What Is ‘Trail Magic’?

My friend Jesse was about five miles east of Dighton, Kansas, a little over 200 miles from the start of his 500-mile bike ride from Wichita to Manitou Springs, Colorado, when the skewer on his bike trailer broke. The acorn nut holding the end opposite the quick release lever had flown somewhere onto the shoulder or in the ditch, broken end of the axle still screwed into it. So he stopped. Being unable to tow the trailer with all your stuff in it is kind of a showstopper on a bike tour.

Jesse knew the nut was somewhere behind him, so he began to do what he calls “The State Trooper Evidence Walk,” down the shoulder of Highway 96, scanning for it. Nothing. He looked for 30 minutes as cars whizzed by.

He had his trip planned out to the day, no extra time to spare. He was scheduled to make it to Manitou Springs, at the foot of Pikes Peak, hike up Pikes Peak, and turn around the next day for a ride back to Wichita, in time for work on Monday. He had planned for everything, figuring out food down to the calorie, bringing extra spokes, extra chain, an extra tire, and a bunch of tubes. This, he thought, is a total failure. He made one more pass, walking back behind his bike.

And there it was. Fifteen yards behind his bike. The nut, with the sheared-off piece of the skewer still stuck in it. Jesse grabbed it, twisting the broken piece out, hoping enough of the skewer remained on the hub of the trailer wheel that he could screw the nut on for a few miles to the next town.

He pushed and twisted the nut, desperately getting it to hang onto two or three remaining threads on the skewer. He limped the bike into Dighton, pop. 1000. At the outer edge of town, he pulled up to a corrugated steel building, a rural machine shop where a few men worked inside. He walked in in full lycra, introduced himself and explained his situation — he needed some way to make an axle for his trailer.

One of the men handed Jesse the keys to his truck and told him to drive it to the auto parts store in town, and buy some threadstock to make a new axle out of. Jesse got behind the wheel of the diesel pickup and drove it into town, in his full kit and cycling shoes. The auto parts store happened to have threadstock that matched the acorn nut on his old axle.

He drove the truck back to the machine shop, and the man offered to cut the threadstock down to the right size. Jesse said thanks, I don’t want to take up any more of your time; I used to work in a shop, I could just cut it myself.

So they gave him a pair of safety goggles and pointed him to the saw, and in a tiny dusty town in western Kansas, a man in a tight, bright cycling outfit cut makeshift axles for his bike trailer, sparks flying as the blade cut into the threadstock. Jesse made four axles, pedaled to Manitou Springs without incident, and hiked up Pikes Peak, topping out with just a handful of banana chips to spare.

People who thru-hike the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail often have stories of Trail Magic, things that happen on the trail – my friend Tim, whose thru-hike of the AT was his first-ever backpacking trip(!), told me “every time you interfaced with a town or road, something awesome happened to make the hitchhike, the overnight stay, whatever, a simple, easy process.” But nothing beat the time in New Hampshire that they battled a steep, seemingly endless descent down wet granite slabs, and Tim mentioned that when they got to the next town, he couldn’t wait to slam a Guinness. And then they found a recently abandoned cooler full of cool water — with a single can of Guinness floating in it. Which they drained in seconds after high-fiving and dancing around it.

I moved out of my apartment in Denver a year ago last Tuesday, and have slept in more than 100 places since then — thankfully a lot of good friends’ couches and guest bedrooms all over the West. It has been without question the most magical year of my life. Sometimes it’s something like “trail magic” — very small things, being in the right place at the right time for an opportunity, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime invite to an in-studio performance, or flipping the radio dial over on the one day of the year that a New York radio station devotes 24 hours to hip hop — on the same day my friend and I chose to rent a car and drive to the Bronx to find “the birthplace of hip hop.” And sometimes it’s bigger things, like being in the right city to create an opportunity to have dinner with someone I’ve never met in person before, during which they tell a story that is inspiring, hilarious, and worth writing down and retelling.

What’s “trail magic” anyway? We’re traveling, and we’re open to receiving help, or a gift, from other people, or the universe, or whatever it is we think is reaching out to us. Maybe it’s because we’re vulnerable when we’re in an unfamiliar environment, or happy because we’re on vacation, or out of our comfort zone and even the littlest things seem like magic. Is it something that only happens when we travel, or is that the only time we see it as “magic”? If my pal Tim had found that semi-cold beer on his walk home from work on another normal Tuesday, would it have been less magical than when he found it near the end of that long day on the AT?

-Brendan

Semi-Rad is brought to you by Outdoor Research.

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10 Comments

  1. August 2, 2012

    I think it’s because when we’re traveling–REALLY traveling, the immersing ourselves in the experience type of traveling–we’re open to things in a way that we’re not in every day living. (Which is as much of an argument to change the way we live everyday as it is an argument for trail magic.)

    Reply
  2. August 2, 2012

    It’s all about appreciating the little things. There’s something about traveling and the outdoorsy life in general that makes you slow down, strip away the distractions, and see the true sweetness in some really random moments.

    Reply
  3. Ryan
    August 2, 2012

    This post reminds me of the time I met Gracious Gus at the Galley In Gibson’s Landing, BC. I encountered some trail magic there for sure!

    Reply
  4. August 2, 2012

    I came off of the AT with a huge re-appreciation for people, the big hearts and senseless acts of kindness that got me through the toughest days on the trail. I could write a book about the trail magic I received. It doesn’t take much to turn a bad day into something amazing that stays with you forever. There was one day that I was hitching into a town in Virginia by myself and this ancient pick-up lurched over to the side for me. I went to hop in the back when this little cajun man started screamin GIT IN THE TRUCK! I tried to make a case for sitting in the back and he was hearing none of it. So, exhausted, I hopped in between he and the 114 year old woman driving the truck. He continued to holler the whole way down the hill PUMP THE BRAKES! It was all craziness. He reached under the seat and pulled out a gun and set it on the dashboard. He smiled a toothless smile at me and said ‘the law likes me to keep my gun where they can see it’. He reached under again (and in that moment I remember thinking ‘great. now what’ and this time came up with a dirty plastic cup which he handed to me. Third time under the seat produced a cold 40ozer which he unscrewed and filled the plastic cup up. With a big smile he said YOU LOOK THIRSTY! So there I was chugging a beer as we sped down the hill wondering if what little was left of the truck brakes were going to hold on for the endless descent into town, keeping an eye on the wobbly gun, wondering what the brown stuff was in the bottom of the cup and calmly contemplating whether i was going to be alive at the end of the day. Those two went out of their way to drop me off right where I needed to be, wouldn’t accept any small payment and shortly after they left me I saw them pull over and stop to check on a lady whose car had its hood up. Many many lessons of not judging books by their cover along the AT, and many kindnesses I continue to try and repay.

    Reply
    • August 2, 2012

      Now that is a STORY.

      Reply
  5. August 2, 2012

    I think in most cases things just work out one way or another. Calling it “magic,” well, I don’t know. Jesse took the initiative to fix his problem, nothing magical about that! Good on him.

    Though why didn’t he change into his hiking shoes to drive into town? Safer :P

    Reply
  6. Kevin B
    August 2, 2012

    In 81 I was 19 and hiking the PCT with a buddy. It was our first time out West. 60+ days into it we came to a campground with a general store where our food box would be. Of course we were dying for “real” food, but only had .25 to our name.
    A woman took notice of us and asked us where we were from and what we were doing. After hearing our story she walked off only to return 10 min later with 2 BLT’s and a 6 pack of Cokes.
    Nothing in this world has ever tasted better.

    Reply
  7. Ryan K
    August 6, 2012

    I love trail magic, and luckily have found myself on the good side of it. But she is definitely a two-headed beast.

    There are also those days when it becomes laughable how many things go wrong…

    Reply
  8. August 17, 2012

    I try to bestow trail magic as much as I can in hopes that it will come back around. And it does.

    On my current tour I met two guys in Charlottesville, Va who lost the cotter pin to a BOB trailer and had ridden a few days with the thing wrapped in wire. I helped them cut and bend a bike spoke to make a replacement and a spare. In Rawlins, WY I came across two folks who lost TWO cleat bolts and couldn’t find a bike shop for hundreds of miles. I hooked them up with two replacements out of my goody bag.

    Among innumerable kind acts I have received in return, one evening I sat with an older couple at a diner in Golden City, Mo. They were so delighted to talk to me of my trip that they not only bought my full dinner but also pressed a $20 into my hand.

    What goes around comes around. I participate fully.

    Reply
  9. September 22, 2012

    Literally just finished my PCT hike yesterday.

    Hell of a lot of Trail Angels out there.

    Reply

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