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.


2 thoughts on “Trail Magic, Part 2: The Innkeeper

  1. That sounds like a fun & meaningful way to spend retirement time, helping to provide a boost to appreciative hikers. The hooey wouldn’t be so nice though.


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