The story below is an excerpt from our September/October 2016 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, log in to read our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app. Thank you!
Melody Warnick is the author of the newly released book "This is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place you Live" (Viking, 2016). She lives with her family in Blacksburg, Virginia. She still hasn't attempted much of the Appalachian Trail.
My car was stocked like a 7-Eleven. Sticky glazed donuts. Thick Rice Krispie treats. Chips, M&Ms, bottles of Gatorade. Enveloped in a sugar-salt cloud, I was driving back roads through southwest Virginia, looking for eight 15-year-old girls on the Appalachian Trail.
They’d set out the day before to hike 25 miles from Pearisburg, Virginia, to Dismal Falls. Most of the teenagers—girls I’d grown to love at church—were new at backpacking. Conquering part of the A.T., I knew, would be a gift of adolescent self-confidence. If you can backpack 25 miles, you can do anything! Yet the girls themselves weren’t quite sure they’d survive. They were testing their legs as hesitantly as baby fawns.
I wanted somehow to ease their path, and eventually it occurred to me. Snacks! In the love language that is food, I would send a message: “You will make it. These Doritos will help.”
Relatively new to Virginia, I had never hiked any part of the A.T., but I’d learned about the concept of trail magic—an unexpected act of kindness for a hiker—from Jennifer Pharr Davis’s memoir “Becoming Odyssa.” In the forest, trail magic is often edible. So I’d spent $50 on carbohydrate joy and set out early to hand deliver it.
What I failed to realize is how fully the Appalachian Trail is a wilderness trail. Over and over, pavement turned to dirt turned to dead ends. The trail map was as mysterious as a palm reading. My GPS flatlined, out of range.
Four hours later, I was still nowhere near the hikers and ready to mainline the donuts myself. Then a call came through from one of the adult chaperones on the trail. “Can you still meet us?” he asked. “I think the girls could use it.” He spelled out some new directions for another route.
In retrospect, it seems unbelievable that I tried it. Sissy cars like mine weren’t meant to traverse such rock-buffeted roads. And yet I was so desperate to please these girls that I urged my reluctant car upward. Making it to the designated pinprick in the forest was an act of divine intervention.
One by one the girls entered the clearing, sweat-drenched and grim. Then they saw the treats and lit up with a giddy Christmas-morning delight known only to teenagers subsisting on beef jerky. Their feasting went on for an hour.
If this were a fairy tale, the hikers would be the heroes on an epic quest. And I’d like to think that I’d be the magical being waving a wand, saying, “Don’t give up! Keep going! You have powers you don’t even understand!”
Heroes, of course, require junk food. That magic lasts for miles.