If you want to restore your faith in human nature, just hike the Appalachian Trail. Prior to hiking the AT, I was unaccustomed to receiving unsolicited favors from perfect strangers. By the end of my hike, I was no longer astonished when someone handed me a bottle of Champaign or offered me a ride without even being asked. These unexpected acts of kindness, referred to by thru-hikers as “trail magic” occurred in every state I hiked through. They varied from elaborate refreshment stations manned by ex-thru hikers, to motorists handing me a bottle of water when they found out what I was doing.
Often, the perpetrators of trail magic (i.e. Trail Angels) weren’t even around to enjoy watching the reception of their gifts. It was common to see unmanned coolers full of soft drinks left near trail heads. Once, while hiking through the wilds of Maine, I was astonished to see two luscious, cellophane-wrapped whoopee pies sitting on a log beside the trail. I somehow mustered the restraint to snatch only one of them. “What is it about thru-hiking that encourages this kind of behavior?” I wondered as I surrendered to the rapturous chocolaty delight.
I finally concluded that some people really enjoy sharing in adventures that capture their imagination. When I talked to people unfamiliar with thru-hiking, I was always surprised when their immediate reaction was to give me something, even if it meant handing over a Snapple they had already started drinking. I felt sheepish because I knew I wouldn’t react that way. It really blew me away when a young thru-hiker I had just met offered to bring me water from a spring way off the trail so that I could rest. He was just as tired and deprived of creature comforts as I, yet he still had it in him to offer assistance to a stranger. When I asked him what I could do to repay him he replied “just pass it forward.”
When I finished the hike, I wanted to bring trail magic back with me to the real world. I had been on the receiving end of kindness for so long I felt the urge to pass it forward. I’m starting really small…things like letting someone with fewer items ahead of me in the check-out line at the grocery store. It is really gratifying to see the reaction of someone who isn’t expecting kindness from a stranger. I think I am beginning to learn what trail angels have already discovered: that giving is even better than receiving.