Trail Angels Provide Shelter, Services and Smiles
The kindness of strangers is not extinct
Northbound thru–hikers (NOBOs in trail lingo) start in Springer Mountain, Georgia, so by the time they reach Norwich, Vermont, they’ve walked 1,700 Appalachian Trail miles. They know that 500 of the most challenging ones lie ahead, which makes the civilized hiatus in Norwich and Hanover most welcome.
Late summer and early fall are known as “bubble season” as hikers rush to finish the trail at the summit of Mt. Katahdin, Maine, before the October 15 deadline. When they reach Norwich, they follow the trail across the Connecticut River and up the hill to Hanover, NH. Hikers — once mistaken as vagrant or homeless — are now welcomed by communities of people who open their homes, hearts, cars and wallets to them.
An active group of volunteers called Trail Angels offers free acts of kindness to these hikers. Some provide them with shuttle services for buying supplies, visiting their mail drops, seeking medical attention or buying a new pair of boots; others invite them into their homes. Hiker boxes are a common sight — leave what they no longer need and take what they do.
For the past six years, each night Greg Cook has invited three hikers into his home. “I change a lot of sheets,” he says referring to the beds he changes every day. His hospitality includes hot showers (soft white robes included), use of his washer and dryer, and pick-up and drop-off at trailheads. “If hikers have dogs, and many do,” he says, “they’re also welcome.” Cook will drive them to the Hanover Co-op to buy the food they’ll need on the trail and the fixings for the dinner they’ll cook in his kitchen. “They usually invite me to eat with them,” he says with a smile.
The trail has a powerful grapevine, and hikers know to text Cook for a reservation a few days before their arrival. “Last year I hosted 111 and turned away just as many,” he says. “It takes a lot of trust and flexibility on my part as well as the hikers’, but so far it’s been a positive experience.”
Betsy Maislen hosts several hundred hikers each season. “Don’t put your car in the garage,” she warns her husband when he calls from the airport. “Two hikers and their dog are sleeping there.” That’s in addition to the eight sleeping on air mattresses in her finished basement and another eight on her screened porch. When she’s not working as a nurse practitioner at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, she’ll make the hikers hearty breakfasts and dinners, often using the bounty of her garden and the contributions of several farmers and stores. “Doing their laundry is easy,” says Maislen. “Hikers have two sets of clothing — one they’re wearing, one extra.”
Maislen and her husband love chatting with their guests, and she always includes how she became a Trail Angel. In 2007, their 19-year-old son Karl and his friend were thru-hikers. They’d gotten as far as the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee when a nasty blister on his heel became infected. A weekend hiker who was staying in the same shelter saw Karl trying to lance it. His truck was parked 8 miles away, and he offered to hike out with the two of them to see a doctor. During the week it took for the wound to heal, the hikers stayed with their rescuer’s sister. “They became part of their family,” Maislen says. “We were overwhelmed by their kindness.” She ends her story by asking the hikers to extend this kindness to others, either on the trail or later in life, and then asks them to pay it forward.
Local Trail Angels included the late and legendary Bill Ackerly. His two sons hiked portions of the trail and told him how appreciative they were of something as simple as fresh water refills. Since the trail passes a few yards from his home, Ackerly wanted to offer hikers more than that. Until his death in 2016, he invited hikers to pitch their tents on his lawn, use the porta-potty he rented each season and stay for as many “zero days” (days with no hiking) as they chose. Sometimes he’d challenge them to a game of croquet — the only course along the AT. Throughout the years, he supplied hikers with more than 2,000 ice cream bars.
“He welcomed a rainbow of characters who happened to pop up on the porch,” says his son John. “Almost every hiker stopped. It became more of an open house.” In addition to a generous supply of Band-Aids, Ackerly had a box of materials for painting and drawing. He hung the resulting works of art from the porch rafters.
Trail Angels never accept monetary payment, even though some hikers offer. Instead, Maislen asks those staying a few days to help with household chores or stack wood.
Hurricane Irene stormed into Hanover in September 2011, closing the trail and stranding 50 hikers for more than a week. Those who could fit slept on the floor at the Richard W. Black community center, which also became the receiving site for donated food from townspeople and restaurants. Other residents invited hikers into their homes for meals and lodging. Howe Library was a busy place as they had lights, water and an internet connection.
But it doesn’t take a hurricane for these towns to rally. For a small fee, hikers can use the shower and laundry facilities at the community center. The libraries in both Hanover and Norwich offer free internet connections as well as books and magazines from their discard pile.
The Hanover Chamber of Commerce website gives hikers basic information, such as where to store their packs while in town, buy fuel for their stove or get their eyeglasses fixed. Some merchants like Dan and Whit’s General Store in Norwich offer perks. “We carry tons of supplies for hikers and are known to give away day-old sandwiches, loaves of bread and other items when we have leftovers,” says owner Dan Fraser. Lou’s Restaurant & Bakery in Hanover offers hikers a free donut or cruller, and Ramunto’s Brick and Brew gives them a free slice of pizza.
Not all Trail Angels are within the network. One woman observed a young hiker limping down Main Street. She stopped the hiker to ask what was wrong and learned that she had a pain in her tailbone. Without hesitation, she drove her to an urgent care for treatment and a drugstore to pick up her medication, and then bought her to lunch before finding a hostel where she could stay until she recovered.
A phenomenon known as Trail Magic is a close cousin to Trail Angels. Hikers may find unexpected pleasures along the trail, such as a cache of cold water bottles in a stream, a metal container of cookies next to a tree or a bunch of tomatoes dangling from a sign. Former hikers or their families sometimes stage cookouts where the trail crosses the highway. “We take offense when a hiker refuses to stop for a hamburger,” one reports.
Hanover and Norwich are hiker-friendly towns. Last year, about 700 hikers made it this far. This year, Trail Angels are again helping them combat the challenge of hunger, fatigue, blisters, and aches and pains as they graciously welcome them. “The hospitality of Hanover’s Trail Angel network is unmatched,” says one hiker.