By 9 a.m., the Reeds Gap parking lot was full.
Road cyclists whizzed past the Jeep as I pulled into the grass alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway. Already, the sun was beating down from a cloudless sky, scorching the overgrown grass and pavement. It was going to be a hot one.
Our group of 14 trail angels crowded behind the car, unloading food from Trader Joe’s and packing my IceMule Coolers to the brim with beverages and ice. We scouted out a flat parcel of land beside the trail and split the group in two, half to man the trail magic site and the other half to spread the word along the trail.
By 9:15 a.m., we had our first hiker.
He said his name was Hook and he was averaging 33 miles per day. His ÜLA pack, which looked to weigh no more than 15 pounds, was cinched tight against his slim frame. He was young but soft spoken and serious, his face red from the exertion of cranking out eight miles up a mountain before breakfast.
“Do you need any socks?” I asked, handing him a brand new pair of mid-weight hikers from Farm To Feet.
“No thanks,” he said.
“Would you like a sandwich? A burger? We’ve got veggies and hummus,” I continued.
“I’m good,” he said, sitting down in an empty lawn chair.
I didn’t understand. Didn’t everyone love free stuff? Weren’t thru-hikers notoriously always hungry? I had many friends who had thru-hiked before, and they never declined food. They ate, even when they weren’t hungry. I stood, dumbfounded, searching for what to offer our crusty guest next.
“How about a cold one?” Brian, one of the trail angels, said, handing him a beer. The corners of Hook’s mouth lifted into a semblance of a smile. He accepted the beer and settled against the back of the chair.
For a long time, he was silent, slowly sipping and nibbling on a cookie I’d forced him to take. He answered our trail angels’ inquiries politely but with very few words and always in that same serious, quiet tone. Eventually another hiker appeared down the trail, and then another, and another. Our trail angels turned their attention to the newcomers, as did I, but I kept Hook in the corner of my eye as I moved through the crowd of sweaty bodies and loaded packs.
While the other hikers mingled and socialized over burgers and pop, Hook sat there, soaking it all in. Hikers from every walk of life, every age, every nationality (even two from Germany) gathered alongside the white blaze, jovially recounting the past 800-some miles they’d hiked. Most had risen early to make the 22-mile trek to Waynesboro, where a Chik-fil-A awaited their ravenous appetites.
Finally, Hook stood to shoulder his pack again. I thought for sure he’d walk away down the trail without ever saying a word, but he stood there, scratching his head and fidgeting with the chest strap of his pack.
“Hey,” he said as I approached him. He cleared his throat. “Thank you. For all of this.”
My heart swelled. Having never organized a trail magic event by myself, I was unsure of what to expect. The night before, I had stayed up baking cookies until 2 a.m. for a crowd of hikers that may or may not pass my way. In those wee hours of the morning, as I wearily slid round five of double chocolate chip cookies into the oven, (yes, I had to borrow somebody’s), I started to wonder why I was even doing this in the first place.
But Hook’s ‘thank you’ was the answer I was looking for. The magic of trail magic is that it’s a small act of kindness. It’s not a grand monetary donation. It’s not some heroic act of humanitarianism aimed at solving world peace. But it’s real and it’s simple and that day, I can proudly say that my group of trail angels and I showed nearly 20 hikers how far a little kindness and a cheeseburger can get you.
I’m a hugger by nature, but resisted the urge to wrap Hook in a bear hug and simply nodded and smiled.
Hikers in order from top left corner, by row – Smoke Break, Atlanta, Ga.; Papillion, Rhode Island; Funk, Salt Lake City, Utah; Hyrobics, Chico, Cali.; Neon, Massachussetts; Cheff, Harpers Ferry, W.Va.; Shit to Do, Missoula, Mont.; Six Strings, Berlin, Germany