Trail Magic, Part 2: The Innkeeper

[Click here to read Part 1.]

Some of my favorite spontaneous moments with Danielle in our 9 years together have come when we’ve stumbled upon a fascinating person during a hike, or at a check-out counter, or at a dog park. Just like my sweetly extroverted dad, and unlike my sweetly introverted wife, I get a kick out of striking up conversations with strangers. So you can imagine my delight when we arrived at Quarry Gap Shelter and discovered, in the flesh, none other than “Jim the Innkeeper” — so revered in the Appalachian Trail subculture — doing upkeep at his primitive little “inn.”


A handful of through-hikers (those intrepid souls hiking all the way from Georgia to Maine) had spent the night at Jim’s shelter, and when we arrived they were chatting with Jim and organizing their backpacks for the long journey to the next shelter. We chatted with one of these through-hikers, whose trail name — they all have trail names — was Atticus.

My eyes immediately widened with appreciation for this allusion to one of my favorite literary characters, but as it turned out, the To Kill a Mockingbird connection was only secondary. This fellow had in fact named himself after Following Atticus, a memoir by and about a man, Tom Ryan, trying to scale 48 mountains in New Hampshire with his small dog, Atticus, who was himself named after Atticus Finch.

The author’s animating cause was to raise money for charity after his close friend had died of cancer. Reading the book so inspired this hiker that he decided to hike the entire A.T., and he gave himself the trail name of Atticus as a tribute. You can click here to read a short letter that Atticus (the man named after a real dog) wrote to Tom Ryan, owner of Atticus (the dog named after a fictional man).

Once Atticus had packed up and resumed his northward trek toward Maine, Danielle and I — with Greyson resting affably on my chest — struck up a conversation with the man of the hour, Jim the Innkeeper.

Before I introduce him, let me explain the blog post title he inspired. “Trail magic” is a term I heard about many years ago from Bill Bryson’s book, A Walk in the Wild, about his own Appalachian Trail hike. The term refers to any unexpected gift or grace or act of generosity that a hiker receives in the course of her journey. It is part and parcel of A.T. lore, and lavish stories about it are passed down from through-hiking generation to through-hiking generation.

Trail magic takes many forms. It could be a bag of Snickers bars left with a friendly note on a tree stump along the trail. Or it could be a free ride from a trail crossing into town to get burgers and shakes. Or in perhaps its most generous iteration, it could be an unsolicited offer of a night spent at a benevolent stranger’s house, complete with a hot shower and a warm mattress.

That brings me at last to Jim Stauch, who has been conjuring up trail magic deep in the south Pennsylvanian woods for nearly 40 years. Jim embodies the old-school American values of loyalty, rugged individualism, civic duty, nature conservation, and stubborn libertarianism. He’s a gregarious version of Ron Swanson.

Jim’s vision, dedication, and sheer manual labor are the sole reasons why — as I mentioned in Part 1 — the much-loved Quarry Gap Shelter has two beautifully crafted large wood-floored rooms, separated by an open-air dining area, and is adorned with hanging baskets of brightly colored pansies; a small picnic pavilion; a collection of books; a decorative sundial flanked by daffodils; a beautifully maintained stone fire pit; and a lovingly crafted and engraved 2-person porch swing. (Below you can see 2 persons using the swing.)


Oh, I almost forgot about one tiny adornment I forgot in Part 1 — the ceramic frog perched near the edge of the woods. Greyson smiled as soon as he saw that little guy.

On this particular day of shelter upkeep, Jim had with him a rake, a hoe, a bucket, and some mortar. Earlier we had come across Jim’s trusty assistant Bill, who was arduously lugging more bags of mortar up the grinding ascent of the trail. With these tools of his trailblazing trade, Jim was carefully doing upkeep on the shelter’s stone fire pit — over which thousands of through-hiking nomads and overnight ramblers had warmed their campfire dinners through the years.

Quarry Gap Shelter was originally built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of FDR’s New Deal programs to provide work relief to young men. Jim Rauch stumbled upon the shelter in 1981 on a hunting trip, and at the time it was maintained by a Gettysburg College fraternity. “The place was a mess, a trash heap,” Jim reportedly once told an inquisitive hiker. So he adopted it as his own and has now made it the stuff of A.T. legend.

To give some sense of the scope of Jim’s work, here is an excerpt from a through-hiker named Wiseguy, writing about his own journey on a website called The Trek:

The quaint and comfortable stopover we have today is thanks to the hard work of these folks from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, and Jim the Innkeeper, who averages around 500 miles and 1,000 hours of work each year maintaining 12 miles of trail and Quarry Gap Shelter itself, which he visits an estimated 100 times each season. “The work is never done,” Jim says. “I try to add something new every year to the shelter area.”

Jim is industrious, but he’s no nose-to-the-grindstone worker bee. He’s also an avid talker. A man after my own heart. It appeared to be his mission to make a warm personal connection with every wayfarer who crossed his path, especially those tired trekkers who availed themselves of his lovingly maintained shelter. Jim chatted genially with each of the half-dozen hikers who was packing their backpacks for the day ahead. And once they had embarked on their journey, he chatted just as genially with us anniversary day-trippers.

We learned that Jim met his wife Doris when they were in middle school together, and now — more than half a century later — the two of them have a standing dinner date every Tuesday night. Jim owns a cabin a mile away from his shelter. He joked with us that when he recently asked Doris what she wanted for her birthday, she playfully suggested a visit to his cabin for the weekend.

By himself.

So it sounds like Jim’s not the only one in the relationship who values individualism.

That brings me to my next point: Jim resents being micromanaged. When he once decided to install small solar ground lights around the shelter that would glow at night to guide hikers to the outhouse, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) rebuked him for the move. They felt it would detract from the shelter’s primitive vibe.

Jim essentially told them to shove it.

In the end, the local A.T. chapter managed to persuade their respected colleague Jim to fall in line on this one. But not before he had spoken his piece and let the ATC know — in vintage Ron Swanson style — that he thought they were full of bureaucratic hooey.

When the ATC registered their unease over the years about other shelter adornments, such as the hanging flower baskets and the small picnic pavilion that Jim hand-crafted, he dug in his heels and refused to flinch. And in those cases, the ATC bigwigs were the ones that ended up falling in line.

Quarry Gap Shelter has been Jim’s labor of love since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. It’s hard to wrap my head around that level of tireless commitment. Nearly 4 decades of trail conservation and A.T. shelter maintenance, with zero profit motive and — from what I could gather — zero desire to be publicly honored. I asked Jim if anyone had ever written a book about him and he amiably balked at the notion.

Jim the Innkeeper doesn’t want to be the subject of a book. He does what he does purely for love of the great outdoors, in the service of a trail that is one of our great national treasures. He’s not on social media, publicizing his work and promoting his brand. He’s not actively trying to etch himself into the annals of history. He’s not looking to be anyone’s hero.

But that’s precisely what he is to the weary souls who take shelter at Quarry Gap for a night.

An unexpected, often unseen hero.

An industrious woodland artisan.

A friendly, methodical innkeeper.

A conjurer of trail magic.


Trail Magic, Part 1

The 2,185-mile-long corridor of the Appalachian Trail has cast a spell over me for decades.

I’ve explored a few hundred of its magical miles in my life — slogging through the soggy, fog-enshrouded Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina with my church youth group as an earnest teenager; traversing Maine’s dense, desolate “100-mile wilderness” with my brother Nate as a nomadic 20-something; and day-hiking my way around the rocky rolling hills of the home state I’ve rediscovered in my settled-down 30s.

I recently showed Danielle (and our wonder-eyed Greyson) one of the most enchanted spots I’ve found in my A.T. ramblings — the rhododendron tunnels north of Caledonia State Park. It was our 7-year anniversary, and instead of taking flowers to her I thought I’d take her to the flowers.

As it turned out, we were a few weeks early for the rhododendrons. But even without any petaled adornments, it’s a dazzling sensory experience to walk through what is essentially a tunnel carved out of the forest. That’s right — a tunnel! In the forest!

The visual effect is striking. Branches wrap around and above the path to construct a leafy trail ceiling. Dark green fills up your field of vision as you walk through the shady corridor. The long, narrow rhododendron leaves that proliferate on the path around you look like lush portals to a remote rainforest. Carefully constructed stone stairways guiding your ascent through the trees make the place feel less remote but somehow even more magical.


It’s a lovely spot, and all the more lovely for being unlike anything else I’ve seen on the Appalachian Trail (or elsewhere). When I first stumbled upon it several summers ago, its singular beauty caught me off-guard at the tail end of a lengthy day hike. That time, the rhododendrons were in the glow of full bloom.

I felt like I had accidentally wandered through the wardrobe and into the enchanted woods of Narnia. As if cloven-hooved Mr. Tumnus might suddenly emerge from the trees and invite me to his cave for a spot of tea.

But what makes this stretch of the trail even more magical is the nearby shelter. For those who are unfamiliar, the Appalachian Trail features primitive shelters, unmanned and sometimes unmaintained, roughly every 10 miles along the entirety of its length. These shelters allow “through-hikers” — those hardy, ennobled souls who trek all the way from Georgia to Maine — a dry place to sleep every night if they plan their route accordingly. Most shelters are bare-bones, single-room edifices designed purely to fulfill a practical function. Just a roof over your head, and wooden beams beneath your bum. No frills.

Quarry Gap Shelter, perched right at the top of the rhododendron tunnels, is decidedly different. It has hanging baskets of brightly colored pansies. It has a small picnic pavilion. It has a collection of books. It has not one but two large wood-floored rooms, separated by an open-air dining area. It has a ceramic frog and a decorative sundial flanked by daffodils. It has a beautifully maintained stone fire pit. It has a 2-person porch swing, lovingly crafted and engraved with the name of the shelter.

And the reason Quarry Gap Shelter has all of these things most shelters don’t have is that it has something else most shelters don’t have — its very own “innkeeper.”

His name is Jim Stauch. He’s been conjuring up trail magic in the middle of the woods for nearly 40 years. In the A.T. subculture, his name is legendary.

And as I now know after meeting Jim, that lofty status is quite well-deserved.

In Part 2, later this week, I’ll introduce you to Jim and his trail magic. I promise you he’s well worth knowing.

Thanks for reading!

In the Backseat, Part 2: Idaho Hope Springs Eternal

So there we were, stuck on an Idaho Springs off-ramp in a pummeling blizzard. I was wracked with both anxiety (on behalf of my own family) and guilt (on behalf of the people directly behind me). But as I nervously got out and approached the guys who were trying to decide what to do about their own stuck trucks, I realized they didn’t seem anxious at all. One was a professional truck driver, one was driving a car, and one had a burly pickup truck. All three exuded calm composure — and even levity — about our powdery predicament.

Of course, it helps that none of them had a sleeping baby boy in the backseat.

The three guys — Sam, James, and Isaac — matter-of-factly discussed how we could work together to extricate our little Chevy Cruze from the ever-deepening snow. This despite the fact that, as it turned out, dislodging our car wouldn’t actually help them dislodge their own trucks. It’s hard to explain any of this without a diagram of the exit ramp, but suffice it to say that their freedom was not contingent on us but on the tractor trailer stuck next to us.

All of which means this: For them to help us get free would be an act of sheer generosity.

And man oh man were they generous with their time and efforts. Between the 3 of them and my industrious wife — she insisted on helping but didn’t want to be in the driver’s seat since the margin of needle-threading error was so small — the four of them gave it the proverbial ol’ college try over and over, pushing the car from behind while I tried to steer it through a narrow, snow-packed corridor without veering into the stuck tractor trailer.* We would go forward 2 feet, then the front tire would fish-tail toward the tractor trailer, then I’d slam on my brakes, and then the guys would tell me to back it up 3 or 4 feet. Then we would go forward 3 feet, then the front tire would fish-tail again, then I’d back up… and so on and so on.

[*I’ll add a downer of a side note here to get it out of the way: During one of the times our rental car fish-tailed, I unknowingly nicked the huge tire of the tractor trailer. Danielle noticed the damage later and pointed it out to me. It was a small dent, maybe 4 inches long, above one of our front tires. But that small dent put us on the hook for a whopping $500 deductible. Which more than doubled the cost of our 3-day Utah road trip. So in a moment, our penny-pinching efforts — cheap motel! packing daily sandwiches for the road! strategic Gas Buddy usage! — were negated. Ahh, such is life. Okay, back to the story.]

While we attempted to push the car out of the snow, Greyson finally did wake up and began crying — I’m sure utterly baffled about where we were and what on earth we were doing. The sound of his disoriented tears ratcheted up the stress level of his nerve-shredded parents. After maybe 20 minutes of pushing and pushing, plunging forward and backing up, we all decided to halt our efforts until the adjacent tractor trailer got un-stuck and freed up some much-needed space. Its driver had been methodically working on chaining up his tires this whole time.

Once that driver finally extricated his truck from the greedy jaws of the snow, it occurred to me that the other guys might well have no remaining interest in helping us since there was now more than enough space for them to leave of their own volition.

But as I’ve seen time and again throughout my life, people are often quite extraordinary at surprising you with their willingness to help you out of a jam.

James did leave in his car once space allowed him to. But Isaac and Sam stuck around. Allow me to properly introduce Sam, the driver of the huge black pickup truck. He was around 30 years old and had an easygoing vibe that reminded me of a lot of guys I knew when I lived in Colorado. He was generous and kind, but in a casually unassuming way. I’ve always admired people like that. People who help and aren’t impressed with themselves for helping.

(I should also point out that Sam lived right in Idaho Springs, roughly 2 miles from where we got stuck. He had gotten on the highway an hour earlier to drive to Denver and pick up his girlfriend from work, but almost immediately realized the error of driving even his big, burly pickup truck in such treacherous white-out conditions. So he tried to exit at the first opportunity, which was shortly before we did the same.)

Despite it not benefiting him at all, and despite him being able to leave the off-ramp and go home now that the tractor trailer was gone, Sam stuck around and singlehandedly (singletruckedly?) pulled our car out of the snow using his pickup truck and a tow strap that Isaac, the also-helpful and also-easygoing truck driver, was happy to provide. So between the two of them, our car was extricated from the slush less than 10 minutes after the tractor trailer had freed itself. I thanked Sam and Isaac profusely, offered them some cash — which they both staunchly refused — and told them they had some massive good karma coming their way for their profound and unreciprocated generosity.

But that’s not the end of the story. Not even close.

Here’s where Sam went the extra (in this case actual) mile. He offered to guide us through the town of Idaho Springs, as he drove home to his apartment, to make absolutely sure we found our way to a motel. So we slowly followed him, driving gingerly to ensure we didn’t sabotage our newfound freedom by fish-tailing into a curb or a snowbank.

But as we passed small motel after small motel in this small, cramped mountain town, which is apparently too small to accommodate any high-occupancy motel chains, we saw sign after sign with “NO VACANCY” in bright red neon. My guess is that on a typical Monday night, Idaho Springs has vacancy to spare. But due to the blizzard, all the motels must have quickly sold out to people like us who were trying to escape the wrath of the storm.

After slowly passing 8 or 9 motels while snow softly crunched beneath our tires, Sam pulled into a gas station. I wasn’t entirely sure if I was even meant to still be following him at this point, or if we should just let him head back to his home in peace. But he got out of his truck and walked back to us to chat. He said that it looked to him like all the motels were full, but — and here’s where Sam gets nominated for full sainthood — that he would be more than happy to have us stay at his place.

This perfect stranger offered to put a roof over our heads for the night. My mind reels even now at the recollection of that kind of generosity. How many people would have done that? Would I have ever done that? I thanked him, even more profusely than before, beside myself with gratitude. I told him there was one motel we weren’t sure was full, and that we would call it first before maybe taking him up on his offer. He offered me his phone number and address and wished us good luck. I will always remember the last thing Sam said before driving off: “I just want you to know that you guys do not need to sleep in your car overnight with your baby.” I looked over at Danielle with my mouth agape, floored by this fellow’s gift. I called the other motel, to no avail. No room at the inn. No room at any inn. We were officially down to only one option — accepting the completely generous offer of a complete stranger. So we accepted it with completely open arms.

I called Sam, still foolishly wondering in the back of my mind if he might not answer the phone, if perhaps he was already second-guessing his offer, if he might have even (shame on me for thinking this) intentionally given me a wrong address or phone number so that we wouldn’t bother him and he could sleep in peace. Our modern capacity for skepticism is seemingly boundless. But mine in this case was utterly baseless. Sam picked up the phone right away and sounded genuinely pleased to be able to follow through on his offer. He described to me what his street and his dwelling looked like (“It looks like an old store”) and said he would be outside to show us where we could park.


We drove to Sam’s house, which turned out to be an actual converted storefront. Sam guided us into a parking spot, and we pulled in despite the 6 inches of snow that had accumulated in the last hour or two. We gently got Greyson — who had once again drifted off to sleep — out of the backseat and tromped with exquisite relief through the snow into Sam’s warmly welcoming apartment unit.

The faint scent of residual marijuana smoke greeted us upon entering. I already had a hunch that Sam might be a pot-smoking fellow — his age, his locale, his mellow vibe — and living in Colorado just gives you a sixth sense about these things. From the unmistakable aroma to the Bob Marley blanket hanging on the wall to, well, the fact that he casually mentioned “smoking a bowl” earlier in the evening, Sam is clearly a fan of the herb that Colorado legalized shortly after we moved east in 2013. And he lives in an ideal spot to indulge his affinity since, as the light of day revealed to our amusement the next morning, there was a pot dispensary directly across the street.


Sam is also obsessed with motorcycles and trucks and adrenaline and velocity. He told me that he is trying to sell his spectacularly gorgeous, gleaming orange motorcycle — which was parked in his living room — because he can’t seem to control himself when it comes to speed. He told me the maximum speed he’s gone on a motorcycle is 173 mph. I have since learned about Sam by scoping out his Facebook page that he’s such a devout speed enthusiast that he has flipped and/or totaled his trucks multiple times through the years.

Sam dreams of living in Alaska. He’s from St. Cloud, Minnesota, and both of his parents teach at a college; one teaches English and the other teaches accounting. He has a vivid and diverse taste in books (I spotted A Complete History of the MafiaSpanish for Dummies, Lonesome Dove, and one of my personal favorites, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues). Sam has also had the stunningly ill fortune of having both a truck and a motorcycle stolen from him since he moved to Colorado.

Oh, and he owns reptiles. There’s that too.

So Sam is a multi-faceted fellow, and one of these facets is having a big enough heart to offer a place to stay to a stranded guy and girl with a sleeping little boy in the backseat.

We stayed up talking to Sam for a little while and greatly enjoyed his company. He seemed like a guy who savored the chance to meet new people. My inclination was to obsequiously thank him over and over, but I could tell he didn’t want all that praise. He just enjoyed talking to us and was glad he could help. He offered us tea, and I took him up on some peppermint to soothe my addled nerves. He even offered me half the frozen pizza he popped into the oven after we had been talking a while.


Sam set us up comfortably in his second bedroom, which was really more of an odd side room that used to be the front entrance to whatever store used to be there. The room had its own bathroom, in which Greyson amused himself by building towers of toilet paper rolls the next morning. Sam had inflated a small air mattress and stocked the room with a pile of blankets and pillows. There was also a wide comfy chair with an ottoman. Danielle opted for the latter, so I took the former, while we gently placed our sleeping boy in his pack & play. Right above a door out to the street was a nightlight of sorts, a glowing red “EXIT” sign that proved far more comforting than the glowing red signs that had so deflated us a few hours earlier.

Keeping us company while we slept was Sam’s aforementioned collection of reptiles, cloaked from view by black blankets hanging over their huge terrariums. I somehow forgot to ask Sam that night about what scaly creatures lurked beneath those black veils. I inquired with him weeks later about it, just out of curiosity. And he told me the terrariums contain two iguanas and… wait for it… brace yourself… keep waiting for it…

An emerald tree boa. I mean. Seriously. Look at that thing. In hindsight, I’m supremely glad for the sake of my snake-averse wife (and my own worrying self) that we were unaware at the time that our tiny son was sleeping just 3 feet from a deadly-fanged serpent. These sorts of realizations are decidedly more entertaining in hindsight.

Emerald Tree Boa

We awoke early and packed up. Sam was still asleep and I didn’t want to disturb him, so I left a lavishly grateful note for him on a brown paper bag. Money seemed like the wrong token of appreciation since he had already rebuffed that offer, so I rooted through our boxes for some snacks he might like. I badly wished we had something nicer to give him, but we had devoured all the good stuff on our trip. In the end, a few fresh clementines and chocolate granola bars were all I could muster for a guy who had ensured our safety, restored our sanity, and put a roof over our snow-soggy heads.

Suffice it so say that we owe him.

By the dawn’s early light, we ventured outside and tromped through thick, quiet drifts of snow to our car. The deserted streets of Idaho Springs were desolate and glistening white, the sky was vast and once again powder blue, and the road home was still as wide open as our baby-expecting hearts.

But now our hearts were even wider, inflated by the sheer unexpected goodness of our fellow man.

Thanks, Sam. Thanks for helping us protect the little boy in the backseat, and the tiny baby a few feet in front of him.

Your reward will come to you somewhere down the open road of your life. And I hope it’s extravagant.