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?