Words: Hudson Baird    ///    Photos: Richard Carpenter


I first heard about the John Muir Trail while on a run in downtown Austin.

A friend had recently returned from the California trek, and his half smile reminiscing about blisters, hunger, and cold captured all the ingredients of a first-rate adventure. His memories proved the right spark to start me on my own quest to secure permits and recruit a band of fellow hikers for the trip. And, like so many who had hiked these miles before, I’d come to learn that tired feet and trying days, mountain peaks and alpine lakes, all offered wisdom for both on and away from the trail.

While permit applications, obscure logistics for food shipments, and route planning all proved complex, the riddle my hiking crew struggled with most was pack weight. We built gear lists, calorie-per-ounce spreadsheets, and a cost-benefit analysis comparing ultralight equipment (with Gossamer Gear poles, Frogg Toggs, and cheap camp shoes particular favorites).

Weight became a proxy for comfort, pace, and hygiene. Traveling light wasn’t cheap, and we struggled with when to buy ultralight items to replace old heavy gear. We divided a med kit, GPS transponder, and extra fuel among us before each selecting a luxury we’d bring along to share.

Where we got stuck was our bear canisters. No matter how shrewd our calculations seemed (with peanut butter and ramen as pound-for-pound winners), there wasn’t enough room for all the food we needed. After resupplying early, our decision to hike the 116 miles from Muir Ranch to Mt. Whitney over eight days wasn’t looking so smart. That’s how we found ourselves cold and hungry at Rae Lakes—one of the most beautiful campsites of our hike—in hopes of meeting a friend. 

Our battery-drinking GPS had a messaging feature, and Andrew, an old friend of one of my hiking buddies, had texted out of the blue that he planned to meet us there. That unscheduled stop would set us back a day, but Andrew had promised to hike over 20 miles with friends and fresh food in tow. For hours, we speculated about his burden: Would he bring gas station junk food (our hope)? New ramen flavors? Any sort of protein? More freeze dried meals (our fear)?

We arrived at the lake early, scouted the scattered campsites, washed our clothes, made bets on how the world had changed, and then began to lose hope. At 6:00 p.m., we first considered digging into our own provisions. By seven, we were boiling water; and at eight, we were bundled in all our layers, finished with a solemn dinner.

As the first of us stirred toward the tents before the cold settled in, we spotted a vagabond in the low shadows of sunset bounding into camp.

Breathless, Andrew rushed to our meager circle of Jetboils and explained their day of bouldering, thunderstorms, and a frenzied search for us around the lake. As his fellow travelers followed into camp, they opened their daypacks to reveal a cornucopia of provisions. Their packs proved bottomless, with fresh vegetables, assorted spices, sugar-packed cereal, pancake mix, and cast iron skillets within which to cook their feast.

So, we sat up—later than we did any other night—to share dinner and reminisce about the hike with new friends. Our three guests had thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and were excited to be back on a familiar stretch of soil. We savored their encouragement as much as their sustenance, and only discovered the next morning, after a pancake breakfast, that they had sacrificed personal provisions—cowboy camping and forgoing their own dinner—to bring us two home-cooked meals.

That meal lifted our spirits, quickened our pace, and gave us the strength to push through aches and pains to the end. Since returning, their gift of undeserved hospitality continues to resonate.

Three strangers thought nothing of hiking several miles to offer a radical gesture of generosity. It was an offering made doubly sacred because they understood our journey. As fellow hikers, they knew the small victories and blisters that make the trip. They fixed one of our water filters, volunteered detailed advice on the road ahead, and filled their packs with our trash and unused supplies so our final stretch could be lighter.

Their kindness cost them something, yet it was an offering they were delighted to extend. Most days, I’m too cheap to pick up a good bottle of wine and too protective of my time to drive across town for dinner with an old friend.

As we begged for ways we could return the favor, Andrew paused, noticeably, to remind us that this is a thru-hiking tradition called trail magic. Our responsibility, he explained, was to surprise someone else down the road—a responsibility I continue to reflect upon.

Andrew and his friends had trained to live with little so their strength could sustain someone else. And while I won’t make it back out for a long hike anytime soon, I can still be ready to offer trail magic to weary travelers back home.

For me, this has meant reflecting on how much I carry that isn’t necessary. On the trail, it’s an attachment to my tent, hot morning coffee, and an extra pair of socks. Here at home, it’s friendships where I want to be needed, a packed schedule so I don’t feel the discomfort of being still, other people’s versions of success I hold as my own, and guilt for days with nothing to show for them.

I’ve begun, ever so slowly, and with the help of well-traveled friends, to lighten my own burden. This offers me the freedom to choose what comes next. I may decide to travel farther and faster. I may decide to pick up a few things—a new hobby, friendship, or volunteering opportunity—that brings me delight.

And, eventually, somewhere down the line, I’ll see the right moment to carry someone else’s heavy pack for a while. 


Hudson Baird is an aspiring fly fisherman, failed gardener, and occasional poet. During the day, you can find him in an Austin coffee shop helping build a better way for adults to earn a college degree with PelotonU. At night, he’s likely recruiting friends for a new far-flung adventure. You can follow him on Instagram.
December 02, 2020 — Gossamer Gear