Janet Hensley has a lifetime of experience helping Appalachian Trail thru-hikers
Janet Hensley grew up just outside of Erwin, Tenn., near the Appalachian Trail. When she was a kid, her mother fed passing hikers, and although folks in town never “really knew or understood what we were doing” the acts of kindness resonated deeply with Hensley, who’s now better known to the A.T. hiking community as “Miss Janet.”
From a young age Hensley keenly observed how the trail brings people together from all parts of the world, and that communal spirit inspired her to continue helping thru-hikers complete the 2,200-mile A.T. She now spends up to nine months a year living in her van, a sticker-covered passenger vehicle called the “Bounce Box,” donating her time as a devoted trail angel, often transporting thru-hikers from trailheads to hostels.
New groups of thru-hikers typically start their journey in the spring at Georgia’s Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the A.T. As they begin the arduous trek north towards Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, Hensley, who previously owned a hiker hostel before transitioning to van life, can be found roaming nearby, ready to give worn-out backpackers a ride to a trailside town for rest and hot meals.
After many years of practicing trail magic—providing generous gestures to help keep hikers moving—Henlsey has observed thru-hikers underestimating the rigors of living in the woods for an estimated six months. So the best way to provide assistance varies.
“Trail magic can be anything that makes you happy or that gives you something that you needed, and you didn’t know you needed (it),” she said. Whether that is a “rainbow, water, shelter, a ride to town, you’re going to know when you got it.”
Hensley also tries to educate hikers about proper trail etiquette. Since the start of the pandemic, national parks have become extremely overcrowded, stressing natural resources with litter and congestion, so Hensley gives inexperienced people on the trail tips on how to properly clean up their campsites or dispose of waste.
“Leave no trace is a big issue,” she said. “When you’re out there you (eventually) realize you aren’t visiting the woods, you are living in the woods. Then you realize the respect and simplicity that becomes integrated in your daily life, and you make better choices for the environment.”
While she spends much of her time in service to others, Henlsey admits that being near the A.T. is where she feels most comfortable, revealing, “I only feel normal when I am in the woods.” And while the world grapples with divisive discord, she says the hikers she meets on the A.T. help restore her faith in humanity, adding they’re “amazing, grateful, humble, enthusiastic, and vastly entertaining”.
Photo courtesy of Janet Hensley