Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ignore Everything Your Parents Taught You about Stranger Danger

Trail magic has two definitions. Basically, it's used to refer to any gift a fellow hiker or local gives you. In a truer sense, it means getting something at the perfect time, when it's exactly what you need.

We've been the recipients of trail magic multiple times. Often, it's something small, like a cold soda, but sometimes it's a ride or a place to stay. We're often surprised at how people will go out of their way to help us out. In many ways, walking the trail has shown us that there is goodness in our fellow citizens. However, you have to trust other people in the first place in order to accept the kindness that they offer. This experience is, in fact, a reversal of everything we were taught about interacting with strangers.

First, feel free to eat food you find sitting around.

The most basic idea of trail magic is food left on or near the trail. It's usually something we can't or don't pack with us, such as cold drinks or fresh veggies.

For example, John and I were hiking up Clingman's Dome in the Smokies, and feeling pretty tired and beyond ready to get to the summit. I looked down at one point, and noticed a bag of kid-sized Snickers bars. We squealed in joy and wolfed them down without a second thought.

But I can't help thinking of that other time we gleefully inhale candy: Halloween. People of our generation were carefully instructed not to eat things that weren't in the wrapper, to only trick-or-treat at the houses of people we knew, to inspect every piece for tampering. Hikers? We just eat everything we can find. We don't question people's motives.

Get in cars with strangers.

Hitchhiking is a practice that one doesn't often see in America anymore. At least not where I grew up. It's even illegal in some places. It's certainly associated with danger (thanks, Jeffrey Dahmer). Everyone has heard stories of people getting into a car with a stranger and never being seen alive again.

For John and I, hitchhiking is an integral part of this experience. We're on a budget and can't afford to pay $30 for shuttles to and from towns when we need to resupply. Plus, we're cheap. We don't want to spend that much money on principle.

We probably hitchhike two or three times a week, and every time, it's been a positive experience. We've met some awesome people. Often, they aren't the type that inspires confidence. We're hiking through mostly rural areas, and some of the people who pick us up are clearly living below the poverty line. Many of them don't have teeth. But they take a chance on us, letting us stink up their cars, put our dirty packs on their seats, and drip rain water on everything. Some of them drive miles out of their way to take us where we want to go.

Just the other day, we were picked up by a guy who immediately informed us that his truck was a mess because he and his wife were getting separated. She had busted out one of the truck windows earlier, and he said, "It hadn't been a very good day." But he picked us up, and when we got out at our destination, he asked that we mention him in our journal. So here you go, Pall-Mall-smoking-mountain-dude. Thanks for giving us a ride. My feet were killing me.

In fact, just go ahead and go home with strangers.

This is rarer than the other trail magics, but on one occasion so far, we stayed with a couple of strangers. We met them on the internet, and they invited us to spend the night at their house. I'll admit, this did make me a little nervous. What better way to satisfy your serial-killing fetish than bringing home a couple of hikers who wouldn't be missed for a month and then burying them in the backyard? And these guys had a big backyard. Plenty of room for murdering. No neighbors to hear our screams.

Instead, they made us dinner. They lent us their clothing to wear while ours was in the wash. They gave us clean towels, razors, soap, and the use of their guest bedroom. They drove us to the grocery store to buy supplies. I have friends of ten-years' standing who wouldn't do all that for me.

In most ways, this trip has been an experience completely different from my everyday life: I spend most of my time walking; I don't have a job; I don't bathe; I consider rhododendron bushes to be excellent bathrooms; And I depend on the kindness of strangers who have no good reason to help me out. Thanks, strangers. I wouldn't be able to do this without you.

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