The 'Angels' Of The Appalachian Trail

Nov 4, 2017
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

More than 2,000 people attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail each year, some in search of B.J. Leiderman, who writes our theme music. It takes more than stamina, sometimes, to trek through 14 states from Georgia to Maine. Now, a reclusive craftsman known for hiking barefoot is offering a little help, one hand-carved wooden spoon at a time. Teresa Carey has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

TERESA CAREY, BYLINE: Jim Tabor is hiking down the Pennsylvania stretch of the Appalachian Trail when he runs across Michael McKelvey coming in the opposite direction. Over 1,000 miles into his hike, McKelvey is schlepping a loaded backpack with about 35 pounds of gear. Tabor hikes here often so he offers McKelvey some local knowledge.

JIM TABOR: When you get near the border, there's - you come down the mountain.

You cross a bridge. And there's a great, big camping area.

MICHAEL MCKELVEY: Cool.

TABOR: What's your trail name?

MCKELVEY: Trivial.

TABOR: Trivial, OK.

MCKELVEY: Yeah, that's me.

TABOR: Nice to meet you, Trivial.

CAREY: Going by trail names isn't the only tradition that permeates the trail community. For example, trail magic is something unexpected that lifts a hiker's spirit. And trail angels are the people who provide trail magic. McKelvey says it can be as simple as a ride to the grocery store or a hot shower after days of hiking and sleeping in the woods.

MCKELVEY: It's pretty much, like, the best thing ever at the time when it's (laughter) happening. Like, you know, 'cause you can get kind of, like, in your head or get in a funk from just walking all the time. It really gives you the energy to maybe keep you going sometimes.

CAREY: McKelvey doesn't realize it, but Jim Tabor is a legendary trail angel. He's a shy man who hides his face in photographs and speaks soft and gently. He began hiking the trails near his home to get in shape. Things began to change when one day, he placed a hand-carved wooden spoon along the path.

TABOR: I left a little note that said, if you find this spoon, can you at least tell me about your adventure that day? So I never heard from that spoon again.

CAREY: Since then, Tabor has placed hundreds of spoons on the trail for hikers to find, earning the trail name Spoon Man. Like many trail angels, Tabor asks for nothing in return.

TABOR: All I want is to see the smile - you know, the smile and people being happy.

CAREY: Word about Tabor's spoons spread through the trail community. And hikers passing through Pennsylvania began looking for them. Tabor left about 40 spoons on the trail this year. Most of the time, he never knows who finds them. But...

TABOR: The guy contacted me a few weeks ago. And he said, you know there's a legend now? And I'm like, there's a legend? I didn't know that. They said the legend is if they find one of your spoons in Pennsylvania, they're guaranteed to finish their thru-hike. So (laughter) I thought that was kind of cool, you know?

CAREY: That legend might not be too far-fetched. Thousands attempt to thru-hike the trail each year. But only about 20 percent finish. And like McKelvey, many hikers say it's the hardest thing they've ever done. Ask them how they found the strength to finish, and they might tell you that all it takes is magic. For NPR News, I'm Teresa Carey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.