Some multi-day hikers say there is nothing like a bit of trail magic to keep you moving. It is something that lifts your spirits when you’ve felt like giving up and it can alter your perception of people, nature, and life.
What is trail magic?
Trail Magic could be the kindness of strangers, it could be finding something welcoming and unexpected, or it could be experiencing the privilege of something rare in nature that few people get to see or encounter. It is a gift that costs nothing but means everything.
THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS
You may find a “trail angel” on your path that will smile at you and ask you where you’re from and you’ll enjoy a few minutes of the simplicity of uplifting conversation that will perk you up. Another trail angel may hand you an extra candy bar to keep you going just as you’ve realized you haven’t packed enough food or calories for the day and now you’re hungry and losing energy. Whatever kindness or encounter it is, it is something worth receiving and giving.
Once, a group of about 17 of us did a three-day hike. We climbed two mountains in two days (not mountain climbing but very steep inclines for hours). We were joined by another group of about 15 people who arrived at our first night sleepover about an hour after us. There were just enough beds for all of us and we all kept to ourselves for the most part, with the odd chat with one another over the 3 days.
On day two, while the other group was taking a pack break, we hiked through, nodding, and smiling at each other or just saying “Hi”. By the time day three arrived, we were exhausted, we had blisters, some of us were in excruciating pain as we began the process of losing toenails and the weather was stifling hot. That day, as we came towards the other group, they all began to applaud, and as we walked through their ranks to the encouraging sound of clapping, it gave us determination and implored us to keep going. It’s a moving memory.
The human spirit can be a beautiful thing. It perseveres through the hardest of circumstances, resolves to keep fighting to survive, finds endurance when the going gets tough, it has the tenacity to keep holding on to the end and the pluck to try something… at least once.
Often something that starts off magically, can end up with people taking advantage. Where something wonderful that provides unexpected surprises and simple pleasure, has become overcrowded and too much. Having too many “trail angels” outside of the trail handing out truckloads of food somehow removes the magic. Part of the process of preparing for a long hike is packing food. Not packing enough food and being hungry for a time is a story to tell of how you tenaciously held on and kept going. Our growth in character depends on those times.
FINDING SOMETHING UNEXPECTED
Unexpected is the right word, this trail magic is not planned, it just happens … in a moment, you’re struck with awe. It's summitting a mountain and seeing the most spectacular sunrise, it's being in a forest, being still, just listening, connecting with nature, hearing a peculiar bird call or the swishing leaves of the wind in the trees. It's becoming aware of the song of cicadas. It is also the sudden oasis of a magnificent waterfall that takes your breath away. Whatever it is, you embrace the moment and breathe it in.
A few years back, we were hiking in the Knysna (pronounced Nize-Na) forest in South Africa. This forest is known to be the home of a small herd of elephants. It is a vast forest dotted with cameras to enable conservationists to see these people-shy behemoths. It amazes me that animals of that size move so soundlessly and hide in plain sight.
One day, we experienced Trail Magic when we came across a load of elephant droppings in the middle of a trail in the forest! Before that, we felt it had been a legend, but after seeing fresh droppings, we knew they were there, and they knew we were there too.
EXPERIENCING SOMETHING RARE
Only those that get off the couch will experience something rare in nature that not everyone gets to see. You can read about our experience of finding a swimming hole unknowingly being watched by a troop of baboons here.
Another time I saw two tortoises mating – I would likely classify this as the more disturbing kind of trail magic, like watching one animal kill another animal… I’m still trying to decide.
Some people have found love on the trail, others have reported a spiritual encounter. I’ve read stories of people changing the direction of their life because of what they have internally confronted. Some people hike excruciatingly long trails for solitude or silence and time to think and heal.
The fact is, that as much as people outside of the trail love to be trail angels, not everyone appreciates it. You can understand that hikers have their own reason for doing what they’re doing and it’s up to the rest of society to be sensitive to that, no matter how well-meaning you may be.
DON’T HAVE EXPECTATIONS
Don’t expect something that is only deemed “magic” when it is unexpected. Expecting trail magic makes the magic disappear. No one owes you anything and nature doesn’t always comply and shower you with magic dust. Just enjoy it if it happens or be it for someone else.
Those unexpected moments are exhilarating, blissful, memorable and something to hold in your heart. A reminder that the beautiful side of the human spirit exists.