At Home on the Appalachian Trail

Janet Hensley grew up a stone’s throw from the AT. Since then, she’s devoted her life to helping people hike it.

For the past eight years, Janet Hensley has lived in a van from March to November, never straying more than a few minutes from the Appalachian Trail (AT). The 56-year-old trail volunteer shuttles hikers from trailheads to hostels, doling out trail magic—small but significant acts of service—among the thru-hiking community, putting 40,000 miles on her odometer each year. Her relationship to the AT started out as a side project when she was only 16, before morphing into something near a full-time profession a little more than a decade later. Until recently, she wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“I’ve always loved being on the trail,” she says. “I love being around people, hearing the stories, seeing the enthusiasm.” Hensley, or Miss Janet, as the AT community calls her, has a knack for showing up at the exact moment when hikers could use a boost. “When you need her, she’s just there,” says Anne Marie Scott, a hiker from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who sought Hensley’s support when she pulled a tendon halfway through a 2019 thru-hike attempt near Gardners, Pennsylvania.

“The Appalachian Trail wouldn’t be what it is today without Miss Janet,” wrote the author of Where’s the Next Shelter?, Gary Sizer, on the long-distance thru-hiking blog The Trek. Hensley is a legend—what members of the community call a trail angel. But since 2018 Hensley has quietly been considering stepping back. Last summer, she announced plans to take a hiatus from the AT beginning this spring. 

For almost as long as she’s been shuttling hikers along the route between Amicalola Falls, Georgia, and Mount Katahdin, Maine, Hensley has battled Lyme disease, which can make life on the road unbearable. The donations she earns through her services only stretch so far and, without a regular 9-to-5, the medical bills are piling up. She also experiences depression. Life on the road is becoming tough to maintain. “I have been struggling to remain relevant,” she says.

Hikers worry the trail won’t be the same without her. “There’s a kind of comfort that you know that Miss Janet really does care about all of us out here and the success of our hike,” Scott says. “If you encounter Miss Janet you become one of her children.” 

Hensley isn’t sure how long she’ll be able to stay away. But in today’s digital climate, where technology helps fuel the thirst for instant gratification and ridesharing has found its way to even the longest hiking-only footpath in the world, she’s identified a need to look inward, to turn a bit of her generous spirit on herself. 

“I was on the trail all the time,” she says of the era when she spent long, tireless days transporting hikers between 2011 and 2018. “But I can’t be that person anymore. I want to remove myself from the Miss Janet persona. I’ve got to take care of myself first and see what happens.”

Miss Janet poses inside her white van

Hensley has helped shuttle hikers along the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail for the last eight years.

Hensley was born in Childress, Texas, in 1963. Her dad’s work as a railroad laborer took the family to the Appalachian Mountains, where in 1979 they settled two miles from the 2,190-mile hiking path near Erwin, Tennessee. The trail was an escape from the beginning. “I ran away and hiked almost every day,” she says. “I have six younger brothers and sisters. If I didn’t get up and leave pretty early in the morning, I ended up having to babysit or work in the garden or something else.” 

During the 1970s, the Appalachian Trail began to balloon in popularity. With each advancing spring, the Hensleys’ quiet mountain hideaway, located a stone’s throw from Erwin, Tennessee, evolved into a sort of way station, with Hensley’s mom, Carol Price, inviting hikers in for peanut butter sandwiches or fried catfish. “I had food and I knew they were walking,” Price, now 79, says. “I figured it would be nice if they had food to take in the woods.” When their packs were light on essentials, Price took them into Erwin so they could resupply.

“I’d come home and mom would have these people in her house,” Hensley says. “I’d ask them, ‘You’re doing what? There’s a trail from Georgia to Maine?’” Not long after Hensley earned her driver’s license, she picked up a group of wayward hikers in Erwin and brought them shopping. The habit stuck.

Soon, Henlsey was offering lifts to thru-hikers whenever she spotted them on the side of the road. “Being cold, wet, tired and hungry in the woods sometimes makes people vulnerable,” she says. At 16, Hensley was already battling seasonal affective disorder; her conversations with thru-hikers gave her a way to process her emotions. “I was finding that they felt a lot of the same things I felt, and it made me feel less alone in the world,” she says. “To think, here are these people from all over the world doing this crazy thing, and we’re talking about the same things on the side of the river, listening to the birds.”

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that Hensley started to organize her life around the AT. After leaving for school in Johnson City, Tennessee, she married in 1983, giving birth to three girls in the six short years that followed. But when her marriage ended in divorce in 1989, she retreated to Erwin. Once again, the draw of the trail was near-instant. 

“All of a sudden there’s like three times more hikers,” she says. “Instead of just seeing one or two, there’s groups sitting around and standing around. I just automatically introduced my children to trail magic. I said, ‘Hey, we’re going to give these hikers a ride to the grocery store.’”

In 1997, she founded what she calls an “accidental hostel,” when she began inviting hikers to spend the night in her home, only a couple miles from the nearest trailhead.

Filling her house with hikers was a rewarding distraction, but space was at a premium. In 2000, Hensley cobbled together savings from the salary she was earning as a technician and bookkeeper at the Erwin Holiday Inn Express and upgraded to a large Victorian home, opening a hostel she called Miss Janet’s House. That first year, a few dozen hikers stayed over. In the eight years that followed, Hensley went on to host more than 10,000.

“You were a part of the family, even if there were 20 of you,” she says. 

“There were tents in the backyard or people sleeping on the trampoline,” says Hensley’s youngest daughter, Kaitlyn Hensley, 30. “They were in the living room, and people were sprawled all over the floor, too.”

Despite a lively, cheerful house, the cloud of Hensley’s depression never fully lifted. The nonstop socializing could be exhausting. “I was becoming more social in a way that I didn’t know how to deal with,” she says. “I needed a character and the best and easiest one at my disposal was Miss Janet.”  

The back of Miss Janet's van with a bumper sticker on it

Hensley’s van is covered in bumper stickers. Over the course of her career, she’s owned more than six vans in various colors.

In 2008, once Hensley’s daughters were grown, she boarded up the hostel and hit the road. For the next few years, she bounced between the AT and sunny Florida, trying to soothe her depression. After a failed thru-hike attempt in 2011, she found herself once again cruising the mountain roads that parallel the trail, her eyes tracing the shoulder for thru-hikers with their thumbs jabbing north. Before she knew it, she was back in the game, crisscrossing states, ferrying hikers on their way to Mount Katahdin in Maine.

Over the years, Hensley says she was drawn to the trail and for the difference she knew she could make. “I used to feel compelled to be out there,” she says. “It made me feel useful and it made me feel helpful.” She craved it, too. “I’ve always needed that in my life. To feel like I’m making a difference—even if it’s just in someone’s day.”

That sentiment hasn’t dissipated for Hensley. But now, she says, taking a break from the AT is a necessary part of the healing process. Already this winter, she’s seeking more therapy, taking new medication. She has big dreams for a budding business, Aimless Photography, and maybe writing a memoir. 

Come spring, the AT community won’t be hurting for helpers. These days, there are plenty of others doling out trail magic. Tim Davis, a 55-year-old electrician from Runup Rapids, North Carolina, for example, has been helping hikers along the trail for the past three years. Hikers call him Fresh Ground for the hot coffee he pours from a French press before loading up in a blue sedan and heading north to intercept the next group. “I start in Georgia, then I just set up and cook homestyle Southern food: pancakes, sloppy joes, grilled cheese and hot dogs,” he says.

Though Davis and Hensley have met only once, he maintains respect: “She’s a standard that’s hard to hold,” he says. “Her standard of giving and love is just monumental.”

As for Hensley, she’s unsure how long she’ll stay away from the trail—one, two, three seasons? Like her initial draw to the AT and those who walk it, this decision too will come naturally. “It’s like a river of people,” she says, reflecting on the community. “So, I just jump in the river and just go. When I get tired of being in an area or a place, I move along.”

All photos by Jonathan Olivier.