Out There: Angels In The Outdoors

A little Trail Magic goes a long way

Every year about 3,000 hikers attempt a thru-hike of the entire 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail (AT) from Georgia to Maine, but only about 25 percent of them actually finish.

The Vlobster is trying to get those numbers up. 

Vlosky prepares a breakfast burrito.

Vlosky prepares a breakfast burrito. (Photos by Jackie Grant)

On a recent weekend atop Bear Mountain, the Vlobster busied himself cooking breakfast burritos for Bear, Lighthouse, Panda Express, Haggis and The Guide.

These are not the kinds of names that appear on birth certificates. But part of thru-hiker culture is the practice of “Trail Names”: You don’t use your real name on the AT, because the AT is a place outside of regular society. You use a nickname that someone else on the trail gives you. 

Also part of the culture is what’s known as Trail Magic, which is performed by Trail Angels.

One of those angels is the Vlobster, real name Rob Vlosky, who drove down from Rochester with his wife, Nancy (who is not a hiker, hence no nickname), to cook breakfast and hand out supplies to any thru-hiker who happened to pass through the summit of Bear Mountain that morning. 

Vlobster came to hiking later in life, but is no stranger to the great outdoors: His father was a police officer in Harriman State Park, where Young Vlosky spent his formative years tromping around with his friends before joining the U.S. Navy. 

But he didn’t know anything about backpacking until he attempted a multi-day hike through Shenandoah National Park a few years ago. Weighed down with too much heavy gear, he realized by the second day that he was in over his head. 

When the trail passed through the parking lot of a scenic overlook that also had cellphone service, he called his wife and told her that he was bailing on the hike as soon as he could figure out how the heck he was going to get back to his car. 

A man and his son, who were enjoying the view, overheard his plight. The father offered Vlosky a ride, thus sparing him another day of agony, to which the son replied: “Gee Dad, you’re a Trail Angel now.”

Bruce Kieta, an Appalachian Trail hiker, eats a burrito made by Rob “Vlobster” Vlosky.

Bruce “Bear” Kieta, an Appalachian Trail hiker, eats a burrito made by Rob “Vlobster” Vlosky.

This was Vlosky’s first experience with trail magic, the kindness that trailside strangers offer to weary hikers when it’s needed most. “That’s the first time I ever heard of it, when this guy was helping me out,” he said. 

After an old Navy buddy introduced Vlosky to the wonders of ultralight backpacking gear (“It’s not cheap, but it makes your life a whole lot easier,” he said), Vlosky started tackling small sections of the Appalachian Trail a few days at a time and became the Vlobster. 

He’s hiked about 30 percent of the trail so far, and can recall the bits of trail magic along the way that sometimes make the difference between finishing a hike and bailing: people handing out baked goods at road crossings; ice cold jugs of water left trailside at abandoned rest stations. 

“Oh my god, finding a cache of cold water on a hot day in the middle of nowhere is just so welcome,” he said. 

Eventually, he realized that being part of the trail community means not only being the recipient of trail magic, but finding ways to bestow some of it yourself. That’s why he and Nancy now come to the Perkins Tower at the summit of Bear Mountain once a year to cook for hungry hikers and hand out supplies. 

Now that he’s a more experienced hiker, he knows what the thru-hikers need the most: toothbrushes and floss, small rolls of toilet paper, mini-carabiners and replacement filters for the Sawyer Squeeze water purifiers that many backpackers carry. 

Supplies await thru-hikers

Supplies await thru-hikers

Once Vlobster saw how many hikers swore by Darn Tough Vermont socks for keeping their feet blister-free, he wrote to the company and asked if they’d be willing to donate a few. They sent him a case of 48 pairs. “People cry when I hand them out,” he said. 

Fruit is also a welcome snack that Vlobster provides for hikers when they’re hanging out with him, since it’s not ideal for long-distance backpacking: It takes up too much room in a pack, it’s messy, it’s heavy and hikers then have to carry the cores and peels. 

But the vitamins and variety are a treat for hikers, who can eat it right there and then let Vlobster take care of the refuse.

There’re rules for trail magic, and not just the Leave No Trace principles that already advise against, say, leaving one’s apple cores on the trail. 

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy discourages leaving unattended food out at trail crossings because it can attract wildlife. Trail Angels are also encouraged to not minister to hikers on the trail itself, in order to protect the sanctity of their wilderness experience. 

An ideal trail magic scenario looks much like what Vlobster does every year on Bear Mountain: It’s at an area in which the trail crosses a crowded parking lot so the hikers are already temporarily out of the “wilderness;” it’s accessible by car,  which means angels can easily haul in supplies and haul out trash; and it’s not near an establishment that makes a living selling food and supplies to hikers. 

The day after I spoke with Vlobster he was on the move again: Once a year he spends a week serving as a caretaker at the Upper Goose Pond cabin on a Massachusetts section of the AT. The Appalachian Mountain Club runs the cabin as a free place for thru-hikers to rest and take a “zero” (thru-hiker slang for a rest day). 

Once his weeklong shift is over, he’s due to meet a friend so the two of them can hit the AT themselves for a while, pushing north into Vermont, chasing the magic. 

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