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Much of the Appalachian Trail experience isn’t even in the woods. Before I left, people seemed surprised by this when I told them. There’s a common perception that hiking the trail means six months of solitude in remote wilderness. But even if a hiker could somehow avoid his hundreds of fellow thru-hikers, he’d still have to come back to civilization once in a while to get food. The trail does of course goes through wilderness, but it’s never too far from a town with all the comforts of home. It even passes right through some of them. After all, it would be pretty difficult to draw a 2,000 mile line through the eastern U.S. without emerging from the wilderness once in a while. These towns and stops along the A.T., and the characters that inhabit them, are every bit a part of the trail itself.

The first time the thru-hiker emerges from the woods to once again see the clean, dry, cotton-wearing inhabitants of the real world is at Neels Gap, about three days from the start. After crossing the road, the trail passes directly through the breezeway of a stone building that houses Mountain Crossings Outfitter. It’s important to note here that there is no official training video for A.T. thru-hikers. There is no information packet with a packing list, “Before You Arrive” checklist, or F.A.Q.s. Hikers are on their own to figure it out. After 31 miles with the wrong boots, too many pots, or a malfunctioning rain jacket, Mountain Crossings is the place that gets the thru-hiker properly equipped and ready to get back on the trail.

The store is entirely devoted to hiking, with a particular focus on A.T. thru-hikes. They could easily outfit a thru-hiker from nothing, but more often they add to or replace what hikers thought they needed. I picked up a waterproof stuff sack and a pack cover. After three days of rain, stock was running low. One popular service, advertised on flyers all around, is the “Gear Shakedown – Lose 10 Pounds, Guaranteed!” On the floor in scattered corners of the store, hikers lay out all of their gear. A staff member goes through it all and says keep it, replace it, or send it home, not unlike a reality TV show, as the thru-hiker quietly accepts it. Mountain Crossings has the boxes and stamps to send a lot of hiker gear back home. And if your boots don’t fit, or your pack has the wrong straps, they have every major equipment manufacturer and retailer on speed dial to negotiate a speedy exchange or refund. As I was walking around the store in my flip flops, an employee saw the holes through three layers of skin on my heels. Without me even asking, he told me the problem with my boot fit. He got me some new insoles, cut to fit, and now the heels have healed. “I’m not trying to sell you anything,” he told me, “I’m just trying to get you to Maine.”

Perhaps more important than the gear, Mountain Crossings gives hikers a much needed psychological boost. The staff are all friends of the trail. Some have been fixtures of the trail community for years. Once is a contributing editor to the trail guide I’m using. Most have thru-hiked at least once. Hanging from the ceiling are dozens of old packs and boots from successful thru-hikers. In box by the wall is a stack of photo albums with pictures of thru-hikers who have passed through over the last two decades. Trail lore fills every corner of the store. The rookie hiker, who started three days ago with no instruction book and has gotten soaked and blistered with more confused rookies since then, suddenly realizes that this has been done before, and there’s a whole community of people who are part of it. Leaving Neels Gap feels like starting the trail all over again, this time for real.

 It was also around this time that rumors of the first trail party started circulating. “Every year around, Ron Haven throws an April Fools’ Day party for hikers in Franklin,” was the word from the staff at Mountain Crossings. “And you’re in luck, because that’s a week from now, and you’re about a seven day walk from Franklin.” I hadn’t quite realized that there would be events to plan around on this trip. It seemed pretty straightforward at first, the idea was to just keep walking until I get to Maine. But now there was a reason to walk somewhere much closer.

The most interesting thing about the Franklin hiker bash is how news spread about it. Most of its target attendees are semi-nomadic mountain dwellers. So the party had no website. We didn’t receive an e-vite. There were no flyers posted around town, no ad in the local paper. Everything anybody knew about the party was by word of mouth. And it came up in just about every hiker conversation for the week before. “Is it Friday too or just Saturday?” “I don’t know where it’s going to be, but I figure if you show up in Franklin you can figure it out.” “Is there going to be camping?” “I know there’s food, but I don’t know if it’s all you can eat.” “I heard there’s going to be an Elvis impersonator.” “Oh yeah, and wasn’t there something about a book-signing by Elvis’ manager or something?”

The best rumors, which swelled to almost legendary proportions, were about the party’s host, Ron Haven. “Ron Haven is a true friend of the trail,” said the people who worked at Mountain Crossings. “Man, I get to Winding Stair Gap, and I’m standing there with my thumb out, about to start walking down the hill, when this guy shows up in a short bus and says he’s taking hikers to town. That guy is a character,” said a previous thru-hiker. “That guy will take care of you, no matter what.” “Ron Haven has single-handedly made Franklin a great trail town. He’s convinced the people that hikers are a little smelly but they’re mostly good people and are happy to spend money in town.” “He owns the Sapphire Inn, the Budget Inn, and one other I think?” “Yeah I was talking to him one day and he said if I was looking to buy some property in town, he’s a licensed real estate agent and could help me out. I think he owns an antique store or something too.”

A section of the trail was jammed up for days with people timing their hike to get into Franklin for the weekend. I was not going to miss the legendary Ron Haven’s hiker party. But I was going to pass Franklin a couple days ahead of the weekend and didn’t want to slow down for it. When I got to Winding Stair Gap, the highway into Franklin, the short bus pulled up as expected and a burly beaded man got out to help hikers in. The man, the legend, Ron Haven. He will take care of me, no matter what, I remembered being told. So I asked, “I’m hiking on but want to get back for your party. Are you running shuttles from the Nantahala?” He shook my hand with a smile. “I tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna send a limousine to pick up you hikers, now I ain’t kidding. I run a limousine service, and what you need to do,” he fished a card out of his wallet, “is call this number and tell them where you’re gonna be. If you can get ten people, it’s just ten dollars a person. We want to make sure we can get all y’all in here to celebrate at the party, not gonna leave anyone out.”

I got back to Franklin, not in a limo, to see what the party was all about. There was a bluegrass band. There was a lot of food. There was camping on the lawn in front of the Sapphire Inn. But most of all, there were a lot of hikers. Not just the ones on the trail I had been meeting, but dozens of hikers and others who had been fixtures of the A.T. community for years. People who have thru-hiked several times, people who have helped build sections of the trail, people who run some of the much-loved hiker hostels. Over the evening I met some of these characters, and heard some stories, and watched old hiker buddies reunite. They are a diverse cast of characters, united by this long footpath. We weren’t in the woods, and most of us were pretty clean. But it was a quintessential Appalachian Trail experience. And there’s lots more of it to come.

-April 17, Hot Springs, NC