04 chance encounters Appalachian Trail
CNN  — 

Sarah was resting in her hammock, flask of whiskey in hand, surveying the canopy of trees ahead and enjoying the peace and quiet.

It was late May 2015 and Sarah was spending the long Memorial Day weekend hiking a New York-based section of the Appalachian Trail, the scenic hike that winds across the Eastern United States.

In 2015, Sarah had just turned 30. She loved her job, her friends and her life in Long Island, New York, but she always felt the pull of the woods. She’d spend weekends hiking upstate, relishing the fresh air and the quiet.

“I was there as much as possible, because the older that I got, the more I missed being near the trails in the woods where I had grown up,” Sarah tells CNN Travel.

“I grew up in Maine, which is where the Appalachian Trail starts – or ends – and so I was leading trips for a summer camp on sections of the Appalachian Trail before I even graduated high school.”

That Memorial Day weekend, Sarah planned to hike a long loop of the trail she hadn’t tackled before. She wasn’t alone, at least not strictly speaking – she was dog-sitting a friend’s Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Obie, and she brought him along too.

“I’m like, ‘all right, buddy, I hope you’re ready to go because we got a lot of miles to cover,’” recalls Sarah. “And we did.”

The last day of the hike, Sarah set up her tent in a secluded spot near the William Brien shelter area. It was a tranquil spot and Sarah found herself exhaling, enjoying the calm and resting her tired legs.

“I hadn’t showered in four days, and I’d hiked like over 20 miles,” recalls Sarah. “And so I’m sitting in my hammock, barefoot, letting my shoes air out.”

Suddenly, the quiet was interrupted by Obie barking. Sarah looked up, and saw a fellow hiker approaching the campsite.

Sarah took this photo of Obie the dog at the campsite, just before she met Travis.

Meeting the stranger’s eyes, Sarah felt instantly comfortable – sure, she’d just met a stranger in the woods. But she trusted him right away. He seemed friendly. And Sarah thought he was attractive – smiling, wearing a backwards baseball cap.

“But I’m trying to play it cool, because I’m literally a hot mess at this point,” Sarah recalls.

“Do you know where I can find water?” asked the stranger.

Sarah had no idea.

“There’s a lake maybe half a mile up the yellow trail,” she offered, then gestured to her flask. “But I have some whiskey if you want some?”

The stranger laughed, but declined the offer. He pulled out his paper map and showed it to Sarah – on his map, at almost exactly where she’d set up her hammock, was a small “W” for water. Sarah pulled out her phone to compare this to the paper and PDF maps she’d been using all weekend. There was no such marking on any of her maps, and no sign of water nearby.

Here's the map Travis was using that day, with the "W" for water marked where Sarah happened to pitch her tent.

While they compared maps, Sarah and the stranger introduced themselves. He was Travis King, then in his mid-30s and based in Philadelphia. He was spending weekends, like Sarah, escaping his city, hiking the Appalachian Trail in sections.

After several minutes of back and forth, Travis headed off, still on a quest to find a spring or river.

Sarah busied herself preparing dinner. Then she climbed back into her hammock to watch the sun set. As dusk descended, she lit her campfire, and found herself thinking again about Travis.

“Man, Travis seemed cool. Maybe he’ll come back,” she thought.

Sure enough, about an hour or so later Travis reappeared, and struck up conversation with Sarah again.

“We just talked for a half hour, talking about some of our other travels. He’d ridden a bike through Belgium, that was the story he was telling me. And I was telling him that I had been to South America,” recalls Sarah.

The topic of their diverging maps came up again. As Sarah was showing her PDF version to Travis once again, she realized this was the perfect excuse to ask for his cell phone number.

“Give me your number and I’ll text you the map that I use,” she said, trying to sound as casual as possible.

Travis agreed. There was no cell phone service in the woods, but Sarah promised to text Travis the map the following day, when she regained reception. The two hikers said their goodbyes, Travis heading off in another direction, and Sarah settling down for the night.

The wrong number

The next day, Sarah put off leaving the woods for as long as possible. She was in no hurry to get back to Long Island and wanted to enjoy her last few hours immersed in nature.

But when she eventually returned to her car and to her phone signal, Sarah sent Travis a message, attaching the map, as promised, and wishing him all the best for the rest of his hike. Then she drove back home.

That evening, Sarah unpacked and tried to avoid checking her phone. But whenever she looked, there was no response from Travis.

The next day she woke up, went to work, came home and there was still no response. Late that evening, Sarah relented and sent another text, figuring maybe the first hadn’t got through.

This time, Sarah got a response, but it wasn’t the one she was expecting:

“My name is Kathy, I don’t know who you’re looking for, but please stop texting me.”

Sarah screenshotted the reply, and sent it to several friends. She’d already told them about Travis, but none of her friends thought it was a good idea for Sarah to keep in touch with him.

“People always assume that only nut jobs are out in the woods. So everybody’s like, ‘Why do you care? Why are you upset that he’s not texting you back?” Sarah recalls.

As far as Sarah’s friends were concerned, the message from Kathy sealed the deal.

“All my friends were like, ‘Sarah, I bet he’s married. I bet he gave you his wife’s number, and that’s why she’s mad. Or he gave you a fake number on purpose.’”

But Sarah felt certain Travis was sincere. And that they were meant to meet again.

“Most of the time you meet people traveling and that’s that – but for whatever reason, Travis just was different,” she says.

Meanwhile, Travis was back in Philadelphia, thinking about Sarah, and wondering why she hadn’t messaged him.

“I was kind of bummed because I was like, ‘Oh, man, she was super interesting. I know she has my number and it’s been a couple of days and I haven’t gotten this map, I haven’t heard from her. I haven’t heard from this person that I would like to talk to some more, because she was super cool,” he tells CNN Travel.

Travis hadn’t taken down Sarah’s details, so there was nothing he could do. He didn’t know her full name, or any identifying information that could help him find her on social media.

Sarah was also stumped.

“I didn’t know his last name. All I knew was the general area where he grew up, where he lived now, he enjoyed hiking, he was in his mid-30s,” she recalls.

The days rolled on. Later that week, Sarah was out at a bar with a friend, relaying the story for what felt like the hundredth time. The friend asked to see the number, and examined Sarah’s phone for a moment.

“I don’t like that six in the middle,” she said. “Change that six to a five.”

Figuring she had nothing to lose, Sarah did just that. Then she typed out a quick hello, and hit send.

Within seconds, the three dots appeared indicating someone was writing a response. Then three words popped up on the screen:

“Who is this?”

“Sarah from the woods?” wrote Sarah, typing furiously. She’d meant to include an exclamation mark, but in her excitement, the question mark slipped in instead.

“Where’s the map you were going to send me?” came the reply.

Sarah turned to her friend, gobsmacked. She waved the phone excitedly.

“It’s him! It’s him!” she said.

Meeting again

Sarah and Travis tracked one another down again, despite the wrong number.

Connection reestablished, Sarah and Travis messaged back and forth all evening and into the next day.

Before long, these text messages turned into long phone calls.

“We were just talking every night, texting nonstop, talking,” recalls Travis.

About a month after their first text exchange, Sarah and Travis agreed to meet again. Travis arranged to travel to New York to stay with Sarah for the weekend.

What should have been a two or three hour drive took closer to eight hours – with Travis hitting rush hour New York City traffic.

Sarah was waiting at home for him, but eventually she had to head out. While she worked in an office during the day, her passion was music and she sang at venues across New York State. She had a gig that night, so texted Travis to tell him to meet her there, and went on ahead.

“Then, halfway through the show, he walks in with a smile on his face,” recalls Sarah.

She was standing on stage, mid-song, when Travis entered at the back.

“He just sat through seven and a half hours of traffic and he still came in here with a smile on his face.”

Sarah smiled back.

“It was just really cool to see him in person,” she says.

Travis says it didn’t even occur to him to feel frustrated by the traffic. He was just so excited to reunite with Sarah.

“From the time she first reached out to me with that text – ‘Sarah from the woods question mark’ – I felt like she was almost my best friend by default because we just talked all the time. I didn’t talk to anybody else that much,” says Travis. “I was happy to get to see her again and to spend time with her and actually get to know her more in person that weekend.”

He was also blown away by Sarah’s singing, which he calls “phenomenal.”

While both Sarah and Travis were interested in one another, they still didn’t know if their feelings were reciprocated.

“The first night I was just like, ‘We can sleep on my bed or you can sleep on the couch,’ I didn’t want to be forward or whatever. So he slept in my bed. But he slept in his clothes, like on top of the blanket. It was so cute,” says Sarah.

They spent the weekend talking, filling in the gaps from their text and phone exchanges. The morning of Travis’ last day, the two arranged to go to a vineyard. And before they headed out, they kissed for the first time.

“At the vineyard, we dressed up, and people were talking to us like we’d been a couple for a long time,” says Sarah.

“We just organically fit,” says Travis. “Everything just kind of went together. We weren’t clashing on anything, it was a good flow to our personalities and our experiences and where we were at in life.”

At the end of the weekend, when they came to say goodbye, Sarah started to tear up. It had been a perfect two days, and the thought of being apart hurt.

“I remember just sitting there and crying and being like, ‘This is so much fun. When are we going to do this again?’ And he just looks at me – and again, that whole thing of that comfort level and not being embarrassed to speak our true feelings – he just looked at me and he’s like, ‘I’m free next weekend.’”

For Sarah, that’s when it clicked. They weren’t going to play games, or pretend not to be interested in one another. They were both invested. They were going to do everything they could to make it work.

Jumping into the unknown together

Here's Travis and Sarah in the Teton Range mountain range in Wyoming, part of the Rocky Mountains.

From there, Sarah and Travis alternated weekends together in New York or Philadelphia. And sometimes they’d head up to the Appalachian Trail together – their first vacation was a week-long hike along the challenging Presidential Traverse trek in the White Mountains. They met one another’s loved ones – with Sarah’s friends happy to be reassured Travis wasn’t a “nut job from the woods” after all.

Towards the end of that first year of long distance, the couple decided Sarah would move to Philadelphia.

“I think I was at a point in my life where I was like, you have to go for the things that you think are what matters,” says Sarah. “If it doesn’t work out, then at least we didn’t waste five years of this back and forth. And if it does work out, then the sooner the better. And we could just start our lives together.”

It was hard, she says, being far away from her New York support network. But after a while, Sarah and Travis took a leap into the unknown together, quitting their jobs and spending a year traveling across the US by car.

On a secluded black rock beach on the Big Island of Hawaii in late 2016, Travis proposed to Sarah.

Sarah and Travis eloped in the Rocky Mountains, and later commemorated the moment with this photoshoot in the Adirondack Mountains.

“I made up an excuse to pause for a second and put my bag down for something and then I whip this ring out and get down and ask her,” Travis recalls. “It was awesome. It was everything I expected it to be and hoped it to be.”

During their year adventuring around America, the two got married in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Sarah took Travis’ name, becoming Sarah King.

“It was just the two of us in the middle of a storm in our hiking clothes on a trail – just like when we met – all grubby and gross and it was perfect,” says Sarah. “In Colorado, you can marry yourselves – you don’t need a justice of the peace or anything.”

The two later commemorated the occasion with a photo shoot – Sarah in a wedding dress, Travis in a smart vest – in the Adirondack Mountains.

“That trip, where we had very little, but we had each other and we had adventure – that was just like, we’re on the right track, no matter what life throws at us. We’re going to be okay,” says Sarah.

Adventuring together

Here's Sarah and Travis pictured in Vermont in late 2022.

Today, Sarah and Travis live together in a cabin in the woods in Vermont. Miles of trails and beautiful woodland are now on their doorstep, ready for them to enjoy together whenever they like.

Travis says that today, when he thinks back on how they met, he gets “goosebumps.”

Not only were they two strangers who just happened to cross paths on the Appalachian Trail, thanks to a mislabeled map. They also managed to reunite via text, despite a wrong number.

“To this day, her name in my phone is saved as ‘Sarah from the woods?’” says Travis, laughing.

“I totally get goosebumps thinking about it and feel so fortunate that it happened. Because Sarah’s my partner for life.”

Today, Sarah likes to say the “W” on Travis’ map was a sign, and the “W” stood for “wife.”

“How many things had to align to put us in the same place at once and to connect and to find each other again, after?” she says.

“I think sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of those types of goosebumpy moments – when we’re fixing the toilet or something and frustrated with each other. But then you remember everything that led us to that moment, and why we’re still here and why we’re still together and we want to be and it’s really powerful.”