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!

3 thoughts on “Trail Magic, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Trail Magic, Part 2: The Innkeeper | life of papa

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