Trail magic is an integral part of hiking culture, based on strangers helping strangers in the wild.
Within the thru-hiking community, there is a concept known as trail magic. While there are a variety of interpretations, it generally refers to an unexpected act of kindness experienced while on a trail. What that kindness looks like depends on the person, but it often has a way of showing up the moment when it’s needed the most.
At its core, trail magic represents the very best of what the hiking community can offer by way of making people feel welcome and validated in their experience outside. BRO recently asked hikers from across our region to share their own stories of magic and remind us why we all seek comfort and connection on the trails.
A Familiar Face
When Alexandra Garcia set out to hike all 104 miles of the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park in 60 hours or less, she knew it would be a challenge, physically and mentally. Committed to undertaking difficult pursuits, whether they ended in triumph or defeat, Garcia completed her section hike in August of last year to help raise awareness and money for the Cairn Project’s Allies in the Outdoors fundraising campaign.
It was on her second day of the hike, which ended up being her most difficult, that she encountered a little trail magic that had her asking, “Am I hallucinating?” Having gotten a later start than she originally planned, Garcia could tell she was starting to stress about the timing. When she passed by another solo hiker going in the other direction, they politely said hello and continued on their separate ways.
About 2.5 hours later, Garcia passed the same man, once again hiking in the opposite direction and exchanging pleasantries. “I kept thinking about him this time,” she said. “I was really confused about this. Is this me? Am I dreaming this?” But it wasn’t until she came upon the same hiker for a third time that she stopped and stared. “He cracks a smile and says, ‘Keep up the good work,’” Garcia said.
It was at this point she asked the hiker how it was possible they had crossed paths three times, each walking in opposite directions, over the course of one day. The man then explained that he was spending the day hiking sections of the A.T. and then cycling to another spot to hike again.
While knowing how it happened might have taken some of the mystery out of the experience, Garcia said this strange and magical encounter was just what she needed at the time. “I was completely alone, talking to myself, and, honestly, talking a little bit negatively to myself,” she said.
“In those moments, he was able to bring some type of magic to my life, have me think of something else, and really hang onto those words that he said along the trail.”
This chance encounter with a stranger helped Garcia persevere and better appreciate her experience and surroundings. “People can only learn to love and advocate for the land if they have experiences that make them love that land,” Garcia said. “It’s about exposure, community, and belonging.”
Defining Trail Magic: “I experience trail magic in a multitude of ways, not only from people but also from nature itself,” Garcia said. “Magic, for me, sometimes is the early morning sunlight coming through the trees in the Smokies or catching a good, safe wildlife sighting.”
Favorite Hike: Riprap Loop in Shenandoah National Park and hikes off the Blue Ridge Parkway, especially Apple Orchard Falls.
Growing up near the Appalachian Trail, memories of trail magic were ingrained in Sarah Silvius at a young age. Riding the bus to school, she recalls seeing hikers on the side of the road and locals offering them rides into town. Years later, Silvius and her husband, Cass, moved right next to the Tuscarora Trail because they couldn’t pull themselves away from the hiking community.
Combining her love of hiking and cooking, Silvius decided she wanted to start putting together recipes and selling homemade freeze-dried meals, food that would help remind hikers of home. “I wanted them to remember sitting at their grandma’s table,” Silvius said.
When the pandemic hit, a lot of the plans for getting the business off the ground were put on hold. While submitting applications and waiting for USDA approval, the Silvius family pivoted to start offering the meals for free to hikers. At this point, they’ve fed close to 500 hikers with homemade dishes like cheesy-style shrimp and grits and Caribbean smoked chicken with dirty rice and cabbage. With people reaching out on Instagram and Facebook, they’ve dropped meals off locally and shipped as far away as Japan. Silvius said they hope to start offering TrailBound for sale this fall.
The Silvius family also regularly cruises trailheads and shelters to see if any hikers need anything during their journey.
“We recently came across an older gentleman at a shelter. He had been there for two and a half days,” Silvius said. “His knee had given out, he had no cell service, no way of getting ahold of his wife or his family. He was considering having to call in the paramedics or rescue squad. We were able to feed him that evening and then get him down off the trail the next morning.”
But in the universal law of “what goes around comes around,” Silvius said she’s been on the receiving end of trail magic more times than she could count. On a recent section hike, feeling exhausted and bedraggled, a man driving past offered to pick something up for her group.
“He drove to a store and came back with a twelve pack,” Silvius said. “We were able to share it amongst an entire group of hikers. Everybody sat and had a cold beer after a very long day with no expectations from him other than enjoy.”
Defining Trail Magic: “Trail magic can be a lot of different things but I would say it’s mostly a feeling,” Silvius said.
Favorite Hike: The Silvius family maintains a shelter on the Tuscarora Trail where it runs through their backyard. Established as an alternate route to the A.T., it runs 252 miles through Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
After coming across her first instance of trail magic during her 2021 thru-hike attempt, Nadia Fenay was nearly moved to tears. A woman who goes by “Marlene the Trail Angel” provided drinks, snacks, a gear resupply, and a poem she’d written herself.
“It was right on time because I was one day away from town and completely out of food,” Fenay said. “There’s a saying, ‘the trail provides,’ and it was proven true again and again.”
Small, personal gestures like this helped sustain Fenay throughout her journey. “Anyone who is thinking about doing a thru-hike or long section hike, don’t put it off any longer,” she said. “Don’t make excuses. I went out and completed 1,025 miles with absolutely no hiking experience. I saw people twice my age every day. It was without a doubt the best experience I’ve ever had.”
Defining Trail Magic: “Trail magic is any form of kindness shown towards hikers,” Fenay said. “It could be snacks or hot food, a cooler full of drinks, a ride to town, or someone picking up your tab when you get a meal in town.”
Favorite Hike: Fenay is looking forward to hiking sections of the A.T. and other trails through the Smoky Mountains.
Lending a Hand
Jeremiah Johnson has been an avid student of the A.T. for years, completing solo section hikes, reading thru-hiker memoirs, and following hikers on social media channels. This year, the Sutton family caught his eye as they attempted to hike the entire trail with their five-year-old son.
In keeping up with the family’s account and offering encouraging words on social media, a type of virtual trail magic, Johnson thought about other ways he could possibly offer support.
“It’s like everything else in life,” he said. “We don’t get by on our own. Helping hands can help get us there.”
When he met up with the Sutton family as they were making their way through West Virginia, one thing he made sure to pack was fresh fruit. “Fresh fruit was like a luxury,” Johnson said. “When you’re eating a lot of dehydrated meals and Cliff bars, it was nice to get something else.”
While out on the trail, solitude is a good thing. But when you’re alone or with the same people day in and day out, encouraging words or a snack from a stranger can go a long way. “Simple acts of kindness can sometimes remind us and center us,” Johnson said.
These sentiments, Johnson said, should extend to the trail as well. Kindness can be given to natural spaces via trail maintenance projects or advocating for environmental protections. “We need to be careful about loving the trails to death,” he said. “It’s a balancing act. Too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing.”
Defining Trail Magic: “Unexpected, unasked ways to help out. It kind of renews my feelings about humanity,” Johnson said. “You’re doing things not really expecting anything in return.”
Favorite Hike: Some of Johnson’s favorites include the Roan Highlands on the North Carolina-Tennessee border and the Foothills Trail in South Carolina, but he’s always seeking out new spots. “There’s always another place to see or another season to see it,” he said.
On the Road
As the chief hiking officer for Devils Backbone Brewing Company, Kristen Musselman spent six months this year traveling and hiking around the East Coast. Although the original plan was to complete an A.T. thru-hike, the pandemic forced her to reimagine the position.
Instead, she camped and hiked some of the more overlooked trails in each of the 14 states the A.T. runs through. “Getting into nature forces me to slow down in a way that really makes me settle and become more aware of myself, of my patterns, of my thoughts, but also the rhythms of the natural world,” Musselman said. “I think we, unfortunately, are stuck. We don’t know how to read those rhythms and be really intentional about it.”
Along the way, Musselman gave and received both micro and macro acts of kindness on the trail.
“It’s been really beautiful to have a time in my life where I’m alone and never know what’s going to happen next,” she said. “Yet, in the act of trusting that things are going to be okay, there’s this deep sense of when we trust that the beauty is all around us, that actually does show up.”
Driving around the region gave Musselman the opportunity to carry beer and soda in her trunk to share, offer rides into town, and cover more ground. Since she was faster in a car, she actually found herself running into a handful of hikers state after state. “I kept seeing the same people,” Musselman said. “Getting to be a consistent light in their journey this summer, for me, felt like a really cool gift that I got to give to them.”
In all of her time spent alone and interacting with other hikers, Musselman had the opportunity to really examine the relationships all around her. Trail magic helped shape some of those thoughts. “How can I take this from hiking to everyday life?” she frequently asked herself. “How can I look at the world with open eyes as to where there’s a need and how can I fill it? Where’s the kindness that I can take to somebody else today?”
Defining Trail Magic: “It comes without expectations of getting anything back,” Musselman said. “I don’t know that we live in a culture where we often see that.”
Favorite Hike: Some of Musselman’s favorite stops from her journey include the Art Loeb Trail in North Carolina, Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia, the Long Trail in Vermont, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
A Place to Stay
Jess Weaver knows firsthand the healing power hiking can have for the mind and body. After undergoing a full spinal reconstruction, she turned to trails to start building up her strength. “I felt so much pride in what I was able to accomplish after years of not being able to use my body,” Weaver said.
Although she grew up by the A.T., Weaver was unaware of the thru-hiking culture until an old friend messaged her in 2019 about helping transport some gear. Since then, she has assisted dozens of hikers by offering shuttles, space to camp in her backyard, and food.
Although there have been many meaningful and magical encounters along the way, she recalls one group that took the time to truly interact and connect with her kids. The night ended with everyone on her porch listening to a song the hikers made up on the spot. “It was so cute and adorable to watch,” Weaver said. “There’s so much going on, especially in recent years with tension and turmoil that it’s just so heartwarming to bring perfect strangers back to your house and have your children see a genuine interaction, kindness, appreciation, gratefulness, and fun.” These positive interactions help keep them curious and encourage them to be kind to people they don’t know.
The kindness came around a few weeks later when Weaver ended up with a serious infection from a spider bite. The hikers staying with her at the time banded together to get her to the emergency room, clean her house, write her get well notes, and get each other back to the trail. “They just jumped into action, took care of me and each other,” Weaver said.
With trail magic, a lot of interactions come down to trust and being comfortable accepting help from strangers, something not everyone feels out on the trail.
“It’s definitely impressed upon me the importance of providing the space on trails that feels safe for everyone out there and expands the comfort of people of all sexualities and races to get out there and have this journey themselves,” Weaver said. “Trail magic shouldn’t be reserved for a specific group of people.”
Defining Trail Magic:
“It doesn’t have to be huge gestures,” Weaver said. “I think the real magic is in those tiny gestures and not knowing what kind of big impact that small gesture makes on a hiker’s journey, whether it’s a day trip or a thru hike.”
Have your own story of magic from the trail? Email the author at [email protected] and we will share our favorites on Instagram throughout the month.
Cover photo: Alexandra Garcia and her dog, Mooch, at Max Patch on the North Carolina-Tennessee border. Photo courtesy of Garcia