Dinner is Served

In Georgia’s Providence Canyon State Park, backpackers get a surprise visit from a professional chef. By Jackson Rinehart

In May, a heat wave pushed the temperature in southern Georgia above 90 degrees. In Providence Canyon State Park, the leafy forest offered some relief, but hiking there was still a sweatfest in the humid air. Providence, known as the Grand Canyon of Georgia, draws visitors who want to see its 150-foot-deep, red ravines. Most stick to the area close to the visitor center, where the canyons converge—especially on a hot day like this. But a few ambitious backpackers venture farther into the park, to camp in the backcountry sites amid the buzzing, chirping, emerald forest.

That’s where Kerri and Andrew Stewart pitched their tent. The couple from South Carolina had made a commitment to camp every month—after Kerri had finished a year of hiking every week, 52 different trails—and had decided to visit Providence on a whim. After exploring the park on foot, they were lounging in hammocks at around 5 in the evening, getting hungry but feeling a little too lazy to cook the rice and chickpeas they’d packed.

The pair in a campsite 5 minutes up the trail didn’t have it so easy. Carol Schlomberg and Andrea Van Der Plaats had just arrived, dragging into camp after a harder-than-expected hike in the afternoon heat. They’d driven north from Florida on a quest to camp every night for a week, but hadn’t realized that they’d be backpacking in Providence until the last minute. They’d only had time to throw a can of boiled peanuts in for dinner. Although even that sounded better than gas station hot dogs, which is all a third group, Jeremy Cournyea and Sabina Kasumova, from Atlanta, had to look forward to.

The last thing any of these campers expected was a gourmet feast prepared by a professional chef. The last thing they expected was a bamboo plate loaded with appetizers—carrot chorizo topped with marinated feta cheese and pine nuts, all piled on coal-grilled cabbage leaves—delivered to their camp. The last thing they expected was Merrell Magic.

BACKPACKER and Merrell have partnered on a new version of trail magic, surprising hikers everywhere with treats big and small. This weekend, we’d come to Providence Canyon with Kyle Mendenhall, chef at Arcana in Boulder, CO.

The Merrell Magic crew arrived early in the afternoon and set to work. Kyle roasted whole cabbages on a bed of coals, and prepped five courses for whoever ventured into the backcountry: grilled broccoli with anchovy, rosemary, and lemon; beef tartare with cured duck egg yolk, couloir cheese, shallots, and herbs; black garlic-marinated lamb with ramps; grilled Maine lobster with herb butter; and the carrot chorizo on cabbage.

After we enticed the surprised campers with hors d’oeuvres, they walked over to enjoy the rest of the meal. As Chef Kyle prepped platters of food, the hikers did what hikers do everywhere: talked about trips past and future, about how nature rejuvenates them, and about how this trip had changed them.

Kerri recalled how, during her 52-week challenge, she’d covered nine states and brought at least 21 other people with her on hikes. The experience had transformed her. “My body feels so much better after a full, natural workout than it does in a gym using machines,” Kerri said. “There’s something so different, special, and natural about backpacking that makes me feel so much stronger than anything else. It’s not always butterflies and rainbows, but when you finish, you’re so glad you did it.”

As Kyle served up rounds of food—people ate the lobster in disbelief—they also talked about the fate that led them to this park on this day, and to this surprising meal. Carol and Andrea had only decided at the last minute come here. Sabina was here for her very first backpacking trip, so we told her not to expect this kind of thing to happen on every trip.

Sabina, who was new to the concept of trail magic, marveled at the underlying power of simply doing nice things for strangers. “It’s a community, that’s exactly what it is,” she says. “You’re really relying on what you have and everyone around you. It’s just that connection, you know you’re there for each other. If anyone needs anything, we’re all going to help, that’s a really cool feeling.” She paused, and smiled. “Plus, this is the best lamb I’ve ever had.”

But one thing stood out even more than the food. As Kerri recalled afterward, there’s something special when strangers become friends in the backcountry. “Just being together and sitting next to one another at a campfire and getting to connect with people that you’ve never met before, people from different areas of the country and walks of life. I don’t know how any of our camping trips the rest of the year can top this one. It will be something we remember forever.”

And another thing all of them said they’ll do forever: share the spirit of trail magic wherever they go. After the trip, Kerri told her mom, who lives near the Appalachian Trail, about her brush with Merrell Magic. The story inspired her mom to go out and give a 20-mile ride to a hiker in need. Who knows what will happen next?