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A Tale of Trail Magic: Kindness of Strangers Makes a Wonderland Trail Journey Extra Special

Trail magic: It’s what happens when kind-hearted people extend unsolicited acts of generosity to bedraggled long-distance hikers. From personal experience, I can tell you it is a thing of beauty.

To be on the receiving end is heavenly, and to witness such selfless gestures is a reassuring reminder that the human heart, in spite of downbeat headlines in the nightly news, is capable of startling goodness—more readily displayed, it often seems to me, when the outdoors is involved.

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I was reminded of all this when, over a 3-day span earlier this month, a tidal wave of trail magic swept over me during a 6-day hike around Mount Rainier’s 92-mile Wonderland Trail.

Day 2

After marching 15.5 miles on Day 1 and 20.6 tough, up-and-down miles on the second day, it was close to sunset when I finally wandered into the White River Campground on Rainier’s east side.

I was ready to stop walking, but first I needed to locate the walk-in campsites somewhere on the periphery of the drive-in campground. A voice called out as I sauntered along one of the paved loop roads: “How are you doing?”

I turned to face a fit, smiling, fiftysomething fellow. I said I was doing pretty well, all factors considered, though I was ready to fall over and catch some Zs after 2 days of heavy hoofing; more long mileage to come.

Turns out he backpacked a lot in younger days, so he and his wife were sympathetic. “Are you hungry?” Only all the time, I thought to myself. My my heart sped up as he uttered those sweet, sweet words: “Why don’t you come on over for some food?”

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A handful of Cheetos would have been fantastic. Instead, Derek and Renee—from the cozy Seattle neighborhood of Wallingford—turned out to be vegetarian gourmands.

Derek asked if I minded leftovers. I laughed at the question, as if I was going to be picky. But what leftovers: stuffed grape leaves, seasoned mozzarella balls, artichoke hearts, a spring salad mix with multihued heirloom cherry tomatoes. Dessert? Hard cheese strips and cinnamon-dusted figs, artfully presented on compostable plates.

“Real foods,” Renee said to me. “Very important.” Yes, ma’am, I nodded. Amen to that. You are so right. Could you please pass the broiled asparagus?

Derek and Renee’s giving train kept rolling the next morning when they agreed to drive my backpack up to Sunrise so I didn’t have to lug it up the Wonderland Trail’s roughly 2,000-foot incline over the next 2.1 miles. Derek and Renee, whose last names I’m embarrassed to say I cannot recall (or maybe never got), thank you.

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A morning view of Rainier during the ascent to Sunrise. Photo: ©2012 T.D. Wood.

Day 3

Up at Sunrise, a popular gathering spot for visitors, electrical outlets exist, and I needed one. But most were inaccessible on this particular Tuesday, the day after Labor Day. Why? Because park personnel were behind locked doors, busy packing things away and preparing facilities for winter.

Yet I was desperate for an outlet to recharge my camera battery, already drained to zero after clicking flower fields without restraint near Indian Bar the previous day. The only outlet I could find: between 2 lavatories in the men’s public restroom. Grateful, I plugged in the charger.

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While at Sunrise I also wanted to find a ranger and request a change to my trail permit. My original 5-day itinerary called for me to plod 24.3-miles on this day, but after some hard, long climbs on Monday, 24 miles today seemed too quick, too focused on mileage (for my state of mind and body) and not the experience.

I eventually spotted volunteer ranger Jim Miltimore, who along with his wife, Carol, is a legendary park volunteer, as described in this 2011 REI Blog post.

Jim radioed Carol in the White River wilderness information center, and she secured reservations at new campsites for me. Great; I was all set. A 6-day itinerary would be just right—challenging but visually and emotionally rewarding.

Jim and I walked together as I headed to the restroom to retrieve my battery, and (you know what’s coming, don’t you?) discovered some lowlife scoundrel had swiped the battery out of my charger.

It was a dagger to the heart. I am a Cleveland Browns fan, so I know about disappointment and despair. But I think at that moment I was as wholly crestfallen as I had ever been. Ahead of me were 4 days of hiking on one of America’s premier trails, and I had no way to photograph the experience.

I was desultory, drained, borderline sullen. I sighed deeply.

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“Anyone find a battery? Take a battery?” I bellowed toward the not-very-crowded parking lot. One guy walked by and asked, “Do you really think anyone is going to going to admit they took it?”

No, but if the bad guy was out there I thought he should know he had left a fellow human in a serious lurch, swiping irreplaceable candy from a long-haul hiker who had no ability to remedy a suddenly bad situation. The loss really stung.

One of Jim’s fellow volunteers, Carol Berry from Puyallup (a city between Seattle and Tacoma), saw my inconsolable state and sympathized. She eyeballed my charger.

“Let me go to my car,” she said and wandered off. She returned with her camera, popped open a latch and produced a battery identical to the one my camera used.

“Here,” she said. “Take this with you.”

I stood dumbfounded with delight. How about that for an awesome act on behalf of a total stranger?

Carol Berry—retired after 30 years in nursing, now doing volunteer work at Rainier—may not have ever done a nicer deed in her life than that single gesture. The images seen in this post and the slide show found in this post would not exist had our paths not crossed. I essentially floated out the Sunrise lot, recharged camera in hand, a song in my heart. Carol Berry, thank you.

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St. Andrews Lake on Mount Rainier's west side at sunset. Photo: ©2012 T.D. Wood.

Day 4

The extra day added to my itinerary meant I could linger in one of the prettiest parts of Rainier, Spray Park and its next-door jewel, Seattle Park, 2 high-elevation wonderlands near the park’s northwest corner. Boy, I just love that area.

Up on the 6,400-foot ridge that divides Spray from Seattle, I say Hi to an at-rest scenery-gazer perched on a rock who thought I look familiar. Turns out we’ve never met, though, and I waved as I headed out to explore rock and ice along this spine of the mountain.

Hours later the two of us happen to reconnect way down the trail. We wind up walking together for about 2 miles, taking in some side trails and gawking at the views as a team. Eventually he tells me not to bother filtering any water; his motor home in the nearby Mowich Lake parking area has more than 2 dozen gallons of water and he’d be happy to offload one of them into my reservoir and bottles.

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Not only that, 74-year-old Don Meek (appropriate name), a spry-looking retiree from Lynnwood, Wash. (north of Seattle), decides to invite me in for dinner. Whoa; my eyes can’t help but spin. A triple shot of trail magic in 3 days? I started looking around for Tinker Bell and her stuff sack full of stardust.

I tell Don: Don’t trouble yourself. But he insists. So, OK. I walk off to go set up camp at one of the lake’s walk-in sites, and Don’s not even angry at me when I show up 20-plus minutes late at his rig because I got carried away yakking with other hikers in camp. He sets me up with chicken alfredo, green beans and (drum roll) cherry ice cream. All this 17 miles from a paved road. “I just like doing things for people,” Don tells me. Boy, no kidding. What a treat for me. Don Meek, thank you.

Plus: I didn’t even mention the backpacker at Sunrise who handed me bags of nuts, dried apples and energy chews because he was done with his Wonderland hike. I told him just to take it home. He said, no, use it on the trail. I couldn’t finish the apples. I passed them on to another hiker. She said she’d share them with others. Nice. Lots of good energy was flowing on the trail that week.

How many good-hearted people can a single hiker encounter in a such short span of time? Apparently quite a few. Wow; Derek, Renee, Carol and Don, thank you all so much. And thanks to all the unheralded trail magic-makers out there whose selfless efforts make life on the trail extra-nice for the hiking community.

What’s your trail magic story?

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On a flower-lined trail in St. Andrews Park. Photo: ©2012 T.D. Wood.

Photos © 2012 T.D. Wood. Top to bottom: trail in Spray Park; steep slopes west of Indian Bar; morning view of Rainier during ascent to Sunrise; waterfall along trail near snout of Carbon River (north side of mountain); flower-lined trail through St. Andrews Park; St. Andrews Lake at sunset; Mirror Lake (near Indian Henrys Hunting Ground, west side of mountain); flowers and sign in Klapatche Park (west side).

Footnote: Where are photos of the good Samaritans mentioned in this story? It never dawned on T.D., Mr. Hypnotized by the Scenery, to take any. Considering the selflessness of each person, none of whom stepped forward just to rake in personal glory, maybe it’s just as well

Posted on at 10:00 AM

Tagged: Backpacking, Hiking, Mount Rainier National Park, Wonderland Trail and national parks

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BigBlueSkiesAndABigWhiteDog

Great story! Awesome pics! Can't wait to join the fun! Thanks!

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Eagle Scout Patrick

Those pictures look amazing. I look forward when my family can go here. Do you think it is a family appropriate hike? ( Wife with pack. Myself with Osprey Poco with the little man (2 years) in it.

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T.D. Wood Staff Member

Hi ESP,

Sorry for the slow reply. Is the Wonderland Trail family appropriate? It depends on the family, but in general I would say no. The trail has many steep climbs and sharp descents, and that would probably wear down a couple trying to keep a 2-year-old content. I would recommend trying a portion of the trail as a family to see how you respond to it. Consider doing an overnight stay at Summerland, for instance. It's a fairly steep hike from the Fryingpan Creek Bridge up to Summerland. Maybe spend 2 nights there and hike up to Panhandle Gap (the highest point on the WT) on Day 2. That gives you a chance to test your family on some of the trail's toughest terrain in a small dose. If that seems like a breeze to you and the fam, then by all means, give the whole WT a shot. But to most couples with a little one, I suggest tackling more modest ambitions.

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