Who is Rob?
“I’m just Rob,” he’ll tell you. If you ask him this in his Tennessee apartment, he may refer you to the poem which hangs on his wall:
Who Am I?
I would like to be perceived as a help mate
One that assists in making a dream come true or a goal reached
I live inside a small shell of this soulless world
And promote a pay-it-forward lifestyle in a pay-me-now world
As those I encounter move out my shell
Hopefully they can take some positivity with them
I will die in their world
May it be kind, mature, compassionate, but strong and willing to defend itself
May all ideas be expressed but not forced
I remind all that a hug and a single act of kindness can help you summit mountains
-Robert Bird 2017
Hung adjacent to the poem, you may also notice his mission statement:
“If you have a need, ask. If I don’t know you need it, I can’t provide it.”
A straightforward man, Rob has dedicated the last twenty-one years of his life to helping Appalachian Trail hikers. Born and raised in Dalton, Massachusetts, the Berkshire town just outside of Pittsfield, Rob served his career as a police officer. He lived in Florida for twenty years, and when family needs called, he found himself once again living in Dalton in 2000. There he managed a Shell gas station.
During his tenure, he couldn’t help but notice the abundance of hikers going in and out of the post office next door. The post office didn’t allow hikers to use their space, so Rob began inviting hikers into the gas station and allowing them to lounge and configure their resupplies in the empty work bay. One day, a torrential downpour struck. Desperately, a hiker asked Rob if there was anywhere he could shelter in the town without paying a fortune. Rob invited him to stay in his home.
The two got along well. They went out to dinner and played music together. Grateful for Rob’s help, the hiker asked him if it was okay if he referred other hikers to him for shelter. Without much contemplation, Rob said yes. Seventy more hikers inquired about lodging with him that season. The following year, 273 hikers stayed with Rob. One “yes” led to something Rob could have never preconceived. His house became a hostel. He was okay with this. Hikers continued to come, and Rob hosted 300 to 500 hikers a season for the next twelve years.
In 2012, Rob packed up his belongings and headed back down south to his new home in Tennessee, though he did not stray far from the Appalachian Trail. In the summer of 2013, Rob returned to the Berkshires for the summer and rented a cabin. While there, he purchased a commercial van. He cleared the back of the van and used the space to transport hikers to and fro the trail. Hikers started calling the van “Casper The Friendly AT Van.” Soon after, Rob put a life-size decal of the ghost on the side of his vehicle.
“I’m just Rob. The van, Casper, is probably better known. He’s the one with all the goodies. Rob’s just the driver. I park him, and he makes people happy.”
He became known for going out of his way to help hikers and even allowed backpackers to stay at his cabin for multiple nights, accommodating section-hikes with slack-packs in the day.
“My entire goal is just to help you get from point A to point B, and hopefully by the time you get to point B, you’ll be excited enough to move on through the rest of the alphabet.”
Rob has returned to the cabin each year since, and has even done trail magic in Tennessee. This is where I met him. He coined the term “The Birdcage” for his two-bedroom apartment which he has now hosted many hikers in, including myself. While Rob is renowned for his service in the hiking community, this is not the only thing he is known for. With Rob comes an ambiance of love, and hikers will be caught dead returning to the woods after a stay with him without giving him a hug, or as he calls it, “Vitamin H.”
These hugs can be seen in Maximilian Armstrong’s award-winning documentary One Wing in the Fire: An Appalachian Trail Angel Documentary. Of the lucky hikers to hug Rob, some can be seen with pristine mohawks atop their noggins, the ultimate Robert Bird package. Rob takes much pride in his indigenous heritage, and the décor in The Birdcage can affirm this. These features along with his comical chain smoking, musical aptitude, flashy Croc sandals, and his famous farewell, “Don’t fall down and go boom now,” are just a few aspects of Rob that make him the angel he is. What stands out most is Rob’s altruism, though he won’t claim it to be so.
Despite the countless time and money Rob has invested into his service, he asks nothing of hikers, and if you try to compensate for his services, it will be a task to get him to accept. Instead, he demands hikers “pay it forward,” or give what they want to give to him to someone else.
“I don’t see it as a service. I see it as being part of that community, being part of the house, part of the home, part of the family.”
- You often say that hikers benefit you more than you do to them. While this may be questionable, what is it that hikers do for you specifically?
I love the camaraderie, meeting new people, and listening to positive stories. I meet hikers who are only 350 miles into their journeys and yet are still positive. Positivity is refreshing. The hikers are appreciative. It’s the little things. Lending an ear. I love to see that hikers who are aching can get some alleviation. I like to see them relax and have a drink. That makes Rob happy.
- Do you prefer to do trail magic in Tennessee or Massachusetts, and why?
Not sure. I meet more new people in Tennessee, but on either end of the spectrum I’m meeting new people.
- What is the highest quantity of people you have ever hosted? What was that like for you?
That would’ve been in Massachusetts. I had thirty-four people one night. I had a huge backyard. I had mattresses for twenty people between my garage, my cellar, and my house. The backyard was full of tents. We had a lot of fun. We had a big concert. One of the hikers was a drummer, and he took one of my big pots and played on it.
- From what you’ve seen, what is your advice, if any, to people planning on attempting to thru-hike this upcoming year?
Make sure you have the funds to afford the hike. It’s easy to not bring enough. Do some research and try to prepare. That way you don’t become dependent on other people. There will be times when you need help, but if you have the funds, you’ll save yourself a lot of distress.
- Are there differences you have noticed between northbounders and southbounders? If so, what are they?
No difference. A hiker is a hiker. The direction you’re going doesn’t make it any easier or more difficult. Your personal attitude and desire is what will help you complete your goal. They deal with different adversities. Northbounders have more company. Southbounders are more secluded. In terms of the hikers themselves, there is not much difference. Southbounders may be younger because of time restraints with school.
- Have you had any problems with hikers over the years? If so, what are these problems, and what do you ask of future hikers to prevent these from reoccurring?
In the twelve years I ran the hostel I only asked three people to leave. It was usually because they were taking advantage of other hikers. They would raid the hiker boxes, and I would catch them in the fridge taking goods out but never putting anything in. Taking other people’s beer. I’d see them going into other people’s resupply and stealing stuff. It didn’t happen often. It boils down to being able to take care of yourself. Everyone needs help every once in a while, but you need to be self sufficient.
- You seem content in being someone who helps hikers but not someone who hikes. Is there anything anyone can do to get you out on a trail?
- What is the craziest thing that has happened to you while doing trail magic?
Probably giving people rides for medical attention. I’ve brought several people to the emergency room. Last year I had a boy that had been slack-packing already and one day he was last, and he was usually always first. When he got out of the woods he was walking funny. I asked what was wrong and he said that he went to poop and got swarmed by mosquitos. He squalled, “Rob they were everywhere!”
- I don’t think I’ve ever asked you about this. When I stayed at the Birdcage in 2019, I noticed a newspaper clipping with a picture of you and a boy holding up papers. I skimmed the piece but forgot what it was about. Could you tell readers about this?
A kid I was working with knew him. The kid asked if I would hire his friend from school. His English was broken. I had a math test for him. He was excellent. He was a good looking young man, very personable. He ended up being one of the most respected employees. Everyone loved him. He went above and beyond. His math skills were superior to my own. Only his mother and sister were in the country. I kind of became a substitute daddy for the guy.
Over the summer when he was out of school we got all the papers for his citizenship, and he became a citizen. The company paid for a big dinner for him in his honor. I helped him through his first prom and let him use my convertible. He’s running a business down in Boston now. His mother owns a nail salon. He’s running it. He graduated from UMass in business management. She’s opened up new shops around the city.
- Do you have any plans on retiring from this?
Yes. I think I’m pretty much done. I haven’t gone out since my return from Massachusetts this summer. It’s more of my own attitude than anyone else’s. I’m getting old. I’ll be 75-years old in April. I hope to go back to the cabin next year, but it’s unsure. I have medical things to take care of and the cabin rental has become increasingly expensive. The gas is pricey too.
Every year there seems to be some hiker that sends me some humongous donation and has made it happen. I don’t solicit this kind of thing, but if it happens it happens. I spend 5,000 to 7,000 dollars on the trip every year. I ran into a big bill with Casper two years ago that cost me almost two grand.
My Experience With Rob
Though I am beholden to every person who has ever provided me trail magic, no one has done more for me than Rob. From the Boot Camp for Stoners manuscript, here is the excerpt of my experience with Rob on the Appalachian Trail:
Two and a half miles of downhill hiking led me to a dirt road marked by a wooden placard on a tree. It read: “Indian Grave Gap,” but there was still no water. The road appeared to be empty from my first sight of it, but as I drew close, I saw a white commercial van sitting on the opposite side of the road. A man was sitting in the driver seat smoking a cigarette. The shadow casted over the front of the van hid his face. I thought it could be for road construction, but there were no men working or anyone else in sight. It was all too peculiar. I crossed the road and avoided eye contact, intending to mind my own business.
I bet he has water. Ask if he has water. You need it more than he does.
I was too stubborn to do it. I never asked anyone for water. I had heard stories of desperate hikers that had done it, but at no cost did I want to throw out any idea of thru-hikers being unprepared people. Plus, I was suspicious of the man in the van. I didn’t feel threatened, but the image reminded me of the videos they show elementary school kids of old hacks trying to lure kids into their vans with candy.
I was halfway across the road when he called over to me, “You want a soda, son?” His face came into the light and I saw he was a man, perhaps in his seventies, with a mohawk and just enough teeth to get by without dentures. I walked up to the van window.
“Really?” I asked. I was still wary of the situation, but the idea of a cold beverage was enough to convince me to take my chances.
What did I have that anyone could have possibly wanted anyway?
“Of course!” he said excitedly. “Go around back. There’s a whole cooler full of them.” He pointed. I made my way around the van on the side facing the woods. There was a large decal of Casper the Friendly Ghost covering about half of the vehicle’s side. Under it read: “The AT Friendly Van.” The back doors were propped open, and I heard coming from this direction. I turned the corner and peaked inside the van. Two young hikers were lounging on opposite ends of a hardwood sofa.
“Hey guys,” I said. I looked down into the ice-filled cooler and grabbed myself a Coke. It was loaded with cans and next to it was a bucket of sugar-loaded goodies including Twinkies, Little-Debbie cakes, and cosmic brownies. The hikers caught me eyeballing the snacks. I looked up at the one closest to me, “Can I have…” I froze.
“You good man?” he asked after about five seconds of trance.
“I think I know you,” I said. “What is your trail name?”
I cut him off before he could finish, “Celsius. And you…” I said, now looking at the farther hiker. It was the cigarette-rolling kid from Crawford Notch, the one who had asked if we had passed Celsius. Now he was much skinnier, but he was still rolling his American-Spirit looseys. “You’re Buzz.” They looked at me in awe. They were trying to figure out how I knew them. Celsius now had short hair. I was surprised he groomed while on the trail. He also had a voluminous, scruffy beard, which was also not there when we first crossed him in New Hampshire.
“You were with that kid,” Celsius broke the silence in his still pungent Canadian accent.
“Ya!” I said. “You remember?”
“Hell ya I do. Right after the Presidentials. That’s when we ran into you. You remember, Buzz?” His blank face suggested unsurity.
I contributed, “We ran into you at Crawford Notch. You were standing on the road smoking. You asked us if we had seen Celsius.”
“Oh shit,” he said. “Ya. I remember now. That’s crazy. That was so long ago.” I could not believe we had caught them.
“I’ve seen a lot of your entries,” I said. “I always knew you were ahead of us, but I didn’t think we would catch you. You seemed too ahead.”
“Well, we are still a little ahead,” Buzz filled in. “But we did slow down a little so I’m sure you caught some ground on us. We hiked north today. We’ve just been slack-packing whatever way works for Rob.” I assumed Rob must have been the man in the driver seat. I was still very confused about what was going on.
“So what is this anyways?” I asked, looking to break some ground. “A hostel?”
“I guess you could call it that,” Rob chimed in from the front. “Why don’t you guys give him the formal invite, huh?” he said to Celsius and Buzz.
“He can slack-pack you from here to Devil’s Fork Gap. About a sixty-mile section. Then you can crash at his apartment. The Birdcage. That’s what we’re working on right now. Tomorrow’s our last day,” Celsius explained. It sounded magnificent, but I knew we didn’t need it.
“What are the prices?” I asked to politely entertain the idea I knew I was against.
“Buy me a meal or something. Pay it forward. I don’t care!” Rob yelled from the front. I was confounded.
“Wait are you serious?” I asked in disbelief. “You don’t charge anything?”
“Hell no son,” he replied. “I’m the best trail angel you’ll ever meet. Stay with me for a few days kid.”
“Wow that’s tempting,” I said. “But I’ve only gone sixteen miles on the day. And it’s only three-thirty. Plus I gotta stick with my buddy. We’re in this together.”
“Not a problem!” he exclaimed. “We’re still waiting on two more, anyways. And don’t worry, you’ll get your miles in. Just take a breather for the rest of today.” I had been lured.
We did not see Inside Out for another two hours, but I was ecstatic when we finally did. He had ruminated countless times over catching Celsius and Buzz, though I was sure he had written off this possibility long ago. I sat in the front cab with Rob and tolerated his Pall-Mall chain smoking as I learned his story. His last name was Bird, hence the name he attributed to his guest-welcome quarters. He grew up in Dalton Massachusetts, the first trail-town we walked through. He was a retired police officer and veteran.
When working in Dalton, he became familiar with thru-hikers as they walked through the town. With this he grew an affinity for the culture. This led to him opening his own hostel in the town which he ran until he ultimately left and headed for a more comfortable climate, Tennessee. He leased a cabin a few years back in the town of Lanesboro, Massachusetts, and lived there in the height of the summer when most thru-hikers walked through. He would sit at trail crossings and offer his goodies along with free slack-packing stays at his cabin. This is where he was most well known for his magic. Inside Out approached the road with a confident stride. I jumped out of the van and stopped him in his tracks.
“Hey buddy,” I said with a smirk. “I found some friends.” I led him to the back of the van and let him have his moment. By this time, a third young hiker had finished his northbound section of the day and was also lounging in the back of the van. He was lankier than most and rocked alternative gear with cargo shorts and a button-down shirt. He had a distinctive soft Mississippi accent and I found his personality to be condescending, as if he was upset he was going to have to squeeze in at the apartment with more people. He went by the trail-name “Ahab” for a reason that was beyond me. He had been with the two since they met at the beginning of their journey in Maine, but I did not recall crossing him during our northbound adventure.
I exchanged with Rob as Inside dove deep into conversation with Buzz and Celsius. They had a lot to catch up on. A fourth hiker showed up around six o’clock. He was a short fellow who came sprinting down the hill. He was not with Buzz, Celsius, or Ahab. Rob told me he had found him a few days prior at another gap. His name was Tallahassee, which I was surprised to find out was his real name and not a trail alias. He was doing a northbound section-hike.
The Birdcage was an upstairs two-bedroom apartment in the unincorporated town of Unicoi. Rob took great pride in his Native American heritage and the living space was loaded with cultured decorations. A couple miles over was the town of Erwin, a tiny community with just enough to satisfy hikers’ needs. We ate dinner at a local diner and went to the store to stock up on snacks and beer. The strike of midnight would welcome the month of October, yet the night air still whirled at seventy degrees as we rested on Rob’s second-floor porch.
I felt the buzz of the beer I was downing. It was warm and acidic. Rob brought an acoustic guitar out. He started with Kris Kristofferson’s, “The Pilgrim.” “And he’s a problem when he’s stoned!” Rob sang as he stopped at the verse for emphasis. He strummed the guitar effortlessly as if he had been playing his whole life. His voice echoed the familiar sound of Johnny Cash. He ended his session with a song I had been listening to often. For me, it was the song of the South, “Wagon Wheel.”
Before we left, I knew the hardships of the hike would reap some great rewards. I sought to find happiness in simplicity. For an unknown reason, I had been fantasizing about a moment when we would be around a campfire with a primitive tribe. They would sing songs and hold our hands as we danced in a circle around a fire. At that moment, I would be in complete ecstasy. I would have found what I was looking for.
This seemed silly now. The trail was not an experience where we were going to meet primitive people, but we were going to meet people, and lots of them, a higher tier of the human race.
Ahab sat across from me with his shirt half unbuttoned as he leaned against the apartment with his eyes closed. He smiled and nodded his head to the music. “So rock me mama like the wind and away. Rock me mama like a southbound train,” Rob sang. This was it. We were on the southbound train, and this was the moment I had been longing for.
Slack-packing in the day, I stayed with Rob for three nights. Rob and I have remained in close contact since he dropped me back off on the Appalachian Trail after three days of altruistic accommodation.
He prefers not to mingle with parents, but for mine he made an exception. I told my folks about Rob and what he had done for me. Their hearts were warmed, and when they found themselves traveling through Tennessee the following year, they were determined to meet Rob. Unbeknownst to me, Rob welcomed them into his home for coffee where they talked jubilantly of the Appalachian Trail and exchanged gratitude for each other. For my parents, the gratitude was for Rob’s selfless generosity. For Rob, it was for my parents raising a son with manners (debatable).
I was exhilarated when I finally saw Rob again in August of 2020. I was residing in Westfield, Massachusetts, an hour ride from his Berkshire cabin. Twice I stayed with him for the weekend, joining hikers in their repose and even trail running sections as they slack-packed. I hope to see Rob again at the Trail Days Festival in 2022.
Paying it Forward
As I’ve said, Rob is not a man who easily accepts compensation. Instead, he believes in “paying it forward.” I believe in this too, but I also believe Rob has spent thousands of dollars on gas and vehicle maintenance to do what he does. Not to mention, he has given countless hours.
I created a GoFundMe account to help allocate funds for the use of future trail magic. This is for people who have received trail magic from Rob and wish to contribute to trail magic for a future hiker, hence the “pay it forward” concept. This fundraiser was made unbeknownst to Rob, and all donations will be given directly to him. Link below:
While I did try to portray the person Rob is to the best possible extent in this article, I don’t believe anything can depict Rob better than this video:
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