Trail Magic

The five miles down the trail off Pleasant Mountain kick my butt. Every descent leads to another rise.  Five miles go on and on. I am low on energy and water, high on exhaustion after a long day of hiking from the pond to the mountaintop and back down again.  

Its been like a perfect Day 2 of a meditation retreat, this second day of foggy doldrums and mountaintop  joy, a long, slow afternoon of exhaustion. Not yet in the swing of breath and trail. Still working too hard.

On the way down, I meet a Southbound (SOBO) sixty-something who has come from Katahdin to head back to where she’d stopped her northbound trek in New Hampshire. She says she’d heard that the 100 Mile Wilderness was difficult but that wasn’t her experience; it was beautiful. I nod and smile. I do not say that it was my experience that the 100 Mile Wilderness was definitely difficult like this afternoon is difficult. And beauty? It’s here but I can’t quite see it yet. Definitely Day 2 of my walk in the woods.  

At long last a roaring stream below, where I filter and drink. I feel better. As I step across, I think I must be close to the shelter by now and realize the other side of the stream is the place I’ve been looking for all afternoon. The shelter just beyond, and here, beautiful campsites. 

As I’m finishing setting up my tent, several NOBO’s (Northbounders) filter water at the stream, all headed to Katahdin before it closes on October 16. Some 136 miles to go in 11 days. In June on our 100 Mile Wilderness Trek we’d met some of the first hikers of the season to finish, the second woman finisher, the 12th man. Today, I’ve been meeting some of the last, heading to Katahdin before the snow including Mango and Popeye, two young solo hikers, who set up camp across the trail.

As I’m talking with Mango, I’m thinking about Pat. I remember how on the first night out of of our 100 Mile Wilderness Adventure last June, she’d got talking to another young hiker finishing the trail and shared some food with him. She reminded us how after these months on the trail, these hikers just can’t get enough calories in them.  

I don’t want to be stingy. I want to share. I think how good it would be to share. Just yesterday I knew I was setting out with more food than I needed. Tonight I think about what a great story it would be to provide a little “Trail Magic”, some unexpected gift and support to someone along the trail.

“Here,” I say, reaching in my bulging food sack, I have an extra dinner. Would you like one?”

“Wow!  That sounds great!”, he beams, “It was going to be dehydrated potatoes again tonight.”

“And here,” I say as I scrounge deeper, “How about one of these bars and one of these?”  

“Oh this is great!” he says, “I only have enough for another day and this will help me if I can’t get to Monson by then.”

This feels good. I like providing Trail Magic.  

I walk over to where Popeye is setting up his tent and offer him a choice of dinner as well. Put on water to boil for their dinners and they soon join me on the log to tell me about their months of travel since March.

“What do you think about on the trail?” I ask.  

Mango thinks of of the woman who left him after 8 years. Popeye on what his future might be on the other side of completing the trail.  

At best, they both say, they try to think about where to put their foot next. 

And yes, on the trail there is too much time to think. 

Both say if they could do it again they would go slower. All this beauty that they walk by each day that they just take for granted.  

They are sweet young men and could well be my sons. I wonder if that’s why I’m so generous with them. But no, it’s not from some old need to take care of them, they certainly don’t need that, but from some present desire to invest in them, to be part of supporting this great effort they are undertaking to the finish.  

Late that night, I wake in a panic.

What was I thinking? Why did I ever give away my power bars?

All I could remember was how I felt my energy drain from me in those last miles in the 100 Mile Wilderness without enough food and water.  

I lie there counting how many days I have left and how many bars I think I still have. Toss and turn thinking about what a fool I am. Vow to tell Mango I made a mistake and that I need one of the bars back, but he’s gone by the time I awake – off to see the sunrise on the top of Moxie Bald Mountain. 

I think if yesterday’s words were “Up and Out”, today’s necessary word is “Grace.” A grace I’m sometimes not so good receiving myself. Today I need to make room for some surprising grace.

Fingers so numb I can’t tear open the coffee, granola packets. Try biting them open to no avail. My pocket knife does the trick.  

Morning coffee and granola and the surprise of tears as I wash my face in the stream.  

The boys gave themselves grace. Popeye canoed some 80 miles through Virginia instead of hiking. Sometimes both of them sent their heavy packs ahead and slack-packed along the trail. Popeye spent five days enjoying New York City. They listen to music, watch movies at night. 

The stream rumbles. Yellow and brown leaves on dark earth that leave no scent.  

I want to have enough, even with less. I’ll make it be enough. Show me some surprising grace.

In the days to come, find it. On a mountaintop, nights from now, after a day of intentional fasting will wonder how I could ever have worried about not enough, that I have more than I will ever need. 

Indeed, will finish my hike with a ziplock bag of remnants to spare, a Protein Gu and some Energy Chews and even one last Bobo Bar.

Mornings from now when I’ve finished my hike, I’ll meet Guy and his wife doing laundry. Learn how he’s walking the trail to raise money for the Maine Chapter of the Brain Injury Association of America. Then and there make a donation to support him to the finish. 

Downstairs at the Landmark Diner, there’s a worn young guy with a dog in front of me waiting for a table. We both get a seat at the bar. He’s fixated on his phone, doesn’t seem anxious for conversation.

But when he puts down his phone, I venture a question, “Are you a thru-hiker?”  

“Yes,” he says, but sounds more like he once was one.  He’d been sick for the last several days, and came down off the range on the trail ahead and back to Monson to get checked out at the health clinic.  

“My old self would have stayed out on the trail and pushed through,” he said. “I only had 70 more miles to Katahdin. But I’m trying to learn to be responsible. I have a three month old son.” Hands me his phone with the picture of his smiling young baby.  

“Everyone tells me I made the right choice, but sitting here I’m not so sure. I think I should have just stayed out there and finished.”

He knows he has the physical ability to do this, it’s the mental energy he needs to make it through. I don’t say anything, because I figure he knows that energy won’t be found in one more beer and shot of whiskey.  

When our checks come, I take his, and buy his dinner as my investment in him, my encouragement. 

“Just text me when you finish,”I say.

Its not that I’m such a good person. It’s just that when I’m generous, generosity finds me. I’d finished the trail unsure if I’d have enough and had more than I needed. I have an abundance and can’t help but share. 

And yes, grace myself with the most wondrous squash ravioli and salad and bread and a brownie sundae and Bissell beer that is delicious and does not go to my head.  

Later a call to Leanne who is finding an opportunity in a time of hurt. Larry who failed his oral report and found such success because of it. Nan who had a margarita with a friend and cake with her son and the next day ran her best half marathon time ever. Surprising grace all around. 

The next day, at church in Greenville, the story of the rich young ruler who was told to give away all he had to the poor and because he couldn’t walked away sad. I don’t remember a thing about the sermon except her closing words, to open our hands and receive. 

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