding over this smorgasbord, covering an entire picnic table in a small pavilion at Gathland State Park in Gapland, Md., is its purveyor, Orval S. Nelson, and he’s waiting for his guests – not that he knows exactly who they will be or when they will arrive.
Nelson wears an off-white t-shirt with the poem “Advice from a Tree” on the front, burnt-orange hiking shorts, and a gray paisley-patterned bandana wrapped around his head. His graying beard is full but the fact that it creeps down his neck indicates that it hasn’t been trimmed for a while and is still very much a work in progress. He has the fashion sense of a typical long-distance hiker, but in an apparent concession to comfort, he has traded in his hiking boots for a pair of more comfortable flips flops.
A hiker clad in similar garb ambles down the Appalachian Trail, which runs right by the pavilion, and Nelson shouts out to him, “Trail magic over here!” The hiker eagerly joins Nelson. His guest has arrived and Nelson plans on serving him something intangible, something that won’t be found on the table: a big helping of trail magic.
Providing food as Nelson does is just one type of trail magic, which can be virtually anything that helps a hiker along the way, including a ride to town, supplies, medical attention or simply advice. It can be a large, meticulously planned event or a small spontaneous act of kindness. Those who supply it do so for a variety of reasons but rarely expect anything in return.
Despite all its positive attributes, a plethora of trail magic in recent years has caused some to question its impact and its value to hikers. There are concerns about large gatherings taking place on the actual trail, leftover trash from unattended magic and excessive amounts of alcohol or possibly even drugs being provided. In addition, too much magic, some argue, might cause hikers to rely too heavily upon it or might trivialize the accomplishment of hiking the trail.
Nelson has only the purest of intentions, however, as he moves around the table in little bursts of energy, checking and rechecking his supplies, doing his best to provide his guest with everything he could want or need.
Less than a week ago, Nelson was himself hiking the Appalachian Trail and was known to those whose paths he crossed as Jedi, his trail name. Trail names, chosen by the hikers themselves or given to them by fellow hikers, can be straightforward descriptions of appearance or personality, or they can have cryptic meanings known only to a few. Like most hikers on the Appalachian Trail, Jedi prefers to go by his pseudonym when he’s on or near the trail.
Jedi was Southbound, having started at the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, but a foot injury forced him off the trail in Damascus, Va. Unable to continue his own journey and missing the interaction with other hikers of which he had grown so fond, Jedi sought solace by returning to the trail to offer what he could to those who still had miles to go before their own journeys would be finished.
“You can’t stand to leave. You’re home, the television’s on and you start getting sluggish,” he says as he pantomimes moving about in slow motion. “What better way to stay in touch with the Northbounders I met while going South than to come up here and do a little magic for them?”
Jedi, like most hikers, has many memories of being the recipient of trail magic, and, in part, it’s those memories that bring hikers back to the trail to give to others a semblance of what they were once so grateful to receive.
“It’s infectious,” Jedi says. “It’s been bestowed upon us and we want to pay it forward.”
Those most thankful for and often in most need of trail magic are thru-hikers. The Appalachian Trail weaves its way for more than 2,000 miles through 14 states. A thru-hiker is typically someone who is attempting to hike north from Springer Mountain in Georgia the entire distance to Mount Katahdin in Maine (although some try it in reverse and others break it into sections over several years). According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s website, www.appalachiantrail.org, in 2006 more than 1,100 hikers started the Northbound journey and a little more than 300 finished. Those numbers alone would seem to indicate that the sheer difficulty of the undertaking makes any bit of trail magic the hikers encounter along the way that much more special.
Sometimes it’s the magnitude of the gesture that makes the magic remarkable.
On the evening of March 17, Sunnyside, a 24-year-old thru-hiker taking a break from his studies at Indiana University, happened across “Apple’s Dome,” a giant, orange,15-man expedition tent set up in Burningtown Gap, N.C.
Inside were an oven, chairs, and food and drinks, including, most notably, green donuts and Jagermeister to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Much to Sunnyside’s relief, there was also a heater.
“It was 7 degrees outside that night,” he says. “The walls were frosted on the inside.” A photo of the orange dome lit up from the inside and contrasted against the night black sky reveals silhouettes of hikers inside savoring the warmth.
Other thru-hikers have similar stories.
Mr. TalkerMan, a 68-year-old Justice of the Peace from Cherryfield, Maine, recalls coming across a most unexpected sight just off the trail in Brown Gap, Tenn. Set up in “the middle of nowhere” was a University of Tennessee tailgate party. The trail angel, Ox, was a big booster of the school’s football team, the Volunteers.
Mr. TalkerMan says he was treated to bacon, eggs, home fries and “these things they call ‘Bubba Burgers.’ He even had a big banner with the UT logo that said, ‘Welcome Hikers.’”
Not all trail magic requires a vast expanse or expense, for that matter. Often, the trail magic that has the most meaning is that which is small and spontaneous, such as a car ride into town to pick up supplies or a cold drink at just the right time.
Mr. TalkerMan and another hiker, Young Eagle, were near Newfound Gap in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee when they had just about run out of gas with a climb looming ahead.
“It was hotter than hell,” says Mr. TalkerMan. “I looked up that mountain and I said, ‘I just can’t do it. If we could just get a Coke or something.’
“Right then, this woman comes across the parking lot with a Coke in each hand. She says, ‘You boys look like you could use a cold soda.’ Then she says, ‘And I’ve got some brownies in the car.’
“That was about the best trail magic because it got us up that mountain and another four miles to the shelter.”
Moonpie, a 29-year-old former car salesman from Raleigh, N.C., says “not all trail magic is about food.”
At the top of 6,285-foot Roan Mountain in Tennessee, Moonpie and his fellow hikers were treated to a banjo and fiddle performance by a pair of musicians who “just played for us.”
Many trail angels are people from local communities with no connection to the trail other than their desire to help hikers in need.
“Trail towns are very knowledgeable about hikers,” says Jim (who doesn’t have a trail name, but doesn’t use his last name either), a 49-year-old tax accountant from Seattle.
He tells of one time when he and another hiker, after going to town for supplies, were sitting near a Little League field “looking like bums” when they were offered a ride back to the trail by a lady.
Despite their appearance, he says, she went out of her way to help them.
Small, thoughtful acts of kindness are more reminiscent of the trail’s early customs, says Laurie Potteiger, information service manager of the ATC in Harper’s Ferry, W.Va.
Potteiger thru-hiked the trail in 1987, and was occasionally the recipient of trail magic herself.
“It’s really part of the trail culture and always has been,” she says, “but the essence of trail magic has changed. It certainly has changed in scale and scope.”

About the Author

Noah C. Kady (Nckady@msn.com) is a freelance writer who lives in Myersville, Md., near the Appalachian Trail.


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