The Wonderful Mystery of "Trail Magic"

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camping lake powell bullfrog beach

We drove down the lonesome highway to Bullfrog, Utah where you can camp on the sandy beach right on Lake Powell, and that's where I learned a lesson in trail magic. Trail magic is a real thing among Appalachain Trail hikers. Say you're cruising (or hobbling) along the trail and find yourself staring at a stashed cooler with ice and cold drinks or fresh fruit inside, left by anonymous happy souls or, arguably, angels and free for the taking — just to recharge your battery and peg your happy meter. You're worn out and you happen upon some type of good vibration: that's trail magic. The concept stretches out in a beautiful way in all manner of outdoor adventure, and remains a totally serendipitous coalescence of supply and demand of extraordinary stoking measure.

And you never know when it'll happen to you.

Seven days earlier we left home and spent the time touring around southern Utah in a grilling June. My wife was pregnant, my 4-year-old was about to be 5, and we'd worn ourselves out on a week of dirt roads, hot hikes, sunshine, lake swimming, and a different camp every night. A solid week of fun, no doubt, but by the time we rolled into the shoreside outpost of Bullfrog, we dangled at the tattered end of the metaphorical rope. We were tired, sore, and ready for a real bed and a couch to lounge on. We had this final night to spend on the shore of Lake Powell in the primitive camping area, then ride the ferry across the lake, and plow the highway homeward.

Earlier in the day we stopped for groceries to fix up our grand finale dinner, pasta on the beach with the setting sun, and I passed up the chance to reload the beer stash. As we set up camp in a perfect windless 80-degree evening with plenty of sunshine left in the day, our daughter took a swim in the lake and begged for us to join her. We promised to jump in soon. But I needed to hoof it back to the self-pay station about a mile round trip to pay our six bucks. Just one last chore: as I attempted to put up a shade awning that attaches to our tent and needs guy lines staked down in order to stand up, I found we had lost three stakes. That wasn't going to work.

Defeated and beerless, I set out on my hike to pay up and get us square with the National Park. The primitive camping area at Bullfrog is a unique one. Campers drive a graded dirt road to a rougher trail that leads to the shore and set up at any peaceful patch they please. The scraggy road system winds up and down hills with some steep parts of loose rock. A little tough if you're driving a sedan or towing a fifth wheel, but plenty of folks do it anyway. More than one or two RVs surprisingly had made it through a gnarly section and set up shop out here.

I charged myself with hope and scoped out every vacant flat spot that had once given passage to a tent or two but held onto wayward stakes. There be abandoned tent stakes out here, I convinced myself, all's left but to find 'em. I investigated everything that glittered, but found nothing but rocks and condoms and empty beer cans. I walked on wishing I had just one beer back at camp to wash down our final dinner of this trip, but I knew I needed to get over that idea.

I could see the self-pay kiosk 100 yards away and up a hill, and then thought about sprinting. The charred rock remains of a long gone campfire sat on the ground a few feet to my left, so I glanced. I wasn't even fooled by the false shine of broken glass this time — nope. What I saw was exactly what I was looking for. A lost tent peg, a classic anodized aluminum shepard staff shape that fetches $0.99 at your gear shop. I grinned, laughed out loud and walked over to pick it up.

"Now, if only I could find . . ." and before the words fell out of my mouth there they were, two more tent stakes just laying there on the ground in need of a purpose. I could give them that purpose.

So I stashed the stakes in my pocket and walked on, happy.

I moved a little faster wanting to get to the kiosk, stuff my six bucks in the slot and get back to my wife to tell her of the dragons I slayed. So I ran.

Down a loose rocky hill, across a sandy wash, up another hill where the trail met a graded dirt road. And where I met a white Toyota Matrix with a trio of college kids, two guys up front and a girl in the back. The driver rolled his window down and stuck his fedora and head out the window.

"Hey bro," he started. "What's that road like?"

"It's rocky and loose. You looking for a campsite?"

"Yeah, hoping to get right next to the water."

"Here's what you want to do," and I gave him the beta on which forks to go left and which ones to go right that he could manage in his Matrix. "If you have any trouble, you'll be able to see my black truck just beyond that hill. I have tow straps and a winch. But you'll be just fine."

He and his friends beamed with joy. "Awesome, man. Thank you so much."

They started the car and began their descent. Then stopped. The fedora poked out the window one more time.
This time it was the girl in the backseat.

"Hey," she said. "You look like you could use a beer. Want one for the road?" Her long brown hair dangled out the window. She plunged her arm into the icy slush in their cooler then said, "Here. I'll get one from the bottom for you, they're the coldest."

I walked back to camp sipping it slowly while the tent stakes in my pocket jingled. My wife saw me approaching our camp, obviously noticed the beer and said, "Aww, did you make some friends while you were gone?" But she smiled in her own sweet way with her head tilted to the right and fixed her blue eyes on me. I'd walk anywhere for that.

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