PERSPECTIVES: Gifts of the Trail

We are now in a situation where even the smallest, most trivial gift can have a lasting impact. It can become something the receiver remembers for the rest of their life.

by Brett Hamil

Me and my buddy Mike and his dog Cooter were about six days into a 10-day hike of the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail when we encountered a small family, a man and his two adult daughters, at the shelter we were staying for the night. Though we were strong at the core, we were haggard and wiry whereas the two young women were like a vision, both were very beautiful. We’d been barreling over mountain peaks, living off instant rice, soup packets, and trail mix for the past week. Even Cooter was carrying her own food on her back. We sweated so much our sweat no longer had any odor — it was like clear water evaporating from our pores. We were rationing what we had to make it last to the pickup spot, and we were getting low. We were down to a few M&M’S each night after dinner as our only treat.

The dad and the youngest daughter had planned a surprise for the older daughter because it was her birthday. They’d hidden a bunch of candy in the bottoms of their packs, and they presented it to her while singing the birthday song.

Generously, they invited us over and shared the candy with us — a full-sized chocolate bar and a Rice Krispies treat each. We were bowled over by this unexpected bounty. We savored it, the sweetness exploding in our mouths. We couldn’t believe our luck at having encountered these kind people. The next morning we struck camp and went on our way.

A couple days later we bumped into an older guy named Bill from New Orleans out there hiking by himself for a few days seeking some sort of insight. We became friends. He was a Cajun old white guy with greying hair, a big honker, and a pleasing drawl. Since he had overpacked and was carrying way too much weight (he was packing a handgun and a satellite phone in addition to all the camping freight) he shared a bunch of his extra food with us. Which was great because we were nearing the end of our hike and severely rationing our remaining food. We were several days’ walk from the nearest store. We’d spend 10 minutes enjoying a single M&M’S candy each at the end of a 10-mile day, and here was this guy dropping handfuls of candy bars, soup mixes, and other “luxury” items on us. We loved him.

It turned out we were all ending our hikes at the same terminus, a little turnoff on a county road that intersected the trail. His brother was picking him up, and our girlfriends were scheduled to arrive later that day to drive us back to Florida.

When Bill got picked up we exchanged phone numbers and addresses and promised to visit him in New Orleans (which we later did). A couple hours later, as we waited for our ride (unbeknownst to us, our girlfriends had a breakdown in Valdosta and were running about eight hours behind schedule), Bill and his brother came roaring into the turnoff as the sun set. He handed us a case of beer, shook our hands, and was off again. He’d traveled about 90 miles round trip just to give us that beer. We were awestruck by this act of generosity. Even today, it surpasses my understanding that a man would drive two hours out of his way on winding mountain roads to deliver beer to a couple starving 22-year-old knuckleheads he met on a trail in the middle of nowhere. It’s the closest I can come to understanding grace.

I’ll never forget Bill, or that family, the dad and his two daughters, sharing their wealth with us in the wilderness. That was 23 years ago.

We are now in a situation where even the smallest, most trivial gift can have a lasting impact. It can become something the receiver remembers for the rest of their life. It can ripen into a vision of grace they carry with them, a paragon of generosity to which they can aspire. If you’re in a position to bestow that on someone, now is the time. There are plenty of starving hikers on this trail.

Brett Hamil is a Seattle-based writer and comedian who lives in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Featured image: The Seneca Trail (CC licensed photo)