Trail Angels

I spend a lot of time talking about hiking on this blog. While that provides a cathartic exercise for me, I hope those of you reading are able to take something from it as well. If you’re a fellow hiking enthusiast you probably enjoy hearing of trail related escapades and my stories might trigger reflection of your own. If you’re someone who hasn’t spent a lot of time in the woods, I hope these posts will open your imagination to the possibilities, and perhaps give you a glimpse at the fascinating subculture that exists within the hiking community. With that in mind, I devoted an earlier entry to discussion on the concept of Trail Names. Today I would like to introduce a new topic: Trail Angels.

A trail angel is someone who selflessly volunteers their services to tend to hikers needs, improve their experience, and see them on their way. There is profound mutual respect between these factions of the hiking community. Hikers hold trail angels in the highest of reverence. They provide integral support in overcoming the challenges of long distance travel, and offer compassionate gestures that enhance the overall magic of the journey with renewed faith in the potential of humankind. Trail angels, through their actions, reciprocate an appreciation for the undertaking, and the spirit that leads individuals afoot in pursuit of their dreams.

Trail angels can assume different forms in level of commitment, but share a common moral fiber in their willingness to assist strangers in need. Along paths such as the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest, there exists a phenomenal network of angels, legendary for their service to the hiking community. These individuals open their homes providing showers, laundry, and a place to stay to hikers eager for a brief respite from the trail. Other times, angels are those who take on simple tasks. Often trail enthusiasts or former hikers looking to give back; these people are in tune to the annual flow of trail use and leave gifts such as food or a cooler of soda in conspicuous locations along the path. Some will post their contact information at trail heads, offering rides or other means of assistance.

Yet still there exists a third breed of trail angel; those whose halos are acquired through spontaneous acts of kindness. These people may not be fixtures in broader hiking circles, and as result don’t often get their due; but for those of us they’ve reached, their actions are every bit as significant.

As I wrote in an entry a few days back, in October 2009 I attempted to hike across Maine on the Appalachian Trail. It was one of the most rewarding and challenging ventures of my hiking career, and one that ended a bit sooner than anticipated due to injury. After developing a probable stress fracture on the trail, I limped my way to the next road and managed to hitch a ride to the nearby town of Andover. There I was able to hole up and rest for a few days, but still had to figure how to go about getting myself home. I’d already purchased a ticket for a flight out of Boston, and could take a bus from Gorham, New Hampshire to the airport. That had been the plan all along. However, I’d also intended to hike into Gorham. Unable to walk, I now had to rely on my thumb.

As luck would have it, the woman living next door the hostel was driving down to Bethel, Maine that Friday morning and offered to take me as far. She could drop me off along Highway 2, twenty miles east of Gorham. I gratefully accepted, but before we left made a few preparations for the trip.

The first order of business was making a sign. Hitch hiking can be difficult in this day and age. It’s hard enough standing at a trailhead trying to reach the closest town for resupply. Remove yourself a little farther from the trail, as I now would be, and you distance yourself from those familiar with the practice. In the eyes of passing motorists you’re no longer a hiker seeking a quick lift. You’re cause for suspicion, and to some, more a reason to accelerate than to stop. Sometimes you can alleviate this concern by making your intentions known. Taking a marker to my mud stained Tyvek ground cloth, I sketched “HIKER TO GORHAM” in bold black print, hoping the clarification might increase my odds.

My second focus was an effort to secure my most important personal belongings. Hitch hiking can be precarious on both ends. Not only does the person offering a ride chance opening their door to someone of bad intent, the hitch hiker risks the same. While I have met dozens of truly wonderful people in my forays to and from town, there have also been a few sketchy encounters. You just never know, and I’ve taken to the practice of always being ready in case I need to bale.

With this in mind, I sorted the few items I couldn’t bear to lose. I took my hike journals and a full photo memory card and placed them in a Ziplock bag to carry in the side cargo pocket of my pants. With them, I included eighty dollars- the majority of my cash, and a credit card. This way, if someone demanded my wallet I wouldn’t be shanghaied without funds for the trip home. I slid my camera with the remainder of my photos in my other pocket. Everything else was stored away in my pack. I’d hate to lose my gear, but was determined to protect what was irreplaceable.

Friday morning came. As promised the neighbor picked me up and took me as far as she would go. We pulled over at the junction with Highway 2, and as I opened the door to climb out she jokingly offered to check on me later in the afternoon. I hoped it wouldn’t come to that. It was a cold and drizzly October morn, and the prospect of standing roadside all day was possible, but a bit unsettling. I said thanks, closed the door, and turned to my pack to dig out my sign. Surprisingly, I would never get the chance to use it. Before my first ride had so much as driven out of sight, the second miraculously arrived.

A lone woman eased off to the shoulder and asked if I needed a lift. That never happens. Not only was she the first car to come along, I don’t think I so much as raised a thumb. I told her I was going to Gorham, and she happily said to get in. She introduced herself as Robin, and explained she’d stopped because she saw my pack.

“My dad taught me that,” she said. “He spent a lot of time hitch hiking to the White Mountains in his younger days, and always told me to pick up hikers and skiers when I can.”

I was instantly grateful that her father had taught her well.

Robin was on her way to the Whites for a weekend adventure of her own. She was meeting a friend to go on a birthday hike, a tradition they had enjoyed every year since college. In the warmth of her company I immediately dropped my guard, and we spent the ride swapping stories from the trail. When we got to Gorham, Robin asked where she could leave me. I told her I planned to stay at the local hiker hostel, but it was still too early to check in. She agreed, and left me at a restaurant downtown.

It was about fifteen minutes later as I sat eating breakfast, still amazed at the ease by which I had arrived; that I realized there was something missing. My pack was there underneath the table. My camera was in my pocket and wallet was in place. Sliding my hand down my leg, however, drove my heart through my stomach. The cargo pocket was empty. My journals were gone!

Jumping up I quickly retraced my steps- the order counter, bathroom, out to the parking lot where Robin dropped me off. Nothing. I frantically returned to my pack, thinking just maybe I had slid the baggie in there and forgotten. Of course not. It was gone. I grew increasingly ill at the realization at all I had lost. The money and credit card part sucked, but what killed me were those tangible recordings of the hike. The photo card contained all of my images from the first half of the trip. I’d gotten some great shots that I’d been really excited to share. And the journals: well, they were more than daily musings. Part of the reason I’d come on this hike was I’ve long wanted to write a book about my first experience, a few years prior, on the AT. In those earliest struggles, I hadn’t done a very good job of noting the external details of the trail. With this opportunity at a second look, I had taken page after page of detailed description relating to the forest and terrain. While this hike had been a good experience, my reconnaissance was gone.

I left the restaurant and spent some time pacing the streets of Gorham, beside myself with grief. I wasn’t even sure when the bag had fallen from my pocket. Part of me suspected it had been during the first ride, and I still had the number of the lady from Andover. I called and left her a message, begging her to check her van.

There was also the possibility that it had fallen out beside the road between rides. I seriously considered trying to hitch back to that point, but knew that might take all day. I thought of trying to rent a car, but couldn’t really afford that either. The chance that I would actually find my things at the road junction was pretty slim, and with a call home to Cris I was rationalized into letting that prospect go.

The only other place I could have lost the items would have been in Robin’s car. Just a passing acquaintance, we’d barely exchanged first names. There was absolutely no reason to think I would ever see her again.

That afternoon I checked into the hostel. I was so disgusted with myself I could hardly stand it. How could I manage to lose the one thing I had taken the greatest measures to hold onto? Why hadn’t I buttoned that cargo pocket? Why didn’t I check before leaving each ride? I tried repeatedly through the evening to reach the woman from Andover. She never answered, and my messages were never returned. I went to bed and had a fitful sleep. The next morning, despite my aching leg, I went for a walk through Gorham to try and clear my mind.

A couple hours later I returned to the hostel, and found a note stuck in the door. It said for me to come to the front desk, so I hobbled down the stairs to see why. The owner told me a woman had called, asking if they had any hikers staying there. I was the only one. I was presented a scrap of paper with a hand jotted phone number the caller had left. In disbelief I dialed, and heard a vaguely familiar voice on the other end.

“Hello…”

It was Robin! I told her who I was, and she laughed and asked if I’d lost anything. Sure enough, the journals had fallen out in her car. She’d remembered me saying that I might stay at the hostel, and took the initiative to track me down. She was going to be coming back through Gorham on Sunday afternoon, and agreed to drop them off with me then.

Needless to say, I was overwhelmed. This woman who didn’t know a single thing about me had not only helped by providing a ride, she was now proving to be my saving grace in returning those cherished possessions. When she found that crumpled Ziplock in the seat of her car with some meager cash and tattered notebooks, she could have easily chalked it up as my loss. Instead, she realized that they might have some meaning to that wayward hiker she had driven  into Gorham. She took time out of her own trip to try and see that I got them back. She didn’t have any reason other than it being the right thing to do.

That, my friends, is the epitome of a trail angel.

Robin met me Sunday at the hostel on her way back through town. I tried, most likely in vain, to impress upon her how much her gesture meant; and how eternally grateful to her I was. I’m the type of person who doesn’t collect possessions; but my experiences, and the associated photographs and writings, absolutely mean the world. Being the amazing person that she is, Robin shrugged it off and told me it wasn’t a  problem at all. We exchanged email, I said a few more thank you’s, and she got in her car to drive back to Maine. I caught my bus the next morning and made a happy trip home to Iowa; complete with my writings and the temporarily “lost” photos you see here.

 

Thank you again, Robin, ever so much. You embody the kindness and spirit of the hiking community, and will always be an angel to me…

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