It’s 92 degrees out. You’ve hiked 14 miles already, up and down mountains and hopping rock to rock like a childhood game of ‘don’t touch the lava.’ You’re sweaty, hungry, water is running low and morale even lower. All of a sudden, you come to a gap, and there’s a cooler waiting for you, filled with ice cold water and soda.
When we think of ‘trail magic,’ a scenario similar to this is most likely what is conjured up. It could be a stranger grilling burgers for you in a parking lot, a free shuttle, a single candy bar offered up, or even someone packing your trash out for you on the way back to their car (carrying wrappers for 5 days can be more annoying than you may think). One time, I came to a one-room school house that had boxes marked for hikers, absolutely filled with bug spray, sunscreen, batteries, ziplock bags, snacks, and anything else you could think of. These kind, and typically unexpected, gestures truly can brighten a hiker’s entire day. Week, even. And we talk for a long time amongst each other about a 12-pack left on the side of the road, or fresh oranges offered to us.
But in addition to these forms of trail magic, there’s something else that happens when you hike the Appalachian Trail. I know, we’re spoiled. It’s a little bit harder to explain; it’s the more random, peculiar, serendipitous occurrences. The stuff that gives you goosebumps. The moments that make you pause, process, and then just come up with an inadequate ‘woah.’
In real life, you probably know what this looks like. It’s thinking of a song and then hearing it play through the car speaker, missing someone and then waking up to a text message from them the next day. My friend once desperately wanted to go to a concert, but couldn’t afford the ticket; that night at work, she made the exact amount in waitressing money.
On the trail, it may look like coming across a beautiful spring when the guidebook said there wasn’t water for 5 more miles. A hiker told me that once he was days away from town without a pack liner and the weather called for thunder storms. The next day in a shelter, he found a perfect, seemingly unused contractor bag. Last week, I realized I was way overdue to spray my things with tick-repellent. When I got to Daleville, there was a brand new unopened bottle of Permethrin in the hiker box.
So, with that long introduction, I want to tell a quick, very special story that recently happened to me: I’ll start by saying that I haven’t seen my older brother since Christmas. It was going to be a long time before I saw him again, because he is currently off on his own adventure, touring the United States with a goal of visiting all the national parks and hiking every state’s highest peak. A few days ago, he was driving his van to surprise me in Waynesboro, Virginia. We keep in touch, and I had mentioned that I was going there to resupply.
Meanwhile, my hiking partner and I had stopped at the Devil’s Backbone, a brewery pretty close to the trail. We had originally made plans to make it there the night before, but decided to stretch the mileage out a little bit. Then, we debated even stopping at all, but ultimately took the ‘why not’ route.
After our meal, we got a hitch from the brewery and returned to the dense woods. A mile in or so, the trail opened up to a gap. We were about to cross the road and re-enter the forest, but decided to take a quick water break. I was sitting with my eyes closed, hoping my food would miraculously digest, when my friend yelled, ‘Michael!’
It may be a helpful bit of information to know that that’s my older brother’s name. I looked up to see a red van with Maine license plates, and his equally surprised face. It turns out that he had been driving to the hotel in Waynesboro, and decided to take an alternative route from the GPS.
If you think about the odds of us meeting in this 5-minute window, it’s actually pretty spectacular. If we hadn’t eaten at the brewery, or if we had stayed longer there, if we had showed up to the gap 5 minutes earlier or 5 minutes later, if we had gotten a different hitch, if Mike had taken the route the GPS had instructed, or if he hadn’t stopped to get gas before. Any little factor could have thrown it off. And yeah, I would have seen him the next day in town anyway for the original planned surprise, but this coincidence (if you want to call it that) added a whole new element of crazy unexpectedness.
Trail angels performing incredible acts of service for hikers truly is a blessing. A stranger helping you out will never get old. But there’s something that just touches your soul when amazing things happen that humans simply have no control over. Two siblings from Maine, with unique plans to travel and hike and explore, ran into each other on the side of the road with a 5-minute window in a small town in Virginia. How’s that for trail magic?