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Magic of the Trail

Completing the Appalachian Trail takes grit, patience, and sometimes a little help from the angels

Feb 4, 2016
Outside Magazine
Magic of the Trail

After weeks of backpacking, even the strongest hikers on the Appalachian Trail can wear down, both mentally and physically. And coming out of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness, the most remote and difficult section of the trek, can be a traumatic experience. That’s when Rebekah Anderson steps in. The owner of the Lakeshore House Restaurant and Lodge in Monson, Maine, Anderson, a.k.a. Double Zero, is one the best known “trail angels” on the AT. “I try to rescue people who are scared or have no food or no money,” explains Anderson. “A lot of times, that means dropping everything to bring them out and make them feel better.”

Sometimes that’s as easy as giving a weary hiker a soda and a shower. Other times, that means spending half the night talking over their problems and convincing them not to give up on their journey. What Anderson does—and what dozens, if not hundreds, of other people along the trail do—has been dubbed “trail magic.” It can come in all forms: from giving hikers a ride into town to do laundry or a bed for the night to setting out a cooler full of soda, a bag of fresh fruit, and candy bars at a crossroads; from leaving a can of bug spray deep in the woods to hosting a full-fledged barbecue along the trail.

We’re not talking about a few isolated incidents. These random acts of kindness have become a huge part of AT culture. “The AT is unique in long-distance backpacking because it’s such a communal experience,” explains Zach Davis, editor of the Appalachian Trials blog and a 2011 through-hiker. “The towns and people surrounding the trail are invested in through-hiker success and happiness, whether they’re trail angels or locals offering rides. It’s unlike any other hiking experience.”

Although trail magic can happen anywhere, at any time, many hikers say it almost always occurs at exactly the right moment. “The trail will provide when you need it,” says Davis. “At the end of a bad, rainy day, you’ll come across a cooler with snacks or a candy bar. It always seems to be well-timed.”

Besides Anderson, there are other famous trail angels that hikers encounter, like “Miss Janet,” a.k.a. Janet Hensley, who is famous for shadowing the main band of hikers moving from Georgia to Maine and for lending assistance over the years to hundreds of hikers in her green, sticker-festooned conversion van. Tom Levardi, based in Dalton, Massachusetts, is another legendary angel who lets hikers drink from his hose, sleep in his yard and on his porch, and more often than not has ice cream, burgers, hot dogs, and other treats waiting for weary travelers. “Ponytail Paul” Stiffler, who also lives in Monson, is an especially active trail angel who often hauls in caches of food to hikers midway through the Hundred-Mile Wilderness and hosts impromptu picnics for passing through-hikers in the middle of the woods. (Read more about Paul’s remarkable story here.)

Perhaps the coolest thing about trail magic is that the goodwill it engenders is contagious, and many hikers are so moved by the generosity they experience that they decide to give back to the trail long after their hike is completed. “In mid-April I’m going to do three days of trail magic in Hot Springs, North Carolina,” says Zach Davis. “Hopefully I’ll get a keg or two donated, get a bunch of hamburger meat and hot dogs, and camp out and grill out and drink beer with the through-hikers for a few days. I can’t think of anything better.”