Trail turkey: Thanksgiving feast brings Appalachian Trail family together
Twenty-two years ago, Janet Hensley, now 59, was working in guest services at a new hotel in her hometown of Erwin, Tennessee.
She noticed that many of the guests were long-distance hikers, coming off the nearby Appalachian Trail for a shower and a warm bed while they restocked their food sacks — and she had an idea.
That year, the hotel hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for hungry southbound hikers, who were less than 350 miles from the end of their 2,200-mile journey by the time they reached Erwin.
“It was a pretty awesome turnout and a lot of fun,” said Hensley.
Since 2000, the hotel has changed hands and Hensley has changed jobs, but the Thanksgiving tradition lives on, now based in Hot Springs. Every year, more than 100 hikers, trail angels, A.T. alums and community members gather for feasting and fellowship with old friends and one-time strangers.
“It’s become something that is very important for a lot of people,” Hensley said. “I have families coming from Florida, from Pennsylvania, that are that are part of the hiking family because they either just walked in on Thanksgiving one year and they come back ever since, or they did it once 10 years ago and they want to come back, and then dozens of people that are on the trail right now.”
Baking through the night
The move to Hot Springs was coincidental but turned out to be providential. Through 2012, Hiker Family Thanksgiving was a small, in-home kind of event. Hensley would host it at the hostel she operated for a dozen years in Erwin, called Miss Janet’s House, serving the smorgasbord to any hikers passing through. That changed in 2013, when she got a call from the family of a southbound hiker who wanted help planning a Thanksgiving spread at the trailhead. The weather forecast looked miserable, so Hensley called around Hot Springs looking for an indoor spot to serve and prepare the meal.
“We really didn’t know what to expect,” said Hensley. “We had almost 50 people and we had such a good time and it just came together so wonderfully, that we continued that tradition there in Hot Springs.”
This year, Hensley is planning to bake 100 pounds of turkey, 50 pounds of ham, 20 pies, and an array of other Thanksgiving staples. The preparations begin Monday with meal prep at her home in Erwin, but the real marathon starts Wednesday evening, when Hensley plus about a dozen helpers work through the night to peel and mash potatoes, cycle casseroles and meats through the oven and ensure everything’s ready come Thursday afternoon. They take turns sleeping. Hensley parks her van outside the kitchen door so she can take naps between trips to the oven.
In addition to the fruits of this cooking marathon, the Thanksgiving table also groans under the weight of ample potluck offerings, creating an “amazing smorgasbord,” Hensley said.
Hensley is a beloved figure among A.T. hikers, and not just because of her Thanksgiving dinners. For the past 15 years, she’s followed the northbound crew from Georgia to Maine, providing hikers with shuttles, planning assistance and resupply management. She leaves in March and returns in October, just in time to prepare for Thanksgiving.
“She’s a very well-known and highly regarded trail angel on the A.T.,” said David Kinniburgh, who goes by the trail name Foghat. “I’m not even sure she could give you the number of people she’s met and helped over the years. I’m guessing it has to be in the thousands at this point.”
- Guests fill their plates during a previous Thanksgiving dinner. Donated photo
Hensley herself says she only “occasionally” gets to be a trail angel — someone who performs unsolicited acts of kindness for hikers on an A.T. journey — and defines herself as an A.T. service provider. But she also says that she considers all the hikers, regardless of their age, to be “my kids.”
“She’s like a trail mom,” said Kinniburgh, who at 66 is slightly older than Hensley.
Kinniburgh has been attempting an A.T. thru-hike since 2017, which is also the year he first met Hensley. Though he’s hiked more miles on the A.T. than the trail’s total length, he keeps starting at the beginning in Georgia, so he’s never completed it. On each of his three attempts, an injury kept him from reaching the end.
While he still hopes to someday summit Mount Katahdin at the trail’s northern terminus in Maine, with each hike attempt the importance of doing so has faded in favor of other, less tangible priorities.
“The experience that I cherish the most is the community and the people,” he said. “The fact that I haven’t actually hiked up to the summit of Katahdin is not as important to me as it would have been once upon a time.”
Hiker Family Thanksgiving is a chance for Kinniburgh to connect with that community during a time of year when most people are off trail, hunkering down until warmer weather arrives.
“Just being in the community, whether it’s on the trail during the spring, summer and fall seasons or events such as this Thanksgiving meal is what really brings a lot of goodness to my life,” he said.
Paying it forward
Kinniburgh, who lives in Boston, attended Hiker Family Thanksgiving for the first time last year, and he’s making it an annual tradition. It’s not just about the feast and the dinner table conversation — it’s also about the preparation and the feeling of giving something back to a trail community that has given so much to him.
Every year, thousands of people start the trail in Georgia with the goal of hiking nearly 2,200 miles to Maine. Though there’s marked attrition as the miles tick by, the core group remains large enough that communities along the way hold festivals and events and offer hiker-friendly services like shuttles and hostels.
The cohort of southbound hikers walking from Maine to Georgia is much smaller. In 2022, 5,562 people registered to start an A.T. thru-hike from Georgia, while only 393 people signed up to begin their attempt in Maine. This makes for a more isolated, wilderness-like hiking experience. There are fewer festivals and even fewer services. Some providers shut down as winter sets in, and those offering mobile services like shuttles tend to follow the northbound group.
- The group gathers for a photo during a previous Thanksgiving celebration. Donated photo
For Kinniburgh, it’s incredibly rewarding to help create a nourishing community experience for hikers who have had fewer such experiences than their northbound counterparts. He comes down early to help set up and joins the volunteers who help shuttle hikers into town for the meal.
“It just feels really good to be able to share some of that community with them,” he said.
Kinniburgh is grateful to Hensley for giving him — and hundreds of other people over the years — the chance to be part of it.
“It’s a reflection of what she does throughout the course of the year,” he said. “It’s not just Thanksgiving that is her way of bringing goodness to lots of the folks out there.”
Hensley said the flow of goodness is a two-way street. Her favorite memories, she said, are of the surprises from old friends who show up unannounced, and the privilege of watching young families grow up with each successive holiday.
“I think they love making me cry,” she said.
Hiker Family Thanksgiving, she hopes, is a tradition that will live on beyond her time at the helm — though she has no plans to leave the ship.
“Just watching how everyone working together can put something together like this, it makes it feel like a family,” she said. “It’s definitely my family Thanksgiving now.”
Join the feast
The 22nd annual Hiker Family Thanksgiving will start at noon Thursday, Nov. 24, at Laughing Heart Lodge in Hot Springs.
It’s an open invitation for anybody who wants to spend Thanksgiving eating delicious food and getting to know others in the Appalachian Trail community. Volunteers are always welcome to help shuttle hikers from nearby trailheads, and anybody attending by car is asked to bring a covered dish or ready-to-eat store-bought items to share.