The origins of trail magic
The term “trail magic” was coined by thru-hikers to describe small, unexpected, remarkable events that lifted a hiker’s spirits and inspired awe or gratitude. “Trail magic” came in two forms: The magic created by nature, and the magic created by the kindness of strangers. Nature might offer magic in the glimpse of a black bear and her cubs or a hail storm that held off until the safety of a shelter was reached. Acts of kindness by strangers might include a family in a state park offering to share its picnic with a passing hiker, or a trail neighbor handing out cookies to hikers on a road walk.
The expansion of trail magic
For thru-hikers, trail magic is such a memorable part of the A.T. experience that they often return to the Trail and create more “magic” for the next year’s thru-hikers, often by handing out food and drinks or leaving it along the Trail. In time, doing trail magic has become popular with those who admire thru-hikers and want to hear their stories. Offerings have expanded from small picnics to multi-day “feeds.”
Unintended consequences of trail magic
As trail magic has changed in size and scope, some unintended consequences have occurred. Some of the “magic” enjoyed by thru-hikers later ends up as unsightly trash to be cleaned up and carried out by volunteer trail maintainers or other hikers. Food left unattended creates the possibility for harming or habituating wildlife. Eventually, a hiker may come to expect trail magic or may encounter it so frequently that it ceases to be meaningful. And, the plastic cooler or party that is a welcome sight for some, may, for others, detract from the sense of remoteness and self-sufficiency that the Appalachian Trail was created to provide.
The best way to do trail magic
Keep it small. Check with the land-managing agency to find out what regulations apply, or hold your activity away from the Trail. Be sure to remove any trash and leftovers. Better yet, do the ultimate trail magic: Become an A.T. volunteer.
Ultimate Trail Magic
The magic that is the Appalachian Trail would not exist without the work of volunteers. Essentially, they create the experience of the Trail and are the ultimate “trail angels.” Volunteers give up their weekends and vacations year-round to make sure the A.T. footpath is in good shape and its surrounding wild and pastoral lands are protected from an increasing number of threats. The Trail and its corridor lands require many hours of volunteer work, and more help is always needed. The best way to help preserve and enhance the A.T. experience for current and future hikers is to become a volunteer (http://www.appalachiantrail.org/volunteer).
Thank you for the comment on our Grandma Gatewood site. When I learned about the concept of trail magic I knew this was the positive thread that connects hikers today with emma’s hike in 1955. I am certain that the good intent is what allows this magic to be felt by so many.
Love the term “trail magic”. And I enjoy your writing.
Oh how did I miss this post! Of course near where I live (Tennessee) the AT is a popular place. I have a Trail Magic story from many years ago, while driving near Elizabethton, TN my friend and I spotted a hiker who had come off the trail for a day (the trail there crossed a major road at the time) and we stopped and offered him a ride and bought him lunch and put him back out at the next trail head. I was 18 at the time and his stories told over burgers and fires at a little diner in a small town have stuck with me and ever since I have dreamed of a thru hike…maybe someday. But for now whenever I am on a local part of the AT I always offer something to the thru hikers. Its just good Karma baby!
Absolutely! Thanks for the story.