Note to readers: The majority of sources in this article are identified by their trail names, as is the tradition on the Appalachian Trail.
Trail magic is a cooler sitting in the mud of a dried-up stream bed. Inside is a bottle of Gatorade surrounded by bottles of water and topped off with three Snickers bars. The ice is still frozen, which tells the thru-hikers snatching up the gifts that they just missed the “trail angel,” the anonymous benefactor.
These small acts of kindness helped the hundreds of 2011 Appalachian Trail thru-hikers along the southern section of the trail this spring, when a drought knocked out water sources. But the magic dwindled as they walked farther north. It always does.
That’s the main reason Rick Towle of Litchfield decided to host a Maine hiker feed in 2006. He has held the feed each year since, a weekend of feeding upwards to 100 hikers coming through Maine — except for last year, when Towle (trail name ATTroll) was hiking the AT himself. He completed the tail Oct. 10, 2010.
This year, the feed was held Sept. 17-18 in the baseball field behind the Monson Community Center.
“Really, this is the last true location you can get hikers together for a feed,” said Towle as he watched another pair of hikers walk onto the field. “It’s the last place to congregate together as friends before they end the trail and go their separate ways.”
The air smelled of smoke from the fire smouldering in a 5-gallon drum by home plate. Bearded men played horseshoes by first base while snacking on apples and popcorn, waiting for dinnertime.
“Your beard is your rank on the trail,” said Red Beard, 20, of Madison, Conn., teasing barefaced Trashcan, 14, who has been hiking sections of the AT with his mother, Falling Turtle, 36, since late March. Both are from Dayton, Ohio.
Towle is the founder of Whiteblaze.net, a high-traffic open forum for people to gather information about thru-hiking the AT. Hikers who showed up at the feed Saturday were delighted to meet the man who helped them plan their trip. Whiteblaze.net is often the first place people look to learn about the trail.
In addition to the 100-plus hamburgers, Towle and supporters offered the hikers lasagna, vegetable Alfredo, five dozen ears of corn, popcorn and chips. For breakfast, they had 10 dozen eggs, pancake mix, sausage gravy and 85 biscuits. But no matter how well they eat, AT hikers tend to lose weight. Hoops, a 23-year-old man from Franklin, N.C., lost about 50 pounds during the months he has been on the AT.
“We’ve missed all of our holidays this summer, so this [feed] is something to look forward to,” said Lunchbox, a 23-year-old man from North Carolina, who bumped into Long Trail, a 24-year-old woman from Harrisonburg, Va., early on, and has hiked with her and her trail dog, Padma, ever since. He says she’s the reason he’s still hiking.
“I wanted to quit 40 times a day, but then you meet people you want to see the next day,” said Long Trail.
Because hikers go at different paces, they usually hike together for a few days, or meet at a hostel, and then end up drifting apart, only to reunite at hiker feeds. Lunchbox hadn’t seen thru-hiker Francois Dillinger (trail name) of Montgomery, Ala., identifiable by his plaid hiking kilt, since Pennsylvania.
“The reason all thru-hikers get along so well is because we all have the same screws loose,” said Dillinger. “We’re all looking for the same thing.”
Dillinger broke his toe in Georgia and persevered, his toe swollen for two months, until it healed. During Hurricane Irene, he was stuck in Rutland, Vt., for five days, living in a movie theater and a Chinese restaurant.
The Monson event was also an opportunity for hikers to reunite with traveling trail angels, people who cater to thru-hikers, driving them into towns and helping out at various trail feeds up the East Coast — small feeds such as the one in Monson as well as larger feeds such as the Appalachian Trail Days in late May in Damascus, Va.
Janet Hensley of Erwin, Tenn., known in the AT community as Miss Janet, showed up to the feed in her beat-up red sedan after traveling back and forth for 3,000 miles in the White Mountains, shuttling thru-hikers to towns to resupply. For for the past 20 years, Hensley has been a part of the AT community, whether hosting at a hostel or traveling along the trail to shuttle hikers to towns.
“When I was a teenager, I was giving hikers rides, making my daddy mad,” she said. “I tried to tell him, they aren’t hitchhikers, they’re hikers hitching.”
This year, she and Rachel Jager of Gloucester, Mass., (trail name City Slickah, AT class of 2010) took to the road to help hikers when Hurricane Irene had many of them stranded without shelter or food.
Peter Mullen, a Maine Outdoor Adventure Club board member who helps Trowle organize the feed, recalls a story from the first Whiteblaze feed: “We were all sitting around a fire and a tractor-trailer truck pulls up with a bunch of ATVs, and [the hikers] all instantly recoiled from the sight. Then, like a clown car, five hikers fall out of the truck with all their gear. The minute [the hikers] saw that, they went out and talked the driver into staying. They took care of him, like we took care of them.”
At the hiker feed, Brother of the Wind, 51, recalled a man in New York who stopped his truck, tossed him a cold Gatorade and cooked him two sandwiches — cheese and bacon on bagels. And in his online trail journal, he mentions other trail angels, such as Mad Hatter, who leaves a stocked cooler beside a white plastic chair, “for relaxation,” in Northern New Hampshire, 500 miles from the trail terminus.
Though hikers don’t have much to give in return for trail magic, they remember the random acts of kindness and how much it meant to them. And so it’s not surprising that thru-hikers often become trail angels themselves.
“Next year, hopefully, I’ll go to [Damascus] Trail Days and get my folks involved, providing support at the trail heads,” said Molasses.
That evening, after sating their appetites, the good-humored travelers retreated to their tents on the baseball field, most situated at the edge of the forest, embracing the opportunity to spread apart for privacy. With more than 2,000 miles under their boots, they only have about 100 miles to go.
For information on the AT, visit whiteblaze.net.