On Sunday, I saw a Facebook post from a hiker visiting Damascus, Va., for Trail Days, the annual event celebrating the first wave of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers traipsing through town. It reminded me of what a delight it is to hike among thru-hikers and hear about their experiences. Back in April of 2010, I happened upon a wave of thru-hikers, along with a bit of paternal trail magic, in the Standing Indian area of western North Carolina. So I headed into the Wayback Machine to revisit this magical encounter.
Thursday a week ago, Chuck picked up the phone in his Chicago home. It was his buddy, Stretch.
“What are you doing next week?” Stretch asked. “Wanna go on a road trip?”
Four days later, after loading Stretch’s Chevy Avalanche with an arsenal of groceries and driving 10 hours, the two were standing outside a yellow tent on the Appalachian Trail near Deep Gap, knocking to see if anyone was home. It was 7:30 in the morning.
Is that … my dad? Jaime, one of the occupants, groggily wondered from within. Jaime and her hiking partner/boyfriend Doug were stunned to unzip their tent flap and see their fathers’ grinning faces in the doorway. The two AT thru-hikers were even more stunned when they followed their paternal units the half mile back down to Deep Gap and discovered a truckload of what helps keep thru-hikers plugging along through cold and rain, through heat and ticks, through blisters and debilitating fatigue.
There, on this flat clearing where the AT briefly intersects with civilization via a gravel Forest Service road, was a feast that would unravel the plans, at least for Tuesday, of at least two dozen AT thru-hikers. On the tailgate was a smorgasbord including bagels, oranges, Clif bars, carrots, Tootsie Rolls, Craisins, bananas, homemade chocolate chip cookies (from a friend of Jaime’s in Chicago), M&Ms, juice boxes, tortilla chips, avocados, salted peanuts, pretzels and sandwich rolls. Two coolers held tomatoes, lettuce, ice, Gatorade, cole slaw and potato salad. And on the grill—yes, the grill—was chicken and bacon.
“I wasn’t as well organized as I could have been,” apologized Stretch. “There were a few things I forgot.”
Looking around, that seemed improbable. Like what?
“Well … I forgot plates.”
No one was complaining about the absence of place settings.
“We’ve spent days dreaming of the perfect sandwich,” said thru-hiker Dibbs as he assembled his dream Dagwood.
“Our plan was to get here a day earlier and set up a lemonade stand with fresh-squeezed lemonade,” said Stretch. “We were going to charge 25 cents or a hug.”
That plan got scuttled when the dads discovered the fast-moving Doug and Jaime were ahead of schedule. The dads had been following the couple’s progress via the Spot GPS tracking system the two were carrying.
By 11:30 Tuesday morning, a dozen hikers were partaking in the feast. “Looks like we won’t need to stop for lunch,” said Bimbo, who got his trail name courtesy of the cycling jersey he wore bearing the name of a Mexican bakery.
“I think we’ll be stopping for a lunch nap,” said Dibbs.
Almost as popular as the food was one of the camp chairs the dads brought.
“It feels so good to sit in a chair,” one hiker said. “Hey! You’ve gotta sit in this chair.”
Also popular was another missed component of daily life — a newspaper.
“Some kid was busted for disturbing a school assembly,” one hiker announced to no one in particular. “Can you believe that?”
Despite the morning hour, the Dads had brought along a 5 o’clock favorite.
“I asked Doug what he missed the most,” said Stretch, “and he said margaritas.” Thus was produced a stash of tequila, citrus juice and salt.
From the avocados one industrious thru-hiker made the perfect margarita companion, guacamole. “Put 100 monkeys in a room and one will know how to make guacamole,” Doug observed.
“It’s so hard to leave,” said Dibbs as he weighed the tailgate smorgasbord vs. his plan to cover another 11 miles.
When they arrived at their kids’ tent, Stretch and Chuck were bearing a handful of welcome treats. That, for Doug and Jaime, was more than enough.
“You really didn’t think we’d drive from Chicago and not bring all of this, did you?” asked Stretch.
“I couldn’t imagine you would bring all this,” Jaime said. “But this is what you do, Stretch. You make people happy.”
Just a couple of Trail Angels sprinkling some magic dust.