Trail Angels

Trail Angels

We call them our trail angels.

We don’t know who they are, or where they are from. They didn’t save our lives, but through a random act of kindness, they saved us hours of frustration and provided us a good reminder of mountain karma.

The look on my friend Trish’s face, when we arrived back at the car in Great Smoky Mountains National Park Thursday was one I’d seen before — in fact just the day earlier.

Kelsey Dayton

On Wednesday we’d been skiing, dumped our gear in the car and then began to make snow angels. Finally cold, wet and tired and ready to drive home, she gave me the look and said, “I can’t find the car keys.”

After frantically searching and even digging in the snow, she found them in her pocket she’d checked three times, hidden behind her drivers’ license.

The next day we drove almost four hours from Charlotte, N.C., to the trail head in the Smoky Mountains. The trail offered a short, flat walk to some of the area’s famed waterfalls. The popular spot was quiet, perhaps because of our late start, or the time of year. We grabbed our cameras and spent the next few hours playing in the dense coating of leaves on the trail, rock-hopping across streams and taking photos.

As the sky dimmed we made our way back to a nearly-deserted parking lot, discussing dinner options. We were at the car when Trish stopped suddenly with that same look of panic on her face.

I patted her down, certain I’d seen her put the car key in a coat pocket. She was certain, too. However when she dropped them in she hadn’t noticed the hole in her jacket, large enough for a key to slide out.

We weren’t anywhere remote; we’d driven through a town only minutes before reaching the trailhead. But we didn’t have money or phones. Luckily, as my mind began to churn out scenarios, a group entered the parking lot and we asked to borrow a phone. Trish called her boyfriend in Charlotte to warn him he might need to drive 3.5 hours to rescue us. At the same time, I tried the driver’s door and it opened.

We were sure we’d locked the car, so we were elated. We now had our own phones. My wallet sat undisturbed where I’d tossed it on the front seat. We didn’t even see the note at first. But there it was, written in neat cursive on a sheet of spiral notebook paper on the seat; “We found this key on the trail and tried it on the first Acura we saw- it worked! It’s under the mat.

It’s amazing that somebody found the single key on the trail thick with leaves. It’s good mountain karma someone picked it up and took the trouble to find the car and leave a note.

It seems like such a small thing, but how many people would have seen the key and then kept walking? How many would have maybe picked it up and tried to leave it where it could be easily found? How many would have taken the extra step to try the cars in the lot and leave it?

Great Smokey Mountains National Park
A waterfall at Great Smokey Mountains National Park. (Kelsey Dayton/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

There is a sense you are on your own when you venture into the woods, even if it is in a popular spot. In fact, many people seek that solace when they leave the pavement. But there is also a sense of kindred spirits among those who share the trail, whether you speak to them or not.

Going into the mountains makes me a better person. It relaxes me, it centers me, it reminds me of what is important. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that camaraderie is part of the experience. Sometimes I forget to smile and say hi, when I’m focused on the trail. Perhaps I might have once seen the glint of silver from a lost car key and kept walking.

That note and the key under the mat was a reminder. If I ever find a key on the trail I’ll take the extra effort to find the owner.

In the meantime, I hope they never need it, but if they do, our trail angels are due some massive mountain karma of their own.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at

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Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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