"When I go to cross that river, she is comfort by my side
When I try to understand, she just opens up her hands."
Eddie Vedder, "Hard Sun"
Talk to any thru-hiker about Trail Magic, and they will immediately regale you with tales of Chips Ahoy and hotdogs cooked up by some kindhearted Trail Angels, the wildly generous humans who gravitate to the Trail for the soul purpose of helping – feeding, lifting, even massaging – hikers. There is a special place in whatever-heaven for these people.
The tales will always bring a spark to the eye of the hiker. The incidents of Trail Magic that stick to memory are especially delightful or surprising, and are often revealed on a day that was particularly grueling or morale was particularly low.
The term doesn't always mean Surprise Food, though. Food is only one way that Trail Magic comes into the life of a hiker and, by extension, to every person under the sun. As above, so below. Universal laws. Hitherto-forth when I am talking about a Hiker -- I'm talking about you, too. That's the way it works.
Once, at the top of a steep section of trail in New York, my foot suddenly caught between two rocks. The rest of me kept on going - as the crow flies, if the crow is wearing a 30 pound pack. It was one of those falls where I had time to think, "Aw, shit. This is going to hurt." and, as I tumbled, "Hm. Wonder if I'll stop." Luckily, literally everything I owned was cushioning my back half, so I crashed -- relatively unscathed -- some fifteen feet down the hill. I lay there, in a heap, shaking and catching my breath. My entire 25 years had passed before my eyes. Physically, I felt more-or-less unscathed, but in the brutal August heat, the fall had crushed my morale. Broken my spirits.
My pack was heavy, and felt like the weight of the world. I was borderline existential. It wasn't until I stood again that I realized my bladder had been punctured – Camelbak, not internal organ. I had just filled it up at a stream, so a full two liters of water had exploded over everything in my pack. The water cascaded down the backs of my legs and I cursed. Ah, there they were: the tears.
When you cry as much as I do (which, believe me, is a great deal), you begin to really appreciate the nuances of crying. Some tears are thick, viscous, and sting. Some are like water, all teardrops and snotdrops. Some fill your eyes and blind you, but never fall. This is a quick and certainly not exhaustive list; At this point, I could write an entire book on the subject. Today’s tears in particular fell into the third category. They filled my eyes and I suddenly couldn't see the forest through the trees. The world became pixelated, like I was seeing at 800% zoom on a grainy photograph. To my eyes, there was just the glare of the sun, the varied shades of green.
"This is a weird place to take a break," a voice said. I looked up to find the kind, smiling eyes of Bengal John. Trail buddy. Good dude.
"I fell," I said. I was just starting to notice how much my shoulder hurt. It was scraped pretty badly, already starting to bruise.
"Shit. You okay?"
"My bladder popped, so it soaked-" I started.
Then, I remembered.
While I was packing up that morning, stuffing everything in its proper place, some still, quiet thought made itself aware to me. It told me to put all my things into the thick black garbage bags I use to keep everything dry. It hadn't rained in weeks -- the bags in question had fallen into disuse at the bottom of my pack. But for some reason, this particular morning, I had packed everything up tight. "Wait. Never mind. I'm good, actually."
At the bottom of the hill, at a road crossing, Bengal John and I found a cooler of Trail Magic. It was mostly empty, save for a Sprite. I gave it to Bengal John. Just then, a woman in a van pulled up alongside us.
"Here! That must be empty. Have some fruit," the woman said. She reached across the passenger seat with apples, bananas. God, wow. Thank you.
As we sat there enjoying our snack -- one I could happily enjoy, with my restrictive diet -- my spirits started to lift. At the crest of the next hill, we came upon a group of hikers. Woobie, Gilligan, Sir Teensy of the Woods.
"I thought you were right behind me," said Teensy. He looked worried.
"I fell, and my bladder popped," I said, sitting down with a sigh. I knew the wave of empathy was coming. Teensy is always good for a wave of empathy. The gentle giant.
"Well, hey! I've got an extra!" piped Woobie. He started to rifle through his pack.
With that, for the third time in less than a month, I had replacement gear in my hands just after mine had exploded, accidentally been incinerated (my empty food bag), or left behind (my golden spork). The exact thing I needed appeared in the generous hands of someone had just happened to find it the day before, or just happened to have been carrying for two hundred miles. It was uncanny.
And this, dear Hiker, is my point.
The Trail has got your back.
When you think you're alone and you have to fend for yourself, that is the time to be vulnerable. That is the time to break yourself open. You never know who has the answer you seek, the object you need, or what-have-you. Trail Magic comes in the form of literally anything. Anything that is fortuitous and unforseen. Be it wind in your sails or a shocking intervention, a chance meeting, a handout from nowhere and everywhere at once.
Trail Magic isn't restricted to working in ways that are linear and obvious. Sometimes it's the quiet little voice of your inner guru, a snippet of conversation you happened to tune into, or a story you've been told a thousand times. Our only task, as the student, is to quiet the mind enough to notice. To open the eyes to see. To pay attention. To trust.
Once you know this to be true -- or, rather, to have faith that it is true -- you can start to play with it. Life moves with you, on your behalf. Like an ocean cresting underneath your feet, you're able to observe whether or not you're in the "flow" by monitoring the amount of salt water in your mouth.
Earlier this year, I went hiking alone to polish up some miles I missed during my thru hike. I was somewhere between the Roller Coaster and Shenandoah when I stopped off at a hostel near the trail. I was told there was a fridge full of Trail Magic in the form of tacos. Tacos! Fresh lettuce, beans, rice, chicken, and the best salsa I've ever tasted. After four days of hiking and eating instant mashed potatoes, it was everything.
Happy to help them clear out a Honeybee-sized portion (which is twice a regular-person portion), I found myself sitting with a guy named Rusty. Rusty was an older dude, a NOBO who was super knowledgeable about wildflowers. He gifted me a couple of strawberries, and I tucked them into my food bag where they wouldn't get crushed. We got into a deep conversation about foraging, and I taught him about a couple of the edible mushrooms I know. Particular favorites, which are super distinct, Lion's Mane up north and Chicken of the Woods.
As I hiked up the next mountain, I kept my eyes peeled for flashes of orange. I really, really wanted some Chicken of the Woods. It was a full day, a 21-mile day, broken up by a long break at a sweet picnic spot. (Maybe some of you remember a very-sore yoga flow I did on top of a mountain covered in wildflowers and grass.)
Near the end of the day I stopped to have a snack on a rocky outcropping. Another hiker was sitting there with his cook stove, so I peeled off my shoes and climbed down the cliffs. I wanted to be out of sight so the guy didn't have to watch me suck almond butter out of the fibres of my shirt. It was quiet, with the late-afternoon sun shining and a gentle breeze licking at my clothes and skin. In the deafening silence, he was still forced to listen, though. Hm.
I opened up my food bag and – surprise! Those two strawberries from Rusty I completely forgot. My spot was hit. The day couldn't get better.
As I climbed up the rocks, the other hiker – Rocketman, I learned later – greeted me. "Do you forage?" he asked.
"Funny you should ask," I say.
"Have you ever heard of Chicken of the Woods?" he asks.
"No. Way. YOU FOUND SOME?"
"Yeah, not far from here. There's tons. I can tell you where I found it," he says.
"Is it between here and the next shelter?" I ask. The shelter was my goal for the night, less than two miles South.
"Yep! It's actually on the path down to the next shelter," he says.
The air above me became my punching bag. Chicken of the Woods! My wish was granted!
A few hours later, I was cooking a bunch of hikers a pot of choice edible mushroom. Orange, tender, and remarkably -- well -- chicken-like. Some were reticent to try, but once they were mowing down, they were instant believers. I taught them to identify it, where it typically grows, and how to cook it. Be generous, you know. Pay that shit forward.
Stop and remember a time you were in the flow. Things were going just right; You were in an updraft. It was as if you had a tailwind, and the fish were leaping straight into your boat. It's beyond luck. It feels like a gift.
But c'mon, lady. I mean... We can't exist in that state all the time. We can't spend our entire lives surfing.
But maybe we can.
Maybe by training ourselves to pay attention, to be mindful, we can detect the path. To follow along, step by step, without getting lost , tripping on rocks, or ending up with a mouth full of salt water.
It's not in an effort to avoid difficulties -- grief, loss, and pain are unavoidable. Necessary. We aspiring surfers never seek to experience only the happiness and joys of the world, and gloss over the hard stuff. That's impossible and -- to be honest -- pretty boring after a while. We do, however, learn to avoid unnecessary pain. Jobs that suck, toxic people, behaviors that don't serve us. We do this so that when those big pains happen, we can let them wash over us without fighting. We let it pass through us. We grieve deeply, we let the tears stain our cheeks. We fall into the water and let it baptize us.
We tenderly take care of ourselves. Generosity, love, and all the rest naturally follow.
And when death comes, maybe.... Maybe it's like a poem. The chapters that close, the cycles that repeat. The things that change, the things that stay the same. When death comes, maybe we can open up our arms to receive it.
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