The Berkshire Edge
By Hannah Van Sickle
Posted On October 13, 2021
SHEFFIELD — The genesis was simple enough: to create a corner of kindness, widely known as “trail magic,” for thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail — the world’s longest hiking-only footpath that, stretching for 2,190 miles, cuts a wide swath (90 miles to be exact) straight through the Berkshires. In 2018, Rev. Jill Graham, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Sheffield, UCC, joined efforts with Dr. Doug Fisher, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts (and a Sheffield resident), and Rev. Erik Karas of Christ Trinity Church. The congregations have enjoyed consistent collaboration over the years, namely organizing “out of the ordinary events and programming,” of which the Appalachian Trail ministry is one of them, Graham told The Edge.
“The AT goes straight through Sheffield, a fact most residents are largely unaware of,” Graham said, noting that even last season — when the trail was ostensibly closed — 200 individuals completed successful thru-hikes of the entire stretch, from Georgia’s Springer Mountain to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Graham has not done any significant hiking herself. “I married into it,” she joked, pointing to her husband, Jim Kelly, as introducing her to the magic of the trail.
“It was simple at first,” recounted Graham, who, that very first summer, used a small grant from the Episcopal Church to assemble a bit of unexpected assistance to hikers. Their humble offerings included water and watermelon, cell phone chargers, and “the thing [hikers] appreciate the most: a chair with a back!” For the duration of the 2018 hiking season, the pair of Sheffield congregations provided trail magic on Wednesdays and Saturdays from a fraction of a field (on the corner of West Road) that belongs to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and is currently farmed by the Larkin Family, members of Graham’s congregation. The second year, pop-up tents were replaced with a temporary, A-frame structure (largely constructed of logs and covered with a tarp) and Mondays were added to the roster; in 2020, the trail was closed.
This past summer, 14 sister churches from a trio of denominations across the Commonwealth (Episcopal, Lutheran, and UCC) flocked to Sheffield — from as far away as Foxborough — to join the growing magic, offered six days a week. The Sheffield site was staffed with volunteers for a total of 48 days over eight weeks, in which time they served more than 600 hikers.
“There is an enormous global hiker community,” said Graham, one she likens to an “unbelievable gift of neighbors, from around the world, traveling through our midst.” Her overarching goal is to celebrate their presence and create the aforementioned corner of kindness — as evidenced by an anecdote from year one. On a particularly dismal day of downpours, volunteers considered not setting up their tents. Within 20 minutes, two hikers emerged from the brush and came down the bank, to a crossing point in the road, where a handmade sign pointed to “trail magic.” Two female hikers approached, drenched to the core, one with her eyes shut. When she finally spoke, her words were surprising: “Just to get out of the rain.”
“Trail magic is neither anticipated nor expected; it just shows up,” Graham explained for those who are unfamiliar, adding “what is offered is a gift.” And if Graham has learned anything over the past three years, it is that the simplest of gifts bring overwhelming joy — a fact that rings true for Gary Williams. He was among five members from the First Congregational Church in Great Barrington to participate in the Sheffield trail magic after hearing of the outreach program from Rev. Tara Tetzlaff.
“It was a fun and rewarding experience,” said Williams, who enjoyed hearing the hikers’ stories when they stopped to get some rest. “The hikers coming off the trail were very thankful … to escape the swarms of mosquitoes … and thoroughly enjoyed the many amenities we were able to provide” (which, this past summer, grew to include hotdogs, hamburgers, iced tea, and sweet snacks). Williams discovered most hikers were NoBo (traveling north), some were SoBo (headed to Georgia), and some were simply hiking portions. His summer highlight? Meeting a husband-and-wife team in their 70s, from North Dakota, who — using experience the husband, a geology professor, gleaned on his thru-hike 20 years prior — had committed to hiking portions together each summer with hopes of completing the entire trek in the future.
“Prior to COVID, [my husband] was forever bringing hikers home,” Graham said of the supportive relationship she and Kelly have shared with the trail over the years. (Both he and his son, Dwight, are avid hikers who have experienced moments of trail magic when they most needed it.) Great Barrington is largely known as a “zero day” spot — one on which minimal mileage is logged; instead, hikers avail themselves of nearby grocery stores to resupply and lay over at local motels for hot showers and laundry facilities.
On Saturday, Oct. 16, Graham invites the community at large to the twice-annual Beer & Hymns event — sponsored jointly by Christ Trinity Church and First Congregational Church of Sheffield — traditionally held at Big Elm Brewery, which, this year, will take place at the Sheffield Town Park from 3-5 p.m.
“We’ll sing, and we’ll eat,” Graham explained of a free meal, with an Oktoberfest focus, featuring bratwursts and soft drinks for participants (plus Big Elm brews for purchase). Donations to a free-will offering will go toward supporting the 2022 Trail Magic program efforts — which, historically, cost about $50 a day to fund — wherever that location may be.
Ever in the spirit of being courteous to all, following protocol, and leaving no trace (as hikers are asked to do), members of the Sheffield Trail Magic program have been in close and near constant conversation with the AT Conservancy. “We’ve made every effort to avoid becoming a gathering place for hikers,” Graham said, despite their efforts gaining quite a bit of infamy among hikers via word-of-mouth. ‘No one wants the trail to become clogged,” Graham explained, noting that do-gooders who impede foot traffic along the trail are largely unappreciated.
“If we’ve learned anything from COVID,” Graham said, “it’s that we need to be adaptable; always, always adaptable.”