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FEB. 3, 2017

Magic in the Mountains

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Certain nostalgia hits me this time of year. Throughout the first months of 2015, I was very busy preparing for a northbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. My February days were spent gathering and testing gear, making plans for drop boxes of food along the trail, and preparing to move all of my belongings into a storage unit. Handling the logistics of a thru-hike is stressful, but I look back on it now and find myself missing the excitement I felt knowing that a great adventure was on the horizon.

To combat the bittersweet nostalgia, as well as the cold days of winter and dark events taking place in our world right now, I’ve been re-reading my journals and blog posts from my time spent on the trail. Remembering how it felt to live simply in the woods, to connect with an incredible community of people, and to realize that I was capable of more than I ever imagined brings me intense joy, even after the fact.

I wanted to share a specific post I wrote about magic. It’s a good reminder that wonderful, beautiful things are happening around every corner. It’s there waiting for us on trails, in our neighborhoods, and in chance encounters with strangers, but to experience that magic we must fully open our eyes and hearts.

April 14th, 2015:

Before I began this journey, I was told that the trail would give me exactly what I needed at precisely the right time. I assumed this meant I’d find rides into towns without much hassle, delicious food from strangers at road crossings, and kind-hearted gestures from fellow hikers. Each of these things has happened countless times over the past 2.5 weeks, but the magic I’ve encountered has far surpassed anything I could’ve dreamed. 

After my last update, I climbed up and out of the Nantahala Gorge. The ascent was intense – nearly 16 miles of steady (and at times, very steep) uphill. I left the NOC in good spirits, but my mood quickly diminished as the day progressed. I thought maybe I was just hangry, so I ate and ate but my attitude remained sour. There were times during the hike that I had to bargain with myself to simply put one foot in front of the other. I’ve felt similarly on long training runs, but unlike those there was no opportunity to cut this day short. It was the toughest mental and physical day I’ve experienced on the trail thus far.

And then, magic came in the form of a new friend. I met Vulture at a shelter that afternoon, and we commiserated about our rough day and connected over our mutual love of the towns of Asheville and Boone, North Carolina. Vulture and I move at a similar pace and ended up hiking together for the next couple of days, including another tough climb from Fontana Lake into the Smokies. I don’t know if I’ll see Vulture again anytime soon, but her friendship came exactly when I needed it.

As a native North Carolinian, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve never visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That is, until hiking through it last week. My mind was blown! There is magic around every bend in the trail in the Smokies, and I feel fortunate to have been so intimately connected to that landscape for several days. Above 5000 feet, the forest morphs into a land of towering red spruce and Fraser fir. The air is thick with the fragrance of what I can only describe as “Christmas”. Most of the days I spent in the park were very wet and foggy, but there were times that the clouds lifted to reveal a blanket of mountains below me. Though the hiking was strenuous, I remained in high spirits as I moved through the forest and connected with a new community of incredible people.

I’ve also experienced an extreme amount of “traditional” trail magic over the past week. I’m constantly amazed by the number of people who give their time and money to feed, shuttle, and hang out with hikers. I’ve been given doughnuts, soda, veggie chili, brownies, Snickers bars, rides to and from town, and most importantly, the time and stories of many kind people. To each of you – THANK YOU for reminding me that people are so very good and for making me want to be better.

I also found magic as I walked into the town of Hot Springs, NC. I came to Hot Springs for the first time when I was in high school, and I was amazed by the fact that the Appalachian Trail ran directly through the heart of town. I saw people with backpacks and dreamed of being like them someday. Yesterday afternoon, “someday” became “now”. Dreams I’ve held onto for so many years are being realized each and every day, and there’s nothing that’s quite as magical as that.

Interested in spending time on the Appalachian Trail this summer? Hante Trails and AT Trek Virginia will give you the opportunity to experience trail magic firsthand. Very limited space is still available in both adventures – register today!

Liz Snyder, Assistant Camp Director