Trail Angels and Trail Magic on Backcountry Hikes
This summer when we were hiking a portion of the Appalachian Trail in the hot June sun, we came across two trail angels waiting at a spot in the road where the trail crossed Skyline Drive, the road that runs the length of Shenandoah National Park. .
A lady was sitting on the tailgate of her black pick-up truck. In front of her were four chairs set up, the kind you bring to a soccer game or a fireworks show. The lady’s father was sitting in one of the chairs, and in front of him was a large cooler filled with cold drinks of all kinds: sodas, sparkling water, gatorade, iced tea.
Help yourself to a drink, the lady encouraged us as we came out of the woods and onto the road.
Have a seat if you want.
Another hiker had arrived before us and was sitting in one of the chairs having a drinking a soda. When you’ve only been sitting on the ground for days, weeks or even months if you’re backpacking the whole 2000 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a chair is a luxury.
As we gulped down cold drinks, the lady offered us ziplock bags of homemade salted caramel brownies. She had another bag filled with fruit. Decadent treats after we’d been gnawing on energy bars for days.
The lady’s father told us he used to hike these trails all the time. But now he can’t hike them anymore, so his daughter helps him come back as a trail angel, and he gets to feel close to the trail again, to experience the energy and the joy of hikers passing through. And to offer a little respite.
Kandace and I have encountered the magic of many trail angels along our various hikes.
On the Ouachita Trail in December, we came across jugs of water left in places where the water is scarce.
We’ve passed folks who were in the middle of weed-eating a trail or cleaning up a trail shelter. We’ve seen fallen logs that were cut into pieces and moved out of the way, and we’ve found cans of beer left for the taking.
And sometimes we have been visited by our own personal trail angels.
And after several days of hiking through icy rivers, we enjoyed a visit from my sweet friends Carol and Connie. They hiked towards us from a trailhead one day to meet us for lunch, and we were overjoyed to see them.
They had gotten up super early to drive up to where we were, and they had packed an elaborate trail picnic that the four of us enjoyed together. Carol pulled out real dishes, silverware and cloth napkins from her backpack. Into the bowls, she scooped generous portions of a gorgeous Mediterranean Quinoa Salad. We had pieces of cheese and sandwiches. Then Connie pulled out a wrapped present for me, a balm for my blistered feet! They also had homemade cookies and little bottles of whiskey for us to take with us.
It’s been months since that picnic lunch now, but I can still remember how good that food tasted, how we laughed as we ate and how we tried to stay seated for as long as possible in the little sliver of sun that was almost keeping us warm.
But soon we were cold enough that we needed to get moving again. After we packed everything up, Carol and Connie walked the miles back with us to their car before we said goodbye and they drove all the way back to Little Rock, leaving us with the leftovers and the gift of their sweet presence.
My dad also joined us on the Ouachita Trail, providing trail support by driving on old logging roads to find us. He fixed us dinner (shrimp and grits) and made hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps. He drove our packs around to the next stop so we could hike without them. We easily covered twice the miles we could have if we had been wearing them.
Some days Dad even met us for lunch or with a thermos of hot coffee to warm us up and help us keep going. After each of these encounters, Kandace and I walked faster, lighter and with a bit more spring in our step.
It’s an understatement to say that our personal trail angels lifted my spirits and helped me keep going.
It would be more accurate to say that the folks who provided these kindnesses actually walked many of my steps for me by their generosity, often arriving at times I felt I could barely carry on.
A couple of days before we met Carol and Connie, I had badly twisted my ankle and was struggling through the miles with a bandana tied around it. I had been moving slow for two days, but Kandace and I got up and started walking before dark the morning that we knew they were coming. We walked faster because we were anticipating spotting them at any moment.
Stripped of most of the comforts we normally enjoy in life and pushed to the physical limits of enduring the cold or the heat of the day, it’s amazing how coming across a few gallons of water left by someone can seem like such a treasure. It can make you believe in the goodness of humans, and give you hope for hours of walking.
I have always said I love to eat when I am camping or backpacking because everything tastes so much better outside. When your dad hands you a hot cup of coffee on a 29 degree morning, you’ve never tasted coffee so good. Ditto for hot scrambled eggs.
It’s why I love spending time in the woods, with only what I can carry. It reminds me in the most tangible way possible of how little I truly need.
Something to eat, water to drink. A bit of shelter from the rain.
When I receive something from a trail angel that I haven’t had to carry on my back, I am profoundly grateful.
Cold water in the hot sun and a hot drink on a cold day are precious treasures in the backcountry.
May cookies always taste as good as they do when they’ve been brought to you by a friend in the middle of a long hike.