Intertwined with our long-distance trail experiences like little pieces of magic woven into our memories. When we reminisce about trails that we’ve hiked we often talk with fondness of the kindness we received from complete strangers.
Originating on the long-distance Appalachian Trail (A.T), “Trail Magic” is the affectionate term for ‘unexpected acts of generosity’ on trail that come in the form of spoken encouragement, lifts to town, cold drinks on hot days, and shelter from bad weather. Whilst preparing and researching to hike the A.T in 2017 we heard of the mysterious and mystical “Trail Angels” who leave this magic for hikers but it wasn’t until we experienced it for ourselves that we really knew what it meant.
The magic of Trail Magic…
It’s 90% humidity and 32C (90 F), you’ve hiked more than 80 miles over the past 4 days, you’re at mile 12 of the undulating mountain trail on day 5 and you still have 12 miles to go. You’re drained and in need of a rest but you keep pushing on because you know you have to, and then you spot it. A glorious white box ahead of you, like a mirage in a desert, you don’t quite believe it until you’re there standing over it. Until it’s confirmed by the words on top that read: ‘HIKERS HELP YOURSELVES’. A cooler box filled with ice-cold cans of sugary bubbly gloriousness and although you feel like a total idiot for feeling it, in that moment you are, elated, high on life.
You feel such gratitude for this wonderful gesture because it’s more than a cooler box with cold drinks, it’s a boost of morale, hope and energy. Suddenly you are encouraged and motivated to hike that next 12 miles like you weren’t before.
The magic, it would seem, is in the surprise and the unexpected generosity; in knowing that someone out there is rooting for you. A complete stranger went out of their way to buy those drinks, drive the miles into the mountains, carry that heavy box of ice and leave it on that path, and all that without a trace of themselves for recognition. They knew just how much that gesture would mean to a bunch of exhausted smelly hikers and they are what we call trail angels.
Trail magic can never be expected and we felt so lucky to experience it in its many forms, from our first experience, finding two cans of beer left beside a tree in the middle of the woods, to discovering gallons of water left in the middle of a notoriously dry section of trail, or phone numbers are thoughtfully given ‘just in case’ we needed help – these were just small moments among the many on our long-distance trail but they were ones that made a big impact.
We had a running joke (or wish) that vending machines would ‘pop’ into existence on the toughest or hottest of days until one morning on our way out of Port Clinton, Pennsylvania, one did. It stood there out of place at the end of a garden on a residential street with a notice on the front that read: ‘Hikers, yes the machine works – 75c’. We scrambled through our bags for change and sipped those icy-cold drinks with joy as we stepped enthusiastically into the day ahead.
Real life Trail Angels
In our busy stressful world giving up your free time to strangers is an extra special phenomenon. We really felt the kindness of strangers on the A.T, giving their weekends or whole summers to feeding, helping or supporting the thru-hikers.
From Joe who sets up near Canopus Lake, New York State, to make hikers ham and cheese sandwiches and another Joe in Dalton, Massachusetts, who lets hikers camp in his garden or to ‘Hyde’ our trail brother and his wonderful family who took care of us along the way. They put us up at the end of the trail, treated us like part of the family and even gave us post-trail ‘town clothes’ so we would look and smell a little less ‘hiker-trash’ for the rest of our time in the USA.
Why do they do it?
Trail angels want hikers to complete their mission; they are a part of the community, they want to simply be kind, and to feel a connection – for all of these reasons and more. The Appalachian Trail is the longest hiking-only footpath in the world at 2,189 miles so when people hear you’re undertaking this feat they are excited and enthusiastic for you, they want to be a part of it with you – a support crew helping to get you to the finish line.
Whilst hiking we had heard rumours about the ‘Omelette Guy’ as we headed towards New Hampshire. On the day we were due to pass his spot on the trail we had horrendous weather. We covered 14 miles before midday in the hope that he might just be there but in all honesty, we had resigned ourselves to the fact that nobody in their right mind would choose to be out in that rain. To our complete surprise he was there and not only that, he was there because as he said: ‘It’s on days like this that you hikers REALLY need hot food!’
The Omelette Guy, also known as Carl Springer, has not hiked the A.T, is not a hiker at all, but after reading a book about the Appalachian Trail had decided that he was going to do trail magic to support the hikers. For Carl he says “It’s like Christmas every day”, he enjoys being out there and meeting people from all over the world so he spends his summer months set up under an awning along the trail cooking omelettes and welcoming hikers 9 – 5pm every day. He charges nothing and supplies coffee, juice, fruit and omelettes to any hiker who wants it. When he’s not there he makes sure there is juice, cookies and bananas for anyone passing by because he doesn’t want them to miss out. His motto is: “It’s all you can eat, all you can carry!”
So on that miserable wet day, we gratefully filled up on delicious omelettes, hot coffee and chocolate cookies and relished a break from the downpour. Carl even held my jacket above the gas cooker in an effort to warm it just a little before we had to put our wet gear back on and keep hiking. His kindness has never been forgotten. It’s a part of our trail, a rock on the path – integral to our experience and just one of the many rocks that led us to the finish line.
Trail magic in the UK
OK, so we don’t have the longest trails which means we don’t have a constant flow of hikers and the buzz of the ‘mass start’ but we do have some epic long-distance hikes and we have a wonderful kind community.
The Pennine Way is a notoriously tough UK National Trail so to keep morale up the owner of Horneystead Farm, who previously thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in the USA, welcomes hikers to his ‘Pit Stop’ to rest and refuel. Operating an honestly box system for all sorts of resupply; there’s a hiker box, free toilets, places to camp if needed and places to park weary legs, this is trail magic being passed on in all its glory.
In the UK and Ireland lifts to and from trailheads are especially helpful because transport to and from smaller villages and towns isn’t always the easiest (or fastest). Gardens to camp in near towns where wild camping spots are lacking are a blessing, Bothies to shelter in (in Scotland & Wales) to escape the rain or midges; taps to refill water bottles where there are no natural water sources or snack stalls to stop at on routes that pass too far from resupply points.
We’ve experienced all of these versions of magic whilst hiking trails in the UK and only hope to keep passing it on whenever possible, because trail magic came from the trails but isn’t just for long-distance hikers, it’s kindness and community and needn’t cost a penny. It’s unexpected words of encouragement on the hardest of days or a sign beside a bench welcoming a weary hiker to rest.