Appalachian Trail Dispatch: Trail Magic

Editor’s Note: Blue Ridge Outdoors contributor Chris Gallaway is currently thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. He will be periodically checking in with BRO and sharing the story of his hike. This is his first dispatch from the A.T. Read his first entry from the trail: A Cold Start.

There are many hard days on the Appalachian Trail, days that end in a feeling of such thorough exhaustion that you can’t imagine going on and a gnawing hunger so deep you think it will never be vanquished. One of the secrets of the trail, though, is that the bottom-scraping lows make life’s luxuries all the more sweet. It’s wonderful how quickly your spirits can be restored upon arriving at the shelter and laying down your pack. Within moments of putting on warm layers and eating a bite of food the day’s trial is washed away, and it all feels worthwhile.

This contrast is made especially vivid when you are blessed with trail magic along the way. Trail magic is the unforeseen help and support provided by others as you make your hike. It can come in the form of a bottle of water offered by a tourist at an overlook, or a back woods-buffet set up by a trail angel who dedicates months of their time to offering support to thru-hikers.

My first experience of trail magic came in Tesnatee Gap, Georgia on Valentine’s Day. My hike that day had unexpectedly grown from seven miles to thirteen, and as I came down to the Gap in a chilly afternoon I was faced with a precipitous climb ahead of me and no water left in my reservoir. Enter “Zipper,” a former thru-hiker who just happened to be setting out on a day-hike as I passed through. Knowing the value of trail magic, Zipper launched into action and scrounged through her car to provide me with a few peanut-butter/chocolate Valentine’s candies and a bottle of water. It was just the kick I needed to get me up the next climb and through the final five miles into my shelter at Low Gap. Moments like that make you so grateful for the generosity of strangers and the close community of support that the Appalachian Trail engenders.

In my first month on the trail I had so many experiences of trail magic: Gary and Lennie who opened their hostel early so that I could come in from a cold snap and sleep by the wood stove on a twelve-degree night, a man named Mike who talked with me over breakfast at the Bearland Grill in Gatlinburg and then quietly picked up my tab as he left the restaurant, trail angel Apple who magically appeared in a tent at Burningtown Gap, offering donuts, coffee, hot dogs, and conversation to anyone who happened to be passing through in late February. But by far the greatest experience of trail magic for me came on a fifteen mile day when I was hiking from Blue Mountain Shelter to Deep Gap.

I had made two long climbs through Unicoi Gap and over Tray Mountain in the morning. In the afternoon the weather alternated between balmy sun and biting wind crashing along the ridge, making it impossible to temperature regulate. At mile seven I felt upbeat and fresh; by mile ten I was whipped and discouraged. Just as the temperature dropped and snow began to fall in the afternoon I came across a hunting dog that had been separated from his pack. He was friendly and began to follow me as I trudged up the trail. The sight of him ambling along ahead of me wagging his tail was welcome distraction—I called him “Gus.” I thought I’d bring him to the shelter with me, help him stay warm through the bitter cold night that was forecast, but I couldn’t help worrying over the fact that I was down to my last dinner and had no surplus food to share.

The day’s hike ended with a terrible climb up Kelly Knob: a sharp point going straight up and down as it appeared on the elevation profile of my map. The wind was blowing away all of my resolve and endurance, and the climb seemed to have no end. I’d saved half of my last Snicker’s bar to feed to Gus when we reached the shelter, but I was so hungry that when we reached the top I waited until the dog was not looking and guiltily scarfed my snack. We made the cold descent down the backside of the knob as the afternoon light dwindled—I prayed there would be someone at the shelter who might have extra food for Gus. When we came to the sign pointing us to Deep Gap Shelter there on the post we found a couple of bags zipped tied with a note: “For the Northbound Hiker and Puppy Dog—Woof Woof!” It was a handful of candy (Skittles and Starburst) and a bag of dog treats. That was a sweet moment and the perfect end to a long day. Gus enjoyed his doggie chews almost as much as I savored my candy, and we settled in to the shelter for one of the coldest nights yet on the Appalachian Trail.

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