I watched in wonder (and horror) as two brothers, Fire Starter and Big Boy, piled wood and trash onto a fire ring and had a blazing fire within minutes. I love campfires out on the trail, but it’s a big “no-no” to burn any trash with metal or plastic! Friends, please don’t burn anything but paper-based pieces of trash!!!
The thing I love most about a fire is the instant community it creates. Most hikers will walk around helping one another gather treasures of fallen wood that have not yet been burned by previous hikers. However, there are usually a few who sit and watch everyone else work, while saying obnoxious things like, “I love it when there’s someone who builds a fire I can enjoy!”
This evening was true community. We all gathered wood and took turns keeping the fire going as the evening temperature dropped to 40 degrees. I shared the circle with the two brothers and two friends, Trout and City Slicker. Firestarter was “through hiking” (hiking the entire Appalachian Trail all at once) and had lost 50 lbs! His extremely obese brother, Big Boy, had come out to hike with him for four days. They reminisced about spending two nights in Ms. Linda’s barn off of VT 14, watching old VHS movies, and laughed about only accomplishing 4-6 miles per day together. I was so impressed with Big Boy’s courage, coming out to encourage Firestarter on his 2,100 mile trek. It takes guts to backpack. It takes even more guts to backpack when you’re over 300 pounds.
Trout and City Slicker, men in their mid 50s, thoroughly enjoyed teasing me about carrying lint to help start fires. I had mentioned that I collected lint from the dryer for a month before heading out on the trail, and they laughed, “Oh you collect lint! How nice! Do you go to lint collector conventions?” I laughed so hard! Did my older brother pay these guys to come out on the trail and tease me? Having awoken at 5am, my eyelids were drooping and I was practically falling asleep on the log where I was sitting. They then had a good laugh about how they would likely wake up in the morning to find me frozen in the same position on the log.
Trail initiation. A good tease and a good laugh, all in good fun.
I actually did freeze that night! With my scarf, hat, down coat, and 35 degree sleeping bag cinched tight, I curled into the fetal position to keep as much warmth as possible. There’s nothing like lying awake shivering all night, waiting for the sun to rise so you can start moving to get warm! It was a miserable existence and I was so thankful to wake up to find Fire Starter doing what he was so good at!
As I thawed out by the fire, the brothers advised me to catch a ride from Ms. Linda’s back into town where I could purchase a better bag at EMS. They did not have to tell me twice! Trout wished me well as he and City Slicker were ending their journey that day, “Here’s my card Tangle. When you pass through Kent, CT, give me a call. My wife and I would be happy to have you stay in our home and treat you to a nice dinner… and laundry!” I was grateful for the offer and tucked the card in a safe side pocket of my backpack’s waist belt.
Many are shocked by this kind gesture between strangers. Modern day caution is triggered and they think, “you would stay with a stranger?” However, isn’t this how we used to live? Pioneers making long treks, surviving on the hospitality and provision of strangers? “What if they’re crazy or dangerous?” Really? Most American families genuinely want to love the community around them, and to do a kind deed for someone in need. The trail gives us opportunity to remember this interdependency that is the foundation of our country and our culture.
As I made the four mile trek to the VT 14 crossing, my legs warmed up, energy returned, and the misery of a sleepless night dissipated. Sure enough, Ms. Linda’s blue barn (with a gigantic AT symbol) was easy to spot right as the trail crossed the highway. The famous 60-something-year-old Trail Angel was sitting on her porch swing and welcomed me with hot coffee and warm water for my instant mashed potato lunch. I plugged my phone into her outdoor outlet and listened as she shared stories of caring for hikers from the time she was a kid. Her parents had always done whatever they could to help hikers and now she was carrying on the tradition. Her porch was stocked with store brand sodas, muffins, hot coffee, a “hiker box” (trade outs with other hikers), and good company. Her haven was famous along the trail North and South. The blue barn was filled with mattresses and VHS tapes for hikers needing shelter. To top it off, Ms. Linda has her very own port-a-potty that she pays to have serviced for hikers who come and go Spring through Fall! In any other part of the country, this would be considered “redneck” or strange. On the Appalachian Trail, it’s better than a night at a four-star hotel! And Ms. Linda doesn’t charge a dime.
I sat eating my mashed potatoes, smothered in real bacon bits and a cheddar cheese stick, as a Subaru station wagon pull into her driveway. A well dressed middle aged man and his wife stepped out of the car. “Ms. Linda, you may not remember me, but I passed through here a month ago and you gave me shelter in your blue barn. I just finished my through-hike and my wife and I are driving back down from Maine to Florida, stopping at all of my favorite spots. I wanted to introduce her to you and show her what a wonderful barn you have.” This is the amazing bond hikers share with Trail Angels. It’s a gratitude that will drive hours out of the way in order to say thank you. Hikers learn, or remember, that trips are really all about the process and not just the destination; friends, new and old, more important than an itinerary.
When husband and wife returned from the “barn tour,” I seized my opportunity!
“Hi. I’m Tangle. Are you by any chance headed back toward Lebanon? I just started a six-week section hike and my 35 degree bag is crap. I froze all night and need to get to EMS to buy a new one.”
“Sure, I’m Steve and this is my wife Janet, we’re passing that way and we’re happy to give you a ride. Let me go make some room for you in the back seat.”
And then a miracle happened.
Steve walked back to the porch with a small black bundle in his hands. “Here, Tangle, why don’t you just take my sleeping bag. It’s a 20 degree down bag and kept me warm on the coldest of nights. It’s one of the best sleeping bags you can find.”
“Thanks Steve, but how much was your bag? I need to know I can afford to replace it if I ruin it.”
“You won’t ruin it, Tangle, go ahead and take it. But just so you know it was around $500.”
WHAT!?!?!? I think he saw my shocked look, so he continued reassuringly, “Seriously, I don’t need it now. I know you’ll take care of it. You can just mail it to my house in Florida when you’re finished hiking. I’ll take yours for you, if you want, and will mail it to your home.”
I was speechless. I was being given a $500 dollar down sleeping bag for free. This surpassed the tradition of Trail Magic. It was a Trail Miracle! I never froze another night.
Steve and his wife turned out to be retired from teaching at a Christian school. I shared a small portion of my own journey and let them know that they were God’s provision for me. Steve offered to pray for my journey and we all bowed our heads on Ms. Linda’s porch. This was only my second day on the Appalachian Trail! Already, God was showing me that He was orchestrating each and every step of my journey.
Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav’n and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.