Site updated 09/28/12 01:48 PM Upper Dauphin Sentinel ©2006
Among hikers, it’s called “trail magic,” an unexpected act of kindness shown by a total stranger, known as a “trail angel.”
This particular angel goes by the name of Bob Fromme Jr.
Having hiked different portions of the trail, including the entire 228-mile stretch through Pennsylvania, Fromme said he’s experienced first-hand how challenging the trail can be, both physically and mentally. It takes a special kind of person to meet those challenges, he said, and he’s met many such people on his own sojourns.
“I got to really appreciate not just the commitment of the hikers, but the close bonds of the hiking community,” he said. “These are people who accept challenges and aren’t afraid of them. I truly believe they are the future leaders of our country.”
Meeting those people sparked in Fromme a desire to give back. He already was a member of the Susquehanna Appalachian Trail Club, one of 30 groups along the 14-state trail who share in maintainence and sponsor hikes. (The SATC is responsible for a 24-mile section of the trail in Dauphin County.)
“A perfect place to set up.” Last year, Fromme came up with the idea of offering a rest stop near the base of Peter’s Mountain, at a point where the trail enters/leaves Stony Creek Valley in an area known as St. Anthony’s Wilderness (depending on what direction the hiker is traveling).
It’s about midway between a 30-mile stretch on the trail between Duncannon in Perry County, and Swatara State Park in Lebanon County.
“It’s the perfect place to set up. It’s one of the more uninhabited stretches of the trail,” he said.
Fromme chose the early- to mid-summer period, and decided on a Wednesday, for his rest stop project, because it appeared to be the best time period to attract the most thru-hikers, particularly those traveling northward.
Typically, thru-hikers start their journey in Georgia in late winter/early spring and plan to arrive in Maine by mid-October before the cold weather sets in, a journey of six to seven months. Since Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Cumberland County is the trail’s geographic mid-point, many thru-hikers are in this area in June and July, with the numbers dropping off sharply after that.
Fromme tries to set up early in the morning to get a prime spot (the parking area also is popular with fishermen). He usually stays “open” until about 4 p.m.; hiking activity drops off after that, he said.
In planning a menu, Fromme tried to combine good taste with good nutrition.
“Magic” is well received. The “magic” is announced on a flyer posted at a shelter on Peter’s Mountain, abut six miles west of where Fromme sets up. Once onsite, hikers receive a “menu” from which they request the food.
If comments made by hikers during a Sentinel reporter’s recent visit are any measure, Fromme’s rest stop is a hit.
“This is like an oasis in the desert,” said Rick, a Stroudsburg resident hiking from West Virginia to the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border.
“I knew of people handing out water and other drinks, but I never heard of anything like this,” added Connor, a Rockville, Md. resident also hiking to the end of the state.
(Hikers typically identify themselves only by their first names or by a nickname; Fromme goes by “Webcatcher” because, when hiking with friends, he walks in the lead position to “catch” the spider webs, he said.)
Word of the rest stop may be getting around the trail. Fromme welcomed 18 visitors the first week, 21 the second, 26 the third, and 36 last week, including a dozen hikers who ate breakfast together after meeting on the trail.
Fromme not only enjoys serving the hikers, he also enjoys hearing their personal stories; what they’ve experienced on the trail, for instance, or what they think of Pennsylvania if they are from another state or country. (He’s met several people from Canada and Europe, both as a hiker and as a trail angel.)
“The stories they tell have fascinated me,” he said. He also makes a point of photographing all of his guests and recording their visits in a scrapbook.
He welcomed “Towns,” a 20-something thru-hiker from Atlanta, Ga. in late June. (Towns said he got his nickname from another hiker because of all of the towns he’s been through so far on his hike.)
“I saw a flyer at the last shelter and was really excited about it,” Towns said of the rest stop.
Towns said he grew up taking hikes with his mother and always was aware of the AT, as the starting point (for northbound thru-hikers) is an hour from Atlanta.
“I always thought it would be a cool thing to do,” he said. “I wanted to do it before I had commitments like a job or family.”
At the time of this interview (late June), Towns had been on the trail continuously since March 20, except for a single two-week break. On the way, he’s faced challenges ranging from ticks and rattlesnakes to maneuvering the trail’s rockiest passages, as well as the loneliness of being away from family and friends.
“The hiking is not the hardest part,” he said. “It’s the getting up and doing the same thing every day, going out where the scenery doesn’t change very much. But I am a person who likes to be in difficult positions. I like to challenge myself physically.
“I think this is going to make me more appreciative of the things we take for granted in everyday life,” he added.
“Angels” in hiking boots. For weary hikers, trail magic such as Fromme’s rest stop can be “like hitting the Lottery,” said Karen Balaban, a Harrisburg attorney who is the current president of the Susquehanna Appalachian Trail Club.
“It’s like (being) back in college and maybe short of money and someone out of the blue did something nice for you. That’s what trail magic and being a trail angel is all about: showing kindness to people when they could use it, doing something that helps their day go a little better,” she said.
Fromme stressed that he is hardly the only “angel” who has worn a hiker’s boots. Many other SATC volunteers step forward to assist their brethren with various needs.
Just recently, some volunteers were at Fromme’s site when a few hikers came off the trail with medical needs, one of which was emergent in nature. The presence of these other “angels” helped the hikers to get medical treatment that prevented their situations from becoming worse.
Carsonville resident Carol Crum, who started about 21/2 years ago, said her own experiences also gave her the desire to help hikers on the AT. While driving to Harrisburg via Route 325, she’s given people rides to motels and eateries, and drove one man who may have been suffering from Lyme disease to see a doctor.
‘‘In the past, I would never have stopped for a hitchhiker along a long lonely road; but after hiking the section myself, I understand their dilemma,’’ Crum said.
‘‘During this time of the year the trail traffic is heavy with thru-hikers, so I watch for anyone needing assistance as I pass by the trail crossing,’’ she added. ‘‘I often wonder how many other people are helping the hikers in our area along the way.’’
The commitment of these club members shows how much they care about the AT and about the people who use it, according to Fromme.
“The level of volunteerism in our club is fantastic,” he said.
It’s all a part of a larger community that Towns said he also has experienced in his time on the trail.
“You make lifetime friends,” he said.
This summer, Bob Fromme Jr. certainly has made many of those.
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