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Trail Magic: Step Carefully

by Noah C. Kady

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The following is the second 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 some of the concerns about trail magic.

Somewhere along the Appalachian Trail this weekend, a well-meaning individual or group will set up a large tent or canopy, fire up a grill, and serve up the best barbeque the thru-hikers lucky enough to come across it will ever taste. After they eat, the hikers might relax in comfortable lawn chairs and wash down their meals with a few cold drinks. The hikers’ stomachs will be full, as will the hearts of the trail angels who provided the trail magic.
And everybody will leave happy. Well, almost everybody.
Such elaborate instances of trail magic, which are acts of kindness to Appalachian Trail hikers, sometimes draw the ire of those who hike the trail looking to escape the creature comforts and materialism of civilization. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy will occasionally receive letters from hikers who are offended or disappointed by trail magic that takes away from their intended experience.
“The first one that really came to our attention was in the 100-Mile Wilderness,” says Laurie Potteiger, information service manager of the ATC in Harper’s Ferry, W.Va. This section of the trail extends for 100 miles in Maine’s backcountry and, uncrossed by paved roads, preserves the illusion of wilderness.
Potteiger says that a group hauled in a large amount of supplies and took over a “pristine” campsite on one of the most beautiful sections of trail.
“It totally took away from the primitive experience,” she says.
Many people would say “a trail feed is not magic,” she says. “We acknowledge it’s not true magic, but after starving and suffering – what the trail requires of you – it still seems magical. It still seems like an oasis in the desert.”
The trail magic wouldn’t be magical if it weren’t for the contrast in the setting”
The larger issue with such types of trail magic, says Potteiger, is the impact it has on the trail.
She recalls a volunteer who maintains a section of trail in Georgia complaining about a backcountry cookout in a primitive setting. The site was too small to accommodate the number of people who showed up and plants were trampled.
“It took an intensive effort just to rehabilitate the site,” she says.
The problem is easily remedied, Potteiger says, by moving trail magic to hardened surfaces, such as road crossings, or other suitable areas, where those who want to provide and experience the magic won’t get in the way of those who don’t.
In fact, many trail angels make their presence known only by the magic they leave behind, be it a cooler of cold drinks and candy bars at a road crossing, a six-pack of soda or beer in a stream, or a weather forecast for the next few days taped to the top of a cooler.
“It’s all about timing,” says Mr. TalkerMan, a 68-year-old Justice of the Peace from Cherryfield, Maine, who, like many hikers, prefers to go by his trail name.
“If you are desperately hungry and desperately thirsty and then you walk out of the woods and there’s a cooler full of water, then that is oh…,” he says, his voice trailing off.
Jedi, a 51-year-old, self-described “nomadic” trail angel, has come up with his own term for such acts: stealth magic. “That’s a different kind of magic,” he says. “Stealth magic is when you do it, get out, and nobody has a clue who did it. That’s the best kind of magic.”
That kind of magic also presents its own set of problems, however, the biggest of which is the trash that unattended magic can produce. A Styrofoam cooler can end up as hundreds of pieces blowing in the wind if an aggressive animal wants a taste of what’s inside. Leftover candy bar wrappers and empty plastic drink bottles end up littering the trail. And empty six-pack rings have a way of finding their way around the necks of small animals.
As for the human element, thru-hikers aren’t usually the ones to blame. In fact, they are probably more diligent than anybody except trail maintenance volunteers about picking up debris, says Moonpie, a 29-year-old former car salesman from Raleigh, N.C.
“I can’t see thru-hikers leaving trash anywhere on the trail,” he says. “We tend to pick it up, but there are a lot of other people on the trail this time of year who don’t.”
And therein lies the problem. Without anyone to supervise who is taking what and what they’re doing with their trash, there can be a tendency for people, some of whom might not even be hikers, to be negligent.
“Unattended magic is one of the problematic forms because that has resource impacts and affects volunteer morale,” says Potteiger.
“A hiker finds a cooler full of cold drinks on the trail and thinks, ‘Wow, this is so wonderful.’ It has not only the tangible reward but also meaning,” she says. “The maintainer sees it in the form of trash.”
Potteiger says trail magic can be a positive experience for all concerned as long as it is done “thoughtfully and responsibly.”
There are some people, however, who exploit the trail magic concept. Some of them might present themselves as trail angels but ask for a donation – or even outright payment – to cover their expenses.
“We’ve had problems in the past with commercial entities trying to pass off their services as trail magic,” says Rita Hennessy, an outdoor recreation specialist for the National Park Service in Harper’s Ferry.
Jim (who doesn’t have a trail name, but doesn’t use his last name either), a 49-year-old tax accountant from Seattle, remembers a man in Damascus who had a cell phone outside with an unlimited minutes plan. He was advertising a “free hiker phone” but had an oatmeal can available for donations.
“He could easily be making a profit on it, but I don’t know what his thing is,” Jim says.
Sunnyside, a 24-year-old thru-hiker taking a break from his studies at Indiana University, says he has a problem with people who want to impose their beliefs upon him in exchange for their version of trail magic.
He recalls one place that served waffles to thru-hikers but expected them to listen to a religious pitch.
“We got a single helping of waffles and a double dose of Jesus,” says Moonpie.
“It was good if you like a sermon with your meal,” Sunnyside says. “I’m not against thinking that way; I think that way. But I am against people telling you to think that way.”
Trail magic can also come in the form of alcohol and, for some, drugs. If they keep their nose to the wind, thru-hikers can enjoy plenty social events in trailside towns.
Jim says he recently caught up to a group of hikers who started nearly a month before he did.
“These guys are partying their way up the trail,” he says. “If they hear a rumor of something going on, a party or something, I think they’ll adjust their schedule to go to it.
“These guys can hike 25 miles a day, but they don’t do that every day. They might not finish before November at this rate.”
He is quick to note that their style doesn’t make their experience any better or worse than his own. One is not more right than the other, he says, it’s just different.
“It’s important to hike your own hike,” he says, “and part of that is to keep your mouth shut.”
While reports of too much trail magic in the form of alcohol or drugs being provided at some events are troublesome, Potteiger says, it appears to be more a reflection of society than the trail.
“Alcohol use and abuse has always been going on among the early twenty-something set,” she says. “I don’t know if the nature of the trail experience has changed or our culture has changed. I think a lot of these hikers are out of college and they’re just continuing the college experience. What you read in the paper would seem to bear that out.”
Hennessy says that partying is not the reason young people hike the trail, however. “I don’t think that anybody would hike the AT for that purpose,” she says. “It might be something they do, but it’s not the reason.”
She acknowledges that the prevalence of trail magic in all its forms has altered the landscape, though.
“(Hiking the trail) has become much more of a social experience,” Hennessy says. “The thru-hikers that I know who did it 20 years ago had a much different experience than now.”
While some of the younger hikers may enjoy the social benefits of trail magic, Mr. TalkerMan says they also benefit from what it teaches them.
Many young people today are lacking something in the way they are raised, he says, and trail magic teaches them lessons in giving and in social interaction.
“It’s good for these kids – I call them all kids at my age – to experience that. It’s a character-building thing for them,” he says.
Jedi agrees that there are life lessons to be learned from trail magic.
“Think about great literature in which characters face epic struggles,” says Jedi. “They all get something along the way that helps them accomplish their goal.
“We can take this from the trail into our own lives – spontaneous acts of kindness, random acts of kindness – and I think that’s good. Any type of magic is good.”

About the Author

Noah C. Kady is a freelance journalist who lives near the Appalachian Trail in Myersville, Md.


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