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Trail Magic: Giving Something Back

by Noah C. Kady

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The following is the third 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 alternatives to traditional forms of trail magic.
Some days are full of magic.
For Moonpie, a 29-year-old former car salesman from Raleigh, N.C., who, like many thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, goes by his trail name, one such day occurred near Wautaga Lake in Tennessee.
It started out simple enough when another hiker’s mother met Moonpie and a few other hikers at the lake with cold sodas and food. After they were finished, another thru-hiker came by and reported more “trail magic” on the other side of the lake.
Trail magic is an act of kindness to Appalachian Trail hikers that helps them on their 2000-mile journey from Georgia to Maine.
Moonpie and his companions went to investigate and on their way came across a fisherman who asked them if they wanted some trout. “He gave us 14 trout,” Moonpie says, still with a hint of awe in his voice.
Once they reached their original destination, they were not disappointed. “They had beer, wine, and liquor,” he says.
“As we’re there, a guy in a sailboat pulls up and takes us on a sailboat ride around the lake.”
While they were getting off the sailboat, Moonpie says, a man approached them and asked if they wanted a keg of beer. They said that they did and he told them to wait there. Later that night, Moonpie says, “we see a headlamp on the water and here’s this guy kayaking a keg across the lake for us.”
“That was probably the best day of my trip.”
Despite Moonpie’s appreciation, some would contend that so much magic tends to increase expectations among hikers and diminish its impact, much like a magic act in that once the audience has seen the same trick several times, some of the “magic” is gone.
A posting by “Rick” on www.viewsfromthetop.com, an online hiking community, offers a glimpse into the mindset of many of those who have reveled in trail magic’s excesses.
He writes, “… when I did the Pa. section, I found a lot of five-gallon buckets near road crossings filled with candy, snacks and bottles of juice. The first few were awesome. However, I found that as I hiked, it wasn't so much a surprise, in that sometimes I started to expect something would be near a road crossing. I'd get to a crossing and there'd be nothing and I'd be slightly disappointed.
“See how easily I was trained??
“I now think of trail magic as something that pops up out of the blue for a one time thing where all the stars are aligned … rather than something that folks can expect when they get to a certain crossing.”
“Maybe we need a new term,” says Rita Hennessy, an outdoor recreation specialist for the National Park Service in Harper’s Ferry, W.Va. “Maybe the serendipitous ‘magic’ term disappears from that. When it becomes an expectation, I think that the ‘magic’ is lost.”
Hennessy was a ridge runner on the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut and Massachusetts from 1985 to 1987. Essentially a backcountry ranger, Hennessy was primarily responsible for educating and aiding hikers along her section of trail.
According to Hennessy, the term “trail magic” might not have even been coined at that time. It wasn’t until she took a job with the park service in 1997 that she started to hear the phrase.
In conjunction with the terminology has come an increased interest in providing trail magic. Many trail angels are former thru-hikers who are looking to give something in return for the kindness they received or simply want to keep a connection with one of the defining experiences of their lives.
Jim (who doesn’t have a trail name, but doesn’t use his last name either), a 49-year-old tax accountant from Seattle, had his most memorable trail magic experience when he ran into a group of 1999 thru-hikers who had set up shop a little off the trail near Hogpen Gap in Georgia.
The group of men, all in their 30s now, was having a reunion, complete with wives and children, says Jim. They had placed signs on the trail inviting everybody to relive their memories with them while enjoying hot dogs and cheeseburgers, cookies and drinks.
That’s not uncommon. Laurie Potteiger, information service manager of the ATC in Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., says that often a thru-hiker’s first impulse after hiking the trail is to return as a trail angel but that there are alternatives.
“Trail magic is a good thing, but we may have reached the point where we don’t need to solicit more of it or encourage more of it, whereas there’s always a need for more volunteers,” she says.
The volunteers who maintain the trails might just perform the purest form of trail magic. Without the time and sweat they pour into the upkeep of the trail, hikers would have a more difficult time with even some of the shortest sections.
Many hikers don’t think of trail angels as being the people who use their own resources to go out on the trail and cut back poison ivy, pull weeds, and clear blown down trees, says John Hedrick, Potomac Appalachian Trail Club supervisor of trails.
However, he says, the volunteers’ work is invaluable to the thru-hiker’s experience.
“If (the volunteers) didn’t do it, sections of the trail would be closed down in a year and a half,” he says.
He cites a recent storm in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia that knocked down 2,500 trees and required 3,500 man-hours to clear.
“The trail was impassable,” he says.
“Mother Nature does things that will close down the trail and volunteers have to clear it out,” he says. “That, to me, is trail magic.”
Members of the PATC like to point out that they’ve been performing trail magic for 80 years. Often, however, their efforts aren’t labeled or acknowledged as magic.
That doesn’t mean the thru-hikers don’t appreciate the work that’s been done on the trail, Hedrick says.
“(At first) the hikers kind of take it for granted, but after they’ve been out on the trail for a while and they see the work and the effort that goes into keeping this trail open, I think they begin to realize that this is a phenomenal thing,” he says.
“When they come up to us on the trail, they could not be more appreciative,” says Hedrick, who completed a thru-hike in 2000.
Potteiger says it would be great if more hikers could channel their goodwill into trail maintenance, which includes painting blazes on the trees, maintaining and building shelters, and taking steps to fight soil erosion.
Oscar Streaker has been hiking on different sections of the trail for years and for the last couple of months has been driving up from his Sykesville, Md., home to help rebuild a shelter at Rocky Run in Maryland.
He says the trail has given him a refuge over the years, a place to clear his mind and refresh his spirit.
“I just have the need to give back to the cause,” he explains. “It’s God’s sanctuary being up here. What could be better?”
Rick Canter, Maryland district trails manager, has been doing trail maintenance for the last 16 years and knows what it takes to keep the trail in top shape.
“Anybody who volunteers to come out here and not get paid a dollar, I have total respect for,” says Canter.
“The thing about trail magic is that it’s really easy,” says Potteiger. “Go to the store, buy some food, go to a road crossing. A volunteer effort takes much more effort and planning.
“We think people find it very gratifying, but it just takes more time.”
Furthur (sic), a 49-year-old former culinary arts teacher from Pittsburgh, intends to do what Potteiger suggests.
Having seen what happened to the trail after a storm came through and how fast the volunteers were able to remove trees and reclaim the trail, he was inspired to return the favor.
“If I used a section of your trail that you’ve maintained,” he says, “why shouldn’t I go back and help you maintain it?”
“Without them,” Furthur says, “you’d be sleeping under the stars or in the snow.”
Jim says living on the other side of the country prohibits him from showing up in person to help with trail maintenance but that he intends to become a member of one of the clubs responsible for that sort of work and support it monetarily.
Providing trail maintenance in lieu of hamburgers and Coke would certainly be more in line with the park service’s vision for the trail.
Hennessy says the park service sees as the purpose of the trail to serve as a footpath that people complete with their own “unaided effort.”
“Once trail magic comes to be an expectation and it will happen throughout, then the whole reasoning for the trail, and the concept we at the National Park Service want to preserve, is going to diminish,” she says.
On the other hand, she points out, Earl Shaffer, who became the first person to thru-hike the trail in 1948, hiked it again in 1998. Fifty years prior, Shaffer had enjoyed the bohemian-type experience of connecting communities by walking on the road and going through town, where he was sometimes the beneficiary of acts of kindness, but at the end of his last thru-hike, Hennessy says, he complained that it had become too difficult and its location too remote.
In fact, some feel that the pendulum swinging back in recent years to something that more resembles Shaffer’s original hike is a move in the right direction.
To them, trail magic often provides evidence of humanity’s best attributes.
“It’s reassured me that there’s a lot of good people in this world,” says Mr. TalkerMan, a 68-year-old Justice of the Peace from Cherryfield, Maine.
Pebble, a 22-year-old from Waynesboro, Va., who recently graduated with a degree in English from Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., says nobody is being forced to partake in the trail magic experience.
“If people want to be self-sufficient, they can walk on by,” she says. “(Trail magic) is part of the trail community.”
“The truth is that there are not many people who turn down trail magic,” says Potteiger.
“We wouldn’t want to see it go away, but there can be such a thing as too much of it without proper planning.”

About the Author

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


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