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The Heart of the A.T.

For Appalachian Trail culture, and a cool little town, check out Hot Springs, North Carolina.

by Paul Gerald

Now that there is no longer a Grateful Dead tour, the Appalachian Trail is the coolest thing in America.

Technically, the A.T. is a footpath of roughly 2,100 miles, built in the 1920s, that meanders from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. About 70 miles of the A.T. traverse the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are towns every few days along the way to get provisions, and covered shelters about every seven miles.

That would be neat enough, but like the Deadheads, the people of the trail are intimately connected, whether they're physically together or not, by a mutual love -- in this case, walking in the woods.

There is, for example, the Rat Patrol of Johnson City, Tennessee (named for the initials of their leader, Randy A. Tarpley, who got married on the A.T.). They're a band of trail-lovers who live and hike together and take it upon themselves to keep the A.T. in their neck of the woods clear of plants and fallen trees and garbage.

The Rat Patrol also spreads what's called "Trail Magic." Every year, on the last weekend of April, they gather in Brown's Gap on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, right when the mass of northbound thru-hikers (people attempting to walk the entire A.T.) rolls through, and they feed whomever shows up. Last year they had 72 people come through. Friday night is the fish fry, Saturday night is steaks, Sunday night is "leftover hoedown."

In Wesser, North Carolina (a tiny river town where the A.T. goes right down the middle of the street), I met a fellow who went by the trail name of "The Wayfaring Man." He dropped out of our world a few years back and now spends most of his time alone in the wilderness or out on the road, always reading his Bible and cooking up a batch of beans over a cup-sized fire.

Recently a grandfather-grandson pair, 71 and 17 years old, hiked the whole trail over two summers.

I once hiked about 110 miles of the A.T. in Tennessee and North Carolina, and without question the coolest place I dropped into was the town of Hot Springs, North Carolina.

Hot Springs is known along the trail as a place where you can get a Trail Burger at the Trail Cafe (nothing special unless you've been eating camping food for a few days) and a long, wonderful soak in naturally fed hot tubs. The hot springs, a resort destination for well over a century and once the site of a now-burned fancy hotel, has a campground and 15 naturally fed tubs available for rental right along the French Broad. (There are even some private ones back in the woods where, as one local told me, "You can git nekkid.")

While you're in town, search out Dan "Wingfoot" Bruce, author of a handy guidebook for thru-hikers and one of the few genuine trail celebrities. He now operates the Center for Appalachian Trail Studies and is the maintainer of a massive A.T. Web site, trailplace.com.

But your accommodations might be the highlight of your visit to Hot Springs. One option is a Jesuit church that maintains a hostel in the corner of its property where the northbound A.T. comes out of the woods. It might be a bit rustic for most folks, although the trail-centered conversation and collection of board games in the fireplaced living room are tough to beat.

The place to stay is The Inn at Hot Springs, more commonly known as Elmer's. Elmer hiked the whole A.T. in 1973, and when he saw Hot Springs he decided it was the place for him.

Specifically, Elmer saw an 1870s Victorian mansion, which he bought and turned into an inn. Since then, he has traveled all over the South, hitting antique stores and estate sales to fill his house with furniture from its original time. He stocked a music room, open to all players, with a dozen instruments including an ancient piano, still tuned to perfection. The last time I was there, the music book on the piano was The 100 Greatest Songs of All Time, dated 1953.

Elmer also keeps a tremendous library throughout the house, with hundreds of books about plants, animals, people in the wilderness, religion, philosophy, music, travel, you name it. I spent a magical afternoon there, resting from the trail, swinging on an upstairs porch and reading Richard Bach's Illusions.

Each room is full of Victorian comfort -- ornate curtains, soft couches, sturdy furniture, creaky floors and thick rugs -- and each bedroom has its own wood-burning stove. Elmer's is the kind of place you'd bring someone to propose marriage or spend a honeymoon.

On my last visit, I found Elmer sitting in the kitchen, supervising a young Australian guy cooking poppy cake. The food in Elmer's is out-of-control good, everything vegetarian, wholesome, and made on the spot. The Inn is open to everyone, but if you're thru-hiking (which Elmer defines as walking anything more than 100 miles on the trail) you can work off the $12 rate by helping with cooking or cleaning. At dinner ($8 beyond the room rate), each guest introduces himself or herself, telling name, hometown, and occupation, and as soon as that's done, the eating begins and conversation flows. "Where are you a nurse?" "Which market do you trade in?" "What sort of writing do you do?"

A night at Elmer's, like time on the Appalachian Trail, reaffirms two fundamental realities: (1) the amount of fun you have at any given time is at least 95 percent determined by who you're hanging out with; and (2) when in doubt, go take a walk in the woods.

How to get there: Go east on I-40 to Newport, which is about 40 miles east of Knoxville, then go east on U.S. 25 another 30 or so scenic miles. Bring tissues -- this drive has been known to evoke tears. Web sites: A.T. is www.fred.net/kathy/at.html. Also see www.blueridgeonline.com.
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