on the magnetic power of doing something hard in a remote place
After 40 long miles and a steep mountain pass, I cycle into Redstone, the tiny tourist village along Colorado Highway 133. I pedal straight to the General Store advertising ICE CREAM in big block letters.
Busying herself in the ice cream cart is a fifty-something woman who introduces herself as Gina. She asks where I’m from. I say California. She says “Where in California?” I say “South Lake Tahoe.” Her eyes light up. Gina is a recently retired firefighter from Placerville, just down the hill from Tahoe.
She asks me about my bike trip, where I’m headed, my ride from Paonia. Finally, we turn to the subject of ice cream. “What can I get you, hun?” Budget-conscious traveler that I am, I squint at the prices on the little chalkboard, washed away by yesterday’s rain. I ask her how much two scoops cost. “Don’t worry, we’ll figure that out later.” She insists that I just order. Okay—mint chip and brownie ice cream it is!
Gina packs a pint-sized container to the brim with roughly six scoops of ice cream. She hands it to me, gestures toward a hammock, and tells me to relax. Mouth agape, I thank her, settle into the hammock, and demolish the container.
Fifteen minutes later, thoroughly relaxed and engorged, I push my bike over to Gina. “What do I owe you?” She smiles. “Oh, nothing. You earned it. Pay it forward some day.”
My god—bless you Gina.
“Trail magic” is generosity bestowed upon adventurers—especially those making a physically demanding trek through a remote location.
I first heard this term in the Pacific Crest Trail community, describing the nice things that locals would do for the thru-hikers, such as leaving caches of drinking water in the longest, driest stretches of the Southern California desert.
My High Sierra backpacking trips produced quite a bit of trail magic, largely related to cold drinks and hot/rare foods. I think of the beer and avocado that my friends and I were gifted near Muir Pass, the Coke and bratwurst on the Tahoe Rim Trail, and the many hitchhikes along Highway 395—once with a Highway Patrol officer. During the summers I lived in South Lake Tahoe, I also had the chance to give trail magic to PCT hikers in the form of food, rides, and hosting.
But bicycle tours, I’m learning, engender plenty of trail magic, too.
On my first long bike trip, following the East Coast Greenway through rural Virginia, I paused outside a house to put on a jacket. A woman walked out, said hello, and handed me a bottle of water and a granola bar. She immediately waved goodbye and went back inside. That choked me up a little.
On my European cycling adventures, I stayed with Couchsurfing and Warmshowers hosts who insisted on feeding me, showering me, and putting me up in a comfy bed—simply because I was on a long bike ride.
And on my current trip through Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana—which I’m still in the middle of—I’ve been on the receiving end of all sorts of magic:
Receiving a spontaneous hitchhike up a mountain pass from Regina, an Argentinian from Crested Butte, who turned out to be a friend-of-a-friend
Learning about a significant bike path closure from a Warmshowers host—and a cheap bus that would help me re-route
JR, a bike shop mechanic, adjusting my brake pads for free—because “those on tour don’t pay”
Getting a lift from Lucas, a comic artist and Greek olive oil bottler, across the Colorado-Wyoming border, saving me from a few hellaciously long days
A van full of teen boys at a gas station in Medicine Bow hooting and cheering after learning that I was cycling across Wyoming
A friendly ranger allowing me to spend the night at Fort Steele, despite the prominent “No Camping” signs
Trina from Kentucky, pulling over in her RV when I’m stopped at a pullout in Wyoming, asking if I need anything. “No thanks,” I say. “Not even a popsicle or fruit juice?” Well… okay!
Stumbling upon the Jeffrey City Bike Hostel and St. Thomas' Episcopal in Dubois: two churches that put cyclists (and hikers) up for free
Hitching a ride to Yellowstone with Allen, a Colorado Trail hiker and ESL teacher from St. Louis who works with refugee teens, which allowed me to take a full rest day in Bozeman
The punchline is: People want to help you when you’re in the middle of an adventure. Especially when you’re exposing yourself to discomfort, uncertainty, and the physical environment. That’s awesome.
But trail magic can also get you addicted to adventure when it convinces you that you’re living in a magical universe and a gift economy centered around your needs. Combined with the simple pleasures of continuously using your body, being immersed in nature, meeting like-minded fellow travelers, and not working a job you dislike—it’s easy to see how one might want to pursue adventure all the time.
Not that I know anyone like that.