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About a ten minute walk off the trail in New Jersey, across the state line, is the village of Unionville, New York. According to my guide book, the town permits hikers to pitch a tent in the town park. With this in mind, I hiked big miles late into the evening and arrived at the small park exhausted and hungry around 8:00. A sign at the Village Hall confirmed that camping was allowed. It also mentioned that the former mayor, a man named Dick, sometimes allows hikers to shower at his house, please call ahead.

“You hiking the trail?” An energetic local had walked up and asked that most obvious of questions. Normally I’m happy to talk trail with townsfolk, but this night I only wanted to eat my noodles and rest. “You know,” he went on, “I think the mayor has hikers over a lot, well, he’s not the mayor anymore, but you should call him, do you have a phone? Here, I’ll call.”

Before I knew what was happening, I had a phone in my hand with the Mayor on the other end. “Hi, um,” I started, trying to figure out what I was trying to do here. “I’m a hiker, and, uh, I was just wondering what my camping options were in town?” This seemed like a good lead-in. I wasn’t going to ask to come over and use his shower, but he could invite me now if he wanted to.

“Your camping options,” he said in a tenor that can only be described as mayoral, “are unlimited. Now, where are you?” I told him. “Okay. I’m going to give you to Butch. He’s a man who helps me out.” Then, before passing the phone, “And you’d better get your ass up here fast.”

Now I’m totally clueless and talking to someone else. We start all over again. “Hello?” “Uh, yes, I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail, and was just trying to find out about camping in town?” “Where are you?” “I’m at the village hall.” “Okay someone will be there to pick you up. You’re almost late.”

There is something very relaxing about going with the flow without knowing just what will happen next. The trail provides many opportunities for this. Every step I take north is someplace I have never been before. Every morning when I wake up, I don’t know for sure where I will go to sleep that night. Hikers learn that there are things you can control, like putting one foot in front of the other, and things you can’t, like the weather. It is both this empowerment and surrender that make the trail experience. In Unionville, I didn’t know what would happen next, and I didn’t try to guess. I just waited.

In a few minutes, a middle-aged man in a Prius pulled up, stepped out, and opened the trunk. You can tell the people who driver hikers around a lot by the rubber mats they line their trunks with. This was the Mayor, no longer mayor of Unionville, but forever “the Mayor” on the Appalachian Trail. “Dinner’s almost ready,” he told me, and we drove a few blocks away to his modest gray house.

After seeing hardly any other thru-hikers all day, I opened the door to find no less than 20 of them crowding every corner of the house. Hikers waiting for showers, doing laundry, watching TV, setting up tents in the backyard, drinking beers on the deck. Two men were scurrying about the kitchen preparing a dinner of hot dogs, hamburgers, corn on the cob, and salad. It looked like a hiker hostel, except that it was someone’s house, and it isn’t listed in any trail guide. I felt like I had stumbled upon a secret, like a nightclub so hip and exclusive it doesn’t have a sign, and I was cooler just for being there.

“You just got here, right?” A tall, well-built man in a baseball cap asked me in the kitchen. This was Butch. He and an older gentleman Bill were the Mayor’s full-time assistants running this operation. “Okay, here’s the deal. Burgers are almost ready. You’re not a vegetarian are you? Are you a drinker? Beers are in the cooler. First one is free, second third and fourth are a quarter each.”

“No,” the Mayor interrupted, “no fourth beer. Three’s the limit.”

“Alright. Second and third beer are a quarter. Shower is around the corner, laundry is right there. If you need anything, just ask. But do not come into this kitchen and ask if you can help, do you understand? And don’t you dare call me sir.”

I opened my complimentary beverage and caught up with some hikers on the deck. Some of them I hadn’t seen in a month or two. This secret spot had some strange gravity that seemed to pull every thru-hiker on the trail in New Jersey together. Some had already been there a night. A few had already been there two. The Mayor came outside and, as is his habit, commanded our attention. “None of you out here are vegetarians, right?” A hiker timidly raised his hand. “Oh [expletive]. Butch!” he shouted to the kitchen. “We’ve got another one!”

Soon enough, burgers and burger substitutes were making the rounds. “This,” said one hiker, “is the best trail magic ever.”

Every hiker on the A.T. knows about a phenomenon called trail magic. In its original meaning, the term was used to describe the way circumstances seem come together, as if by magic, for the best. The clouds lift just as you reach a viewpoint. You catch a glimpse of a bobcat. The first car stops to give you a ride. A local buys you breakfast. Now, instead of expressing an optimism about life on the trail or a pseudo-spiritual reading of coincidences, “trail magic” refers almost exclusively to feeding hikers.

The best trail magic stories have a legendary quality to them. “I was walking on a long ridge in Pennsylvania when all of a sudden there’s a guy with lawn chairs and a little charcoal grill. He hands me a beer and says ‘How would you like your steak cooked?” Or, “We were tenting on top of Beauty Spot one misty night, when out of the fog, this guy suddenly appeared with three pizzas. ‘Here you go guys, enjoy,’ he said, then left the pies and disappeared back into the darkness.” Stories like these are almost pornographic when told to hungry hikers in the woods.

Most thru-hikers get from Georgia to Maine without ever encountering such dramatic magic. More commonly, a trail angel, as the doers of trail magic are called, parks at a trailhead on a Saturday and passes out fruit and sodas to hikers who come through. And even more often than that, a someone carries a cooler of snacks and drinks in from the road. The sight of a cooler gets every thru-hiker’s heart jumping. The problem is, some trail angels forget to come restock or remove their trail magic. In my experience, it’s more likely than not that the cooler I was so excited to see turns out to be a box of candy bar wrappers, smelly soda cans, and rotting orange peels.

Trail magic has also turned into more of an expectation than a surprise. It’s not that hikers know exactly where it will happen, but they expect it to happen with some frequency. There are stories of ungrateful hikers who demand “You got any juice?” before they say hello or thank you. People who came to the trail supposedly to live self-sufficiently in the wilderness will be caught saying things like “Man, New York sucked. All I got for trail magic was one warm Coke.” For these reason, the official stance of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy on trail magic is mixed. Yes, unexpected kindness to hikers is nice, but keep it small and discreet. Remember the spirit of trail magic, to help others along on their journey. And clean up after yourself.

Small and discreet is not really fashionable for trail magic these days. Nor is unexpected. When I entered the Smokies in the beginning of April, a hiker told me to be at Newfound Gap on Friday for his friends’ “killer trail magic man. I’m talking hot dogs hot chocolate potato chips soda homemade cookies eighty dollars worth of candy bars fresh pies…” As the list went on I started salivating. So I made sure I was at the right place at the right time, and, over the next three days, all of the other hikers in the Smokies did too. In New Jersey I overheard some hikers on a cell phone coordinating with their would-be trail angel, a hiker friend who lived nearby. They picked a time and place that fit with their schedule to do a big lunch feed, then set about promoting the event by word of mouth and in shelter registers. It seems to me that when it’s organized by your friends and you’ve marked your calendar, it’s not really trail magic. It’s just a party.

The Mayor’s house is somewhere between a hostel, a party, trail magic. It meets the key trail magic criteria of pleasant surprise and food. But the Mayor goes above and beyond trail magic. He didn’t just provide a snack, he cooked a full dinner and a full breakfast. He opened the doors of his home all season long. Not only were his extensive hiker services provided free of charge, he had no apparent way to make donations.

Rumors circulated about his motivations. Someone had asked him directly, and he alluded to beginning to host hikers just after his wife passed away a few years ago. He then choked up a bit, and regained composure with some good-natured mumbling about us “stupid [expletive] hikers.” There’s a similar place in Dalton, Massachusetts. It’s not listed in any guide, but you can find it by walking into the Shell station and asking for Rob. You’ll be directed to the Birdcage, the house of a man who has taken it upon himself to care for the strange hobos passing through. The consensus among thru-hikers is that these men have grown lonely in their late middle age, so they open their doors up for the company.

I don’t think the Mayor is so simple. He seems to be on a mission. The main category of trail angels besides hikers, either former thru-hikers or those who wish they could, is churches. Churches in towns too small to have homeless shelters have figured that opening a hiker hostel isn’t that different. Instead of running a soup kitchen, they feed hikers trail snacks. One much-appreciated dinner in North Carolina was the work of men who drive every year from their church in the plains of Indiana just to serve thru-hikers ham sandwiches and potato salad for a week. None of these churches have been heavy into preaching. They’re just feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless. We’re like a charity case; I think people feel sorry for us. Never mind that we have all chosen this lifestyle. I suppose there is something biblical about walking long distances with few possessions that resonates with these churches.

“Alright if I can have everyone’s attention please,” the Mayor said calmly at dinner. Two dozen hikers were silent. He welcomed us to this makeshift hostel and went over some sleeping arrangements and noise level rules. “You are all guests in my home. You are eating dinner prepared by Butch, and Bill, and myself. You will be sleeping in my basement and in my yard. And in return, I ask only one thing. This is mandatory. Are you listening?” We were, somewhat uncomfortably, listening. “It is required, let me repeat, required that you watch two short videos after dinner. They are videos that have been very meaningful to many hikers who have come through this house, and they may be to you too.”

This is it, I thought as I picked corn from between my teeth, we’ve been trapped. We’re going to get the sermon. There’s no such thing as a free dinner, breakfast, shower, laundry, and floor to sleep on.

“Now for the sermon,” the Mayor said with a slight chuckle once we had squeezed into his living room. What followed, however, was not about God, or a shadowy cult, or an exciting timeshare opportunity. Instead, it was a heartfelt talk about our journey, our challenge. It seems a little sappy in retrospect, but at the time we hung on every word like children at story time. “For some crazy reason, you all got the absolutely ridiculous idea to walk from Georgia to Maine. Some of you are probably certifiably insane. I will never understand you.” He knows how to appeal to his audience. He told us his hope that our stay with him, a brief stopover on our journey, would give us not just rest and nourishment, but some inspiration to go out and conquer this completely bizarre challenge.

The first video was clips from “Britain’s Got Talent” showing the rags-to-riches story of Paul Potts, the mobile phone salesman who wanted to sing opera and realized his dream before an awe-struck national audience with the blessings of Simon Cowell. The second was a slide show of an ’08 thru-hiker who climbed Katahdin on his 60th birthday.

The videos probably served their motivational purpose, but what every hiker took back to the trail with them were the words of the Mayor as he introduced the Puccini aria Potts sang. The aria finishes with the word vincerò, “I will win,” sung three times, each with a different tone. The first, the Mayor explained, is a wish: “I hope I win.” The second is a realization: “I can actually win this thing.” And the final vincerò is sheer, unstoppable determination: “I will win.”

“If that last vincerò doesn’t get your heart racing, if it doesn’t make you clench your fists, if you don’t feel it in your bones, then quit now. You’re in the wrong place. You’ll never make it.” The Mayor must give this speech every night, but it was convincing. We clenched our fists. We felt it in our bones.

I remembered hiking through Georgia when people would ask where I was headed. “Maine?” I timidly replied. “Well that’s the plan anyway.”

Somewhere in the middle of Virginia, I realized that I could actually finish this thing. It was possible, doable, I could make it happen.

Leaving Unionville, New York, there was no doubt left in my mind. Vincerò.

-July 29, Hanover, N.H.

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