trail magic

CT #21: Gratitude

My last town stop on the Colorado Trail was going to be Lake City, the town northbound thru-hikers have been talking about since Leadville. But, honestly, it wasn’t the town’s free movie for hikers or its amazing eateries that called to me; Lake City had a library.

Even in the age of smartphones, libraries remain a key destination in trail towns. They have computers with keyboards, they have WiFi, they have warm and dry places to sit, and they always seem to welcome hikers.

The Lake City library held a special appeal to me, as it was where I would finally iron out the (rather complicated) logistics of getting back home and purchase the tickets for the key legs of the journey.

And, since I finally have an appetite, by the time I got to Spring Creek Pass, the Lake City “exit,” I had just run out of food.

Perhaps, then, you can imagine my frustration as I stood on the side of the highway and not a car went past. Not one. Thirty minutes passed. Sixty minutes. Ninety minutes.

I began to get desperate. With the limited cell phone reception I had, I started looking for shuttles, but the one run by local trail angels had stopped for the season. I decided to start walking the 17 miles to Lake City.

I hadn’t gone a mile before a white truck came driving up. I stuck out my thumb, unable to hide my desperate hope. They drove past. I kept walking and then noticed the truck pull over and begin slowly backing up. I ran as fast as I could, pack and all, to the truck.

Val and Gary, a grandparently couple of native Coloradans, made room in their vehicle and welcomed me inside. They were camping nearby and were coming into Lake City for laundry and food, as well.

I wanted to cry or say a prayer of gratitude or dance for joy. My pathetic morning had just turned perfect.

We did laundry together, as I unloaded my resupply box and repacked my pack for the next leg of this journey. Then, we said our farewells, as I went to the library and they headed to the grocery store.

Lake City was a precious small town, and I enjoyed walking to the library and saying “Hi!” to locals in what I’ve been told is my southern way. At the library, I sat on a picnic table, charged my phone, and opened far too many browser tabs and apps as I worked to coordinate various transportation schedules.

No sooner had I figured it out (Huzzah!) and was preparing to call my family to let them know that Val called my name. They were heading to lunch and then out of town, past the trail. I could join them, if I’d like.

I had just decided that I’d make myself comfortable for a little while longer, grateful to be able to count on a friendly ride back up to the trail when it registered to me that I was being invited to lunch, too. This was too much!

How special it was, after three weeks in near-constant solitude, to share a meal with kind people! We talked about our families and our love of the outdoors. I had a delicious, non-rehydrated meal and wanted to “Ooo” and “Ah” over it, but I tried to remember that normal people don’t fantasize about food every moment of the day!

Eventually, it was time to head back into the mountains, and, eventually, it was time to say goodbye to the people who decided they were my “adopted grandparents.” I fought back happy tears as I hugged them and wished them well.

Then, I set off into the mountains, where, with tickets in my inbox, good food in my belly, and friendship in my heart, the miles were easy.

Who am I kidding?

There was a hailstorm! But, even the cold ice didn’t stop me from smiling.

On the PCT: Mojave-Acton, Part Two

A few days ago, I wrote about the most trail-magical experience of my life, my meeting Acton’s Teresa and Laurie.  The experience touched Ant, Pine Nut, and me deeply, and we thought about it often in the miles from Acton to Mojave.  It helped us through tough days, when Ant’s feet refused to cooperate, when I came down with a fever, when we were simply foot sore and road weary.

We thought that the goodbyes we’d wished Teresa and Laurie at our parting were at least for a year and hoped they were not permanent.  Imagine our surprise when we turned on our phones in the middle of the woods and found an invitation to return to Teresa and Laurie’s!

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Laurie and the "Rainbow Bugs"

As though the message were a friendly reminder from the Universe that all would be well, we received it on a particularly difficult day, when Ant’s feet were keeping him to a very slow pace and when he and Pine Nut were pushing themselves to get to Hikertown, a quirky hostel where Ant could rest.  At mile 500, we celebrated for a moment and consulted each other about how to respond to the invitation; some easy consensus calculus elucidated how very excited we all were at the thought of returning to Acton.

It was the incentive of camaraderie and relaxation at Acton that spurred us all on to Hikertown and motivated Pine Nut and me during our epic 30-mile day and the next day of hiking.  On the day we were to meet Teresa in town, Pine Nut and I hitched in early and enjoyed the bustling metropolis that is Mojave; we went to the post office and a donut shop and then filled two carts with food at the grocery store and sat out front of the closed library enjoying food, shade, and 4G service until Teresa arrived.

Seeing Teresa again, I was suddenly shy.  The last eight days had been trying, and I was covered in dried sweat and desert filth.  Apparently, she didn’t care about any of that.  Teresa approached Pine Nut and me with open arms and wrapped each of us in a hug before helping us load our groceries into her truck.

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A far cry from hiking in the desert!

Before long, we were catching up on stories from the time that had elapsed since our last visit as we drove back to Acton via Hikertown to pick up Ant.  An hour later, we were back in Teresa and Laurie’s beautifully-smelling home, taking turns showering and eating Laurie’s world-class zucchini bread and chopping veggies we’d purchased for a cookout we’d planned with our hosts.

As evening fell, the five of us gathered around a table out back and ate one of the best dinners I’ve ever had.  I savored veggie burgers and hummus and veggie shish kabobs and a giant salad with avocados.  Perhaps even more than any of that, I relished the conversation.  Sitting in the glow of the lantern, looking at the faces of four kind, genuine people I’d come to love, I marveled at how it is that people can come into our lives and touch us deeply, changing us forever.

What if I hadn’t needed to spend a week in Warner Springs on antibiotics?
What if I hadn’t worked up the courage to sit down with Ant and Pine Nut there and strike up a conversation?
What if I’d fallen back into my old habits and dashed off once I’d left town?
What if the KOA had let me charge my phone and I hadn’t hitched into Acton with Ant and Pine Nut?
What if we hadn’t been sitting out front of that post office at the exact moment that Teresa pulled up?

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Enjoying the pancake cook-off

The next morning was spent logistics planning and doing standard zero day errands, but the afternoon involved a pancake cook-off of sorts (in which I simply enjoyed being an indecisive taste-tester), swimming, another fabulous dinner, and Doctor Who.  Our dinner conversation stretched well into the evening as we talked about everything from our pasts to our futures.  As we asked Teresa and Laurie for their thoughts and advice about such disparate things as adopting children and traveling and finances, it seemed at though we’d gained a pair of aunts sometime over the weekend.

That feeling only increased late the following afternoon, when Teresa and Laurie drove us back to the trail and hike almost three miles north with us.  As sunset approached, there were lots of hugs all around as we wished each other the happiest of trails.

When we left Teresa and Laurie’s the first time, I’d thought of them as trail angels.  I’d treasured the time I spent with them, but that was in large part due to the trail magic they created.  Hiking between Acton and Mojave, I’d thought about the shower and food and Doctor Who time I’d had at their home.

When we left their home the second time, no longer were Teresa and Laurie simply the best trail angels in the world.  They’d become friends.  Tearing up in the kitchen at the thought of saying goodbye, I tried to express to Teresa how much knowing her and Laurie had meant to me, but I’m not sure whether I could adequately put the sentiment into words.  I still doubt whether I can.

Instead, I’m going to rely on the words Stephen Schwartz wrote for the libretto of Wicked, words that I once wrote in the most sentimental trail register on the Appalachian Trail as I thought about the friends I’d made over the summer:

“I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason,
Bringing something we must learn,
And we are led to those
Who help us most to grow if we let them,
And we help them in return.

Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true,
But I know I’m who I am today because I knew you.

Like a comet pulled from orbit as it passes a sun,
Like a stream that meets a boulder halfway through the wood,
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
But, because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”

On the PCT: Mojave-Acton, Part One

In everyday life, we often talk about the kindness of strangers, little and big things done by people previously-unknown to us, things that humble us and touch us and restore our faith in humanity.  In my experience, travelers are perfectly positioned to witness the breadth and depth of this kindness.  On the road or on the trail, we find ourselves vulnerable, as we neither know the regions we’re passing through nor have the resources to live in those regions in the same way that locals do.  This vulnerability enables travelers to embrace the kindness of strangers, should they choose to do so.

One of the things that I most enjoy about backpacking is the sense of freedom and independence I feel with everything I need on my back.  I enjoy being fully capable and self-sufficient, able to make do with the 14 pounds (not including food and water) I’m carrying on my back.

I like not needing to rely on other people, but I love to open myself to the possibility of meeting kind strangers, learning their stories, and sharing time with them.  If those strangers become trail angels and offer rides or a place to lay out my tent, I’m tremendously grateful.

I have never been more grateful for or more completely taken aback by the kindness of strangers than I was last week, when I first met Teresa.

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Laurie, Teresa, and the "Rainbow Bugs"

When Ant, Pine Nut, and I had arrived in Acton, we went our separate ways as we worked to accomplish our various resupply chores.  I headed to the KOA to pick up my resupply box, and Ant and Pine Nut set out to find a ride to town.  Thirty minutes later, I’d walked through the septic-scented campground, stuffed the food and sundries from my maildrop into my pack, found nowhere I was allowed to charge my phone, and resigned myself to waiting in the dismal picnic area for Pine Nut and Ant.  But, then they walked by.  Apparently, their interaction with Acton had thus far been even less successful than mine:  They’d not yet gotten a ride.

As we were sharing the stories of our trials and wishing each other well, a couple in a truck pulled up and offered a ride to my hiking partners.  The driver cautioned my friends about the dogs in the backseat, but Ant and Pine Nut were already grinning.  They replied with the hitchhiker’s oft-repeated “We love dogs!” and jumped in.

I made a split-second decision:  “Can I come, too?” I yelled across the lawn.  After the affirmative reply, I gathered my belongings and jogged to the truck, which took us to downtown Acton.

Acton is a tiny little town, but it seemed much friendlier than the KOA, in spite of the description of our guidebook author, Yogi, to the contrary.  We all hurried into the post office, where I sent home my pants (now that a lack of antibiotics allows me to wear shorts or a Purple Rain skirt) and where Ant and Pine Nut picked up a package from REI.

Outside of the post office, Ant tried on the purple hiking boots from REI, hopeful that they’d help with persistent plantar fasciitis.  I searched for an outlet to charge my phone as a petite, athletic blonde woman pulled up in a Lexus and walked toward the post office.  As I wandered around the outside of the little shopping center, I heard the woman strike up a conversation with Ant and Pine Nut about the trail.  Preoccupied, I only heard bits of the conversation, but I gathered that the woman knew about the PCT because of “Wild” and was interested in learning more about thru-hiking.  The next moment, Ant and Pine Nut called me over.  The woman, who introduced herself as Teresa, had a trailer outside of her home and invited us to shower and stay in it.

Talking about the experience, Pine Nut and Ant said that they were only a little wary about whether they should accept Teresa’s offer.  To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t wary at all; everything about Teresa seemed genuine and friendly and safe.  In responding to the offer to stay in the trailer, I didn’t hesitate and simply felt a great gratitude at the sudden turn of events.

Minutes later, our packs were loaded in the back of Teresa’s vehicle and we were heading to her home in the outskirts of Acton.

Upon walking in the front door of Teresa’s beautiful and stately home, I was struck first by how wonderful it smelled.  I breathed deeply, enjoying the scent of amber and feeling utterly astonished by Teresa’s hospitality.

“What’s your priority?” Teresa asked.  “Showers or food?”

We all hesitated, feeling torn between two very good options.  Teresa picked up on this and decided to go get pizza while we showered.  Even though we offered to pay for the pizza, Teresa refused to take our money.  Instead, she showed us how to operate the television and encouraged us to relax with Netflix.

I struggled to understand why Teresa would leave strangers alone in her home.  How is it that she trusted us enough to know that we’d simply, gratefully shower and watch a few episodes of Doctor Who?  Would I be as trusting of someone I just met?  Would it help or hurt if that someone was covered in dirt, had greasy hair, and smelled as though she hadn’t seen a shower in weeks?

When Teresa came home with pizza, she found three very happy, significantly cleaner hikers curled up under blankets on her reclining leather couches.  We ate the pizza and got to know more about the miraculous woman who’d taken in a trio of thru-hikers.

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Dinner, apple juice, and smiles all around

Like us, Teresa loved traveling and adventure, but her passion has always been making a difference in the lives of children and animals.  She’d had a full career as a social worker and was preparing for a nomadic retirement.

As the pizza was disappearing and the conversation was gathering momentum, Teresa’s partner, Laurie, came home, bringing more food and kindness.

After dinner, Laurie built a fire in the living room fireplace, and we all sat around, exchanging stories and becoming friends.  The evening stretched far beyond hiker midnight, and this early riser became incapable of doing anything besides smiling by its end, when Teresa and Laurie pointed us to the guest rooms and invited us to sleep on enormous, luxuriously soft beds.

I might have thought the best details of my time with Teresa and Laurie were creations of my imagination, were it not for the corroborating details that Ant and Pine Nut remember — or for the fact that I would see Teresa and Laurie again, one week later.

To be continued…

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.