Work Exchange Hosts and Trail Angels

Learning to Appreciate the Real Magic of  Kindness and Volunteer Work Abroad Exchange Programs

In the dance that is volunteer work abroad exchange programs, it definitely takes two to tango.
Marzio’s Many

Such were my thoughts earlier this week as I took in the 16 faces of relative strangers, moments away from tucking into an open fire, slow cooked masterpiece on a back porch in Mendiolaza, Argentina.

Quite simply, it takes some very special individuals to assume the role of hosts. Because, regardless of whatever virtues might exist in people able to appreciate working for room, board and memories, it’s the hosts themselves that are the real oil allowing such work exchange programs to function at all.

These people open up their homes, share their knowledge and their lives and, essentially, make you a part of the family; and all with seemingly effortless ease. This unbridled generosity seems, to me, the more rarely found personality trait.

I’d get my first glimpse of such kindness just over 25 years ago when I was virtually adopted by a military family who lived on the doorsteps of the Kaneohe Marine Base on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. As a result, doors opened and things happened.

Including, the Appalachian Trail back in the late 90s.

The 2,150 plus mile ‘AT’ stretches from northern Georgia all the way to central Maine and along the way encompasses 14 states, 8 national forests and 6 national parks. It is also home to a phenomenon known throughout the long distance hiking community known simply as ‘Trail Magic’.

Essentially, Trail Magic is any random act of kindness bestowed on a hiker by a stranger. Magic comes in the form of unexpected free meals, transportation, gifts and, of course, accommodation with people who perpetuate such kind acts known as ‘Trail Angels’.

For many Angels, such kindness strikes randomly at convenient, opportunistic moments; a one and done encounter that forms the backbone of the practice itself.
Dan in the White Hat, of course.

Other Trail Angels however, like Dan Quinn of Woodstock, Vermont’s Appalachian Trail House, have become as much a permanent fixture of the trail as the volunteer maintained huts and white blazes of the trail itself.

Since 1992 Dan has opened his home just off of Vermont’s Route 12 to hikers. Lots and lots of hikers with more recent times seeing upwards of 350-400 hikers passing through in a single hiking season. In all, Dan estimates his total over the past 20 years to something in the vicinity of 4000 random, dirty and hungry faces.

Which begged the question: Why?

The answer I’d get many years after my own four or five days spent relaxing in his comfortable abode. Apparently, for a young Dan, it was the inspiration from a poem by Sam Walter Ross. The poem is entitled “Living in a House by the Side of the Road”, a poem that promulgates the act of “being a friend to man”.

It must’ve been one helluva poem because, since first opening his doors, Dan has had barn parties and gatherings
Dan, with plenty of company, as usual.

where 50 to 100 or more hikers have stayed for a night or two and once even hosted 22 hikers for two weeks leaving his property looking like what he called “a version of Resurrection City in Washington, DC during the late 1960s.”

That sort of kindness is the epitome of the word ‘extraordinary’; a word that tends to get tossed around far more often than it probably should.

So, as I sat around our table this week here in Argentina, basking in red wine and the comradery of so many relatively new faces, I couldn’t help but think back to Hawaii and to Dan and the unique individuals like him. Including, of course, our host of the past two weeks, one Marzio Pantalone.

So much so, I felt inclined to give an impromptu speech. So moved, in fact, it came out in Spanish. The gist of which was:

People have often asked me what I like so much about the traveling lifestyle. The answer is in nights like tonight. Nights that I hope Kaia will come to appreciate for the gifts they really are. That said, I wish everyone a hearty ‘buen provecho’. For the food we are about to eat and the memories that go along with it.  Thanks to you all.





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