Last year, I ranted about food being left on the trail for through-hikers. Now, I’d like to open up a discussion about a different kind of Trail Magic– hiker feeds.
If you’re on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia and North Carolina in March or April, there’s a good chance at any road crossing that you’ll run into a group with grills, pavilion tents, tables, chairs, and enough food to feed an army. Many of these groups stake out the same location on the trail year after year, making a car-camping vacation out of it.
I took part in one such feed in northern Maine last year, and I must admit it was a great time. You get to share the joy of strangers helping strangers, live vicariously through the hikers who stop by, and do a good deed. It opens up opportunities to help out others in more tangible ways, too, like when I gave a hiker a ride twenty miles back to where he’d forgotten his tent that morning. Best of all, when the event was over, we cleaned up and left with no trace of our passing– no trash, no cooler left on the roadside, just high spirits of all who passed.
But there are some problems with these hiker feeds.
My primary concern is FREQUENCY. In 2010, on one 80-mile section of the AT in Georgia and North Carolina, I passed no fewer than 7 hiker feeds. It seemed like every road I crossed was home to a full buffet. And it was great– at first. Then I started to think about only three years earlier, when I’d gone through the entire AT and only encountered one such feed. That one feed seemed like such a special occasion, something magical. The seven in 2010 just seemed like forced parties.
What does it mean to through-hike a long-distance trail? To many people, this is the biggest accomplishment in their lives, the most adventurous of adventures. But how much of an adventure is it when one can rely on a constant supply of free food, taking a huge part of the planning and preparation out of the hike? At what point does a through-hike go from unsupported to supported?
One of the most important impacts my 2007 through-hike had on my life was a reaffirmation in the goodness of humanity. People seemed nicer and more helpful during the hike. A lot of that was because of the proverbial random acts of kindness practiced by complete strangers. More hiker feeds means more random acts of kindness, right? The problem, though, is that the acts of kindness are not the least bit random. A random stranger sharing a bucket of fried chicken with you without planning is a rare and special experience. Seven institutionalized buffets between Springer and Bly Gap are not.
There are other issues that raise my concern about hiker feeds, like the motivation for putting them on, or the clean-up afterwards, but I’ll leave it at that for now. I’m not totally against hiker feeds quite like I am against unattended coolers– there are undeniable upsides to this kind of trail magic, when done right. But I’d love to hear from some of you about your experiences and what you think.