Trail Angel ‘Ponytail Paul’ beat depression by providing a life line to Appalachian Trail hikers
5th November 2019 by Will Stewart
For those who don’t know, the Appalachian Trail is a hiking trail of about 2,200 miles that stretches along the Eastern side of the United States, between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine. The trail, fully marked along the entire route, first opened in 1937, though it is continually renovated, rerouted and modified. The exact length also changes slightly from year to year. Most people choose to hike just a short section at a time, but hiking all the way from one end to the other in one season is not uncommon. Those completing the entire trail in one go are called Thru-hikers. Heading from South to North is the most popular direction of travel and it’s estimated that each year there are just under 1000 Thru-hikers. More than 2 million hikers complete at least a part of the trail every year.
Paul Stiffler (‘ponytail paul’) lived a relatively normal life. He had a wife and two boys, a beautiful house in a town in Maine, New England. He even had a successful business making wooden children’s toys. He was at church one day when he had his first flashback. “All of a sudden I started shaking, and things kind of greyed out.” Paul was experiencing a recurrence of repressed memories of a traumatic childhood. Paul’s terrified feelings towards his father started welling up and the flashbacks became more common. He suffered a full mental breakdown, and started to question the validity of his identity. From there things got worse, and Paul eventually receded from his life and society. “I would just sit in my shop and cry. I had to file for bankruptcy and became penniless. The sickness overtook me and I couldn’t talk to people, and I didn’t know why”.
Living in Maine, Paul is located close to the Appalachian Trail. He says getting out into the woods was a form of therapy, “They’re so beautiful and peaceful. Peace if mind is all I’m after”. But although the solitude was healing for Paul, it wasn’t entirely a lonesome experience. “The first hikers I helped were elderly ladies looking for a lift. I went to pick up one of their packs [to put in the car], and I thought, ‘Oh my god!’ They said, ‘Yeah, we’re thru-hikers!’. I began to meet people from all walks of life, military guys who’d come back from war, people going through their divorce, people losing jobs. People just needed time to themselves.”
Seeing the therapeutic benefits of the trail, Paul decided to become a ‘trail angel’. “I think I might have heard of it originally from one of the hikers, it was about this idea of food drops in the middle of the wilderness so that the hikers didn’t have to carry so much weight. I was doing dry-walling, I had all these 5 gallon buckets. I came up with the idea that I could put food in the buckets and hang the buckets from a tree, and make little maps to tell people where to find the buckets. It would save them a lot of packing and a lot of weight. It’s just rewarding and gratifying to help people out in that way.” These food drops are known amongst trail angels as, ‘trail magic’.
For Paul, being on the trail and being a trail angel has given him the power to develop trust. “I was able to trust people, and they trusted in me. I help the Appalachian hikers when they’re going through difficult situations. I’m helping them, but they’re helping me at the same time. I’m starting to find peace. Peace of mind.”