“Trail Angels” shelter AT thru-hikers during Irene

We were at the edge of Tropical Storm Irene’s serious flooding last weekend here in west-central New Hampshire. As I write this, water is receding from the streets of the closest town center, though we’ve been told to expect several more days without power at home. Luckily, Howe Library in Hanover, 20 miles away, makes a fine home-office-away-from-home, complete with lights, running water, and Internet access.

I’m not alone in appreciating “The Howe’s” resources (locals invariably add “the” to the library’s name). Late last week, as it became clear that Irene was bringing serious weather our way, even as it was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm, the good folks at the Howe worried about one unusual community that the library serves: Appalachian Trail thru-hikers.

The Appalachian Trail runs through Hanover, and I mean right down Main Street, where the lampposts are painted with the AT’s distinctive white trail blazes. It’s common to see backpackers picking up packages from the post office or enjoying a “town day” off the trail.

The town has tried hard in recent years to welcome hikers. Some businesses offer discounts, extra servings, and freebies to thru-hikers. Nowhere is the welcome mat out more prominently, however, than at the library. The library entrance contains a guest book, maps, and a complete guide to the town’s services; inside, below a 15-foot long map of the Appalachian Trail, a bank of computers gives hikers free access to email and the Internet. By season’s end, the map is covered with postcards, pictures, and thank you notes from hikers. Earlier this year, Hanover was named New Hampshire’s first “Appalachian Trail Community.” The celebration was held at the library.

So it made sense, as Irene swept toward New England, that Howe Library became a source of information and a refuge for hikers hoping to get in out of the storm. Librarians posted a notice that local families were opening their homes to stranded hikers and that others were welcome to stay in the town’s community center over the weekend.

The local “trail angel” network kicked in. Greg Cook in Wilder, Vermont, has hiked all 48 4,000-foot peaks in New Hampshire. He keeps track of another, quite possibly more impressive, set of numbers, too — the number of AT hikers he takes in each year. On Friday, as forecasters showed the storm tracking inland over New England, Greg opened his home to Magic Mix (thru-hikers adopt trail names), who was hiking the trail with Sir, his cat. The next day, he took in Frosty and Amber, high school sweethearts from Bangor, Maine, bringing his “trail angel” number to 56. Greg also opens his kitchen to thru-hikers. As the storm moved up from New York, Amber and Frosty prepared pot roast and an enormous salad, Magic Mix made a platter of sausage sandwiches, and Sir made quick work of a can of Fancy Feast.

On Monday, young children, teenagers, retirees, and folks like me looking for a place to plug in and work mingled as usual with thru-hikers. One young woman stood at the row of computers, her pack at her feet. On a bench outside the library, several hikers soaked up the warm sun, their packs beside them. “We were lucky to be here” during the storm, one said. They’d stayed at the community center over the weekend and were awaiting information on conditions farther north along the trail. That came late in the day, with a bulletin saying that the White Mountain National Forest would be closed indefinitely while damage to roads and trails was being assessed.

I stayed in the library that evening until it closed. Another thru-hiker, a compact man with a neat gray beard, walked out the door with me. He told me that the Town of Hanover had extended its offer to house AT hikers through the rest of the week, and that the number of hikers staying there had grown to more than 40. “This is as kind a town as any I’ve been in,” he said. Then he picked up his pack, slung it over his back in one practiced motion, and headed for the shelter.

Learn more
— … about the status of roads and trails in the White Mountain National Forest
— … about the Appalachian Trail around Hanover
— … about flood damage and recovery efforts in Vermont.

Photos courtesy Greg Cook.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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