trail angels

Healing the Barrington Crater

My worst injury on the Appalachian Trail happened when I fell on a road.

Yes, you read that correctly.  I’d walked 1500 miles, arrived in Massachusetts, climbed up the relatively impressive Everett and Race, descended to a road, took one step on it, and fell to the ground.

Trigger warning:  There will be blood.

I blame a combination of new, t00-small boots and a branch on the road, but fault didn’t matter.  What did matter was the fact that I was on my hands and knees in the middle of the road with my full pack on my back, nauseated because of the pain shooting from my knee.

Sitting so that I could look at my knee, I had my first glance of the Barrington Crater, as I came to call it.  In falling, I’d taken a sizable amount of flesh out of my knee, and blood was flowing from the resulting crater.  At this point, I should explain that I grew up on a little farm; I’ve dealt with all sorts of animal emergencies and am generally calm and tough in such situations.  Likewise, I’ve been able to stay calm and think clearly in emergencies involving other people.  This was not the case when I looked at my knee and realized that the fluid dripping down my bent leg while I was sitting on the road was my own blood.  I grew faint and worked to remain conscious.DSCF3103

Luckily, at that moment, a thru-hiking family came up the trail behind me, and a southbounder arrived just moments later.  While I was busy being barely communicative, they helped me to scoot out of the middle of the road, pooled their first aid resources together, and started working to clean me up.

As they were tending to me, an SUV started rumbling down the road toward us and then promptly pulled off the road nearby.  The driver, a petite, middle-aged woman, jumped out of the vehicle and came hurrying our way.

Talking to me quietly and asking me simple questions, she worked to help me remain conscious while she bandaged up my knee.

“Where are you staying tonight?” she asked as she finished.

“Not far,” I said.  “I’ll camp in the woods around here.”

DSCF3101Without hesitation, she invited not only me but also Palm Tree, who’d been hiking with me for a few days and was just a few minutes behind me when I’d fallen, to her home.  I was so relieved at the thought of being able to be off my leg and keep it clean for a couple days.  Palm Tree and Mary Kate helped me into the latter’s car.

Regardless of the fact that we were sweaty and dirty and bloody (or, at least, I was), Mary Kate welcomed us into her living room, where she continued to tend to my knee (and other, smaller, wounds).  She ordered pizza for us and her teenage and young adult children, and we enjoyed a wonderful meal together.

For the next two days, I felt like part of Mary Kate’s family.  Palm Tree and I ate, talked, and shopped with her and her children.  We stayed in “the clubhouse,” a shed in the backyard that was cozy and comfortable.  And, I served as Palm Tree’s sous chef as he created a delicious Thai meal to thank Mary Kate and her family.

While I’d had no problem escaping the Neels Gap vortex, the Hot Springs vortex, or the Waynesboro vortex, I must confess that I found it rather difficult to leave Mary Kate and keep hiking north — and not just because my knee was tender.  Her hospitality, generosity, and kindness made me see her not just as an exemplary trail angel but as an exemplary human being, and I like to think that I became a bit like her because of the time I spent with her.  I certainly consider her part of the reason that I stood atop Katahdin.

Q&A: How to Be the Best Trail Angel Ever

Merry Christmas, friends! Whether or not this is a holiday you and your family celebrate, I wish you all the joy and peace and love associated with the idealized Christmas.

As December is generally a month during which I hike very little (and run quite a lot), the closest I can get to a themed post is to write about trail angels. DSCF1120

If you’re not familiar with the term, trail angels are the people out on the trail who make long-distance backpacking possible. Most commonly, all that they overtly provide is some food, but, in doing so, they give us so much more than that. They take away the pain of a difficult day and provide companionship to the lonely. They support and encourage us when we most need support and encouragement. They impress upon us the virtues of generosity and community, virtues that remain with many former thru-hikers for years to come. Interactions with trail angels are some of the most memorable parts of many thru-hikes, and I’ve heard several hikers describe trail angels as part of the reason they have a spiritual connection with the trail.

DSCF0924During my time on the Appalachian Trail (not just during my thru-hike), I have been touched by the kindness and “sacred hospitality” (as Unitarian Universalists would say) of the trail angels I’ve met. After my thru-hike, I’ve gotten a few opportunities to act as a trail angel myself, providing “trail magic” to thru-hikers in New England, and I definitely look forward to more opportunities to serve in such a role in the future.

If you’re looking to create some trail magic for hikers, know that anything you do will be appreciated. After I’ve told a story of an interaction with a trail angel, I’ve heard some non-hikers say that they’d like to meet and assist thru-hikers but don’t know where to begin. What follows are some ideas for aspiring trail angels.

1) Bring foods that are uncommon on the trail.

While bags of trail mix and granola bars are appreciated by financially-challenged thru-hikers, foods whose praise doesn’t cease include fruits, veggies, and almost anything that is cooked. I remember stumbling upon a hiker feed on my way to Damascus before trail days and being absolutely thrilled to eat a veggie dog in the middle of the woods. On another occasion, I found a bag of fresh tomatoes hanging on a trail signpost near a road crossing with a note inviting thru-hikers to partake; I learned of my undying love for tomatoes that day.DSCF0949

2) Consider bringing along extra supplies.

If you’d like to go the extra mile, bring some personal necessities with you to the trail. I’ve seen Band-Aids, alcohol swabs, toilet paper, razors, shampoo, toothpaste, ibuprofen, batteries, pens, and plastic bags serve as happy surprises from trail angels to hikers.

DSCF11213) Showers are priceless.

While we’re on the subject of necessities, I met someone whose trail magic included a solar shower. Though I passed up the offer, given that I’d just showered two days earlier and needed to put in a long day, I thought the shower was an awesome idea; there were a great many hikers who agreed with me and got in line.

4) Transportation is always a winner.

If you have a bit of extra time and don’t mind driving, consider offering hikers rides to a nearby town/outfitter/grocery store/hostel. One of the strangest things about being on the trail is how we feel completely independent in the woods but need to ask for help to do most anything when we come in contact with civilization. Case in point: To get anywhere, we need to depend on the kindness of strangers and hitchhike. Arguably, the most magical trail magic I received included a ride to the grocery store and a place to get dry on a rainy day.

5) Remember that conversation can be a gift in itself.

Finally, know that at least half of the fun of trail magic for thru-hikersDSCF1021 is our getting to meet the trail angels. Many of us spend a lot of time alone, and the simple pleasure of talking with someone else is so appreciated. Even better, at least in my mind, is conversation that is deep and thoughtful and about big ideas. There’s an old man in New Hampshire who lives just off the trail and offers hikers ice cream, popsicles, and wonderful conversation. Under the Tibetan prayer flags on his porch, I found him wearing an Obama T-shirt, and we spent the next couple of hours talking about everything from his children to hiking to LGBTQ issues. It was beautiful.

There are so many touching and inspiring stories with trail angels that I could recount (such as this one or even this one), but I’ll save them for another day. In the meantime, have a wonderful holiday season!  And, if you’d like to share, I’d love to hear about the trail magic you all have received and/or provided.