This episode of The Green Tunnel focuses on the rich culture surrounding places to eat along the Appalachian Trail and their connection to the economy within trail towns. It also contains some pretty good restaurant suggestions!
Appalachian Trail Conservancy, “A.T. Communities,” Blog Post (2022)
Clay Bonnyman Evans “Here’s How Trails Have Become Important Boosters for Local Economies,” The Trek.co, (2019)
MILLS KELLY: Close your eyes for a minute and picture this: your feet hurt. You’ve been on the trail for days, and you’re pretty convinced that if you eat one more granola bar you’re going to start crying.
[sounds of feet on the trail, bird sound, leaves swooshing]
KELLY: Your hunger makes the sun feel even hotter, and your pack feels that much heavier. Each step you take seems to sink your feet deeper into the mud. One thing is clear. You’ve been living off instant meals for too long and you’re starting to crave real food. Food cooked in a kitchen. Tasty food.
KELLY: And then a miracle happens. You smell it. Salt and oil mixed up into some beautifully unhealthy combination that is enough to make your nostrils flare. And you find your mouth starting to water at the thought of some real, freshly cooked food. French fries. Pizza. Cheeseburgers. Your stomach growls so loudly that you’re pretty sure it scared off some birds. You start looking for the source of that heavenly smell. And then you see it. A restaurant! Right down there in town. Less than a quarter mile away.
[sound of meat hitting a grill – sizzle]
KELLY: Hello and welcome to The Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly and I’m your host. The always amazing Eleanor Magness produced this episode. Before we pull up our chair up to the table and start eating at one of those great restaurants, I want to take a minute to thank all of our listeners whose support makes our show possible. The Green Tunnel is and always will be free to listen to, but we could still use your help. If you enjoy our show, please visit R2 Studios dot org to find out how you can help us keep producing episodes like this one. We’d really appreciate it.
[begin intro music]
KELLY: Anyone who’s spent some time hiking is aware of Hiker Hunger. No matter who you are, you get hungry after a day on the trail. Long-distance hikers especially love off-trail eating. Because they have been eating dehydrated or freeze-dried foods, compact protein bars, or trail mix for days and days.
KELLY: One of the unique features of the Appalachian Trail hiking experience is that there are so many restaurants along the trail that cater specifically to hikers who want to take a break from all that processed food. And maybe even, return to civilization for a day or two. Hikers don’t just eat in restaurants. They buy supplies. Charge their phones. Visit local attractions and maybe even stay in a hotel or hostel. Hikers are just good for business.
[fade out intro music]
KELLY: This symbiotic relationship between hikers and the small towns along the trail is very different from what Appalachian Trail founder Benton MacKaye had in mind when he first proposed the trail in 1921.
KELLY: MacKaye was a socialist and he envisioned the Appalachian Trail as a way to escape from the rampant capitalism of America in the 1920s. And he believed that small communities of rural producers would spring up along the trail, far from the reach of America’s corporations. Brian King was the long-time publicist and archivist of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and he shared his knowledge of MacKaye’s ideas with us in a recent interview.
BRIAN KING: He was talking about planned communities on public land. As if there were no inhabitants there right now, at the time. It was all about resettling World War One veterans, as if they had no homes to go to he would take them out into this quasi wilderness, plant them there. Some would be farming some Well, mostly forestry, using the Natural Resources bypassing the corporation, of that period and supply in towns with food, lumber or this sort of thing, it’s all from the ground up, no, not existing communities, which makes it radically different from what we’re talking about in the AT community program.
KELLY: Those utopian rural communities MacKaye had in mind didn’t happen. What did happen was a growing interdependence between hikers and the already existing small towns the trail passed by and through. Eventually, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy began designating many of these towns official “Trail Towns”. Places like Hot Springs, North Carolina, Berryville, Virginia, or Monson, Maine. Those towns, in turn, have been able to leverage their connection to the trail to raise funds for economic development.
KING: You mentioned Hot Springs. Hikers are helping to prop up that that local economy and in small ways. Damascus is another one. Smaller places like Glasgow or Bastion. It’s a big deal. Now, how big a deal it is in Front Royal, I don’t know. But there’s a very active, you know, and each one of these, they become communities because of a local group that applies for the designation. It’s a collection of small businesses, usually Chamber of Commerce, and others. Front Royal is much bigger than most of these places, but it’s got a very active committee that have grant writers on it, they’re always looking for ways to improve the situation. Other communities are a little more passive, but it’s the ones that are active, it’s with the local economy in mind, and that’s, that’s what we want.
KELLY: Before the backpacking boom of the 1970s, most hikers resupplied through mail drops – boxes of food and gear shipped to small town post offices along the trail. But as the number of hikers grew, restaurants along the trail began to cater to hikers and their cravings. One such restaurant is Bob’s Dairyland in Roan Mountain, Tennessee. Joe Miller is the owner of Bob’s.
JOE MILLER: Well we only see thru hikers typically about twice a year in a large number “And we’ll have a northbound wave that comes through three to four weeks after they start the trail in in Georgia. And a lot of times in the summer, just based on the weather you’ll see waves of these hikers coming in. Particularly when we hit one of these ways, we will see an economic boost in our restaurant and other restaurants in town and the grocery stores. Oddly, even the gas stations will see a bump in sales due to the hikers because maybe they have friends that are coming in or support people that are are meeting them to drop off supplies and so forth. Just about every business that I can think of in a remote community or any of the Appalachian Trail communities will see a benefit from having hikers there. Obviously it’s not just the dollars that they spend, but it’s also maybe the people they bring to a particular community.
KELLY: Many of the towns along the AT were once manufacturing centers. Damascus, Virginia was a lumber town. Monson, Maine processed slate and made furniture. But then those jobs left and the local economies began to depend more and more on tourism. And in the 1970s AT hikers began to fill in the void created when the older businesses went away.
[ambient manufacturing sounds]
NICHOLAS FUSCO: When the slate industry and the furniture manufacturing company here in town pulled away, and the school shut down, this place started to fall apart. And then this foundation helped the people here who wanted to thrive and not die, die the death of so many small manufacturing towns, the foundation helped lay the groundwork for the community to pull together and to to come up with different things other than the manufacturing.
KELLY: That was Nicholas Fusco, owner of The Lakeshore House in Monson, Maine.
KELLY: One thing Benton MacKaye didn’t imagine was how hikers would change the culture in the towns they passed through, or how hikers would be changed by their experiences there.
MILLER: You’ll see locals constantly, they’ll stop and say, Oh, that guy’s hiking or this lady needs a ride. Let’s pick her up. And they’ll stop and bring him a couple of miles into the room mountain to the village from the trailhead. So I think that our entire area I’ll think it’s about 1100 people in our community were to embrace the trail, and they realize what it’s bringing through our area, not just economically, but they’re bringing in people from completely different social backgrounds, geographic backgrounds, so they’re literally around the world. And you can sit and talk to him for a few minutes. And I’ve looked over and seen some of our local people that very seldom maybe ever even get out of Tennessee, North Carolina area. And there’ll be speaking with a guy from Venezuela, or a guy from California or somewhere else that they’ll probably never get to visit. So the community just builds itself.
KELLY: One of the trail towns where those changes are the most obvious is Hot Springs, North Carolina. Genia Peterson owns the Smoky Mountain Diner and we caught up with her there recently just as the lunch rush was ending.
GENIA PETERSON: I was born here. and raised here all my life, I’ve live here in the mountains. When I brought a 14 acres home with me, they were from everywhere, like one of the hikers said, I’ve got to do something I’ve never done in the mountains before. And I’m like, oh, you know, what, what could it be? And he said, I’ve never shot a gun shotgun. And I’m like, Oh, well, I come from a hunting family, you know. And so it was just so different. I know that a lot of our traditions are the same, even though we’re in two totally different areas. It’s the interaction, I guess, a gentleman eats in here all the time. And he is talking to this hiker telling about him killing their hogs and how they, you know, raised everything to eat. And I think the hikers are very interested in the culture that they’re going through. I know I’ve enjoyed everybody’s story, everybody has a story of why you started the trail or, why you’re here, or why this section is your most important section, or, you know, most I guess friendly section, I know that Hot Springs has always been one of the friendliest towns, and we try our best to always portray that.
KELLY: Many of the hikers wandering into these small towns come from far away places, including many foreign countries. Those hikers have so many opportunities to meet and get to know people from very different walks of life. And they can really liven things up in town, even if they might not smell so great.
FUSCO: I think the thing that unites them all is they all smell pretty bad when they come off the trail. And sorry, guys, but it’s true. so we’ve got four showers here at the lake shore house, and we encourage everybody who drops their pack and gets a room to hey, why don’t you have a quick shower, you know. They bring tails of the trail things that happen things they saw, and , because we’ve got, we got locals, and we got fishermen, and we got hunters and, and we got local artists in a residency program and rotate. If we can put all those people together in this place, some nights the bar room is just an amazing amalgam of stories. And people genuinely interested in what somebody else has to say because their experiences in life are so different. That it’s it’s amazing sometimes just to be a fly on my own wall, and see what’s unfolding in the bar that night. And some really boring nights can actually be magical, where all the tables in the bar room get pulled together. And a bunch of different people are sitting around having like a roundtable discussion. And even after close, we just let them sit and talk and maybe we’ll still give them a dessert or some beer. But you know, we don’t want to we don’t want to stop that from happening if it happens organically here at the Lake Shore House. And so that’s one of the magical things about about here.
KELLY: The closer you look at the often, but not always, fleeting relationships between hikers and local restaurant owners, the more you see magic happening.
PETERSON: My dad was a slingshot preacher. And he always helped different ones and stuff. And they loved that they could get him to take, they’re not shuttles and different things like that. And so he was always he getting stories of what they’ve been doing or what the way he was raised comparing to what they were raised. And him like 75 years old. There’s a big difference. They’re just good guys, not everybody is perfect. The majority of our hikers that we have now we love. They’re always good tippers. They’re always so friendly and so polite, and we do our best. If you’re here and you don’t have a place to stay, I’ll put you on my back porch. Or I’ll call my neighbor and say, Is there any way that you’ve got a campsite or something? Hot Springs takes care of the hikers, we really try our best to.
KELLY: Like Genia, Susan Cooper, the owner of the Village Farm[er] and Bakery in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, has been watching that magic happen for more than 40 years.
SUSAN COOPER: We do everything from, trying to find rides if they need something, medical help. We try and be an information Central, so they need something, someone isn’t up there at the hospital for the church, then they can come here and get information. It’s just been really neat. And then this year, I have already have had three hikers that said, Are you are you still the person that I talked to in 2003? Or 2010? And I’m like, Yes, I’m still here. I’m 45 years I’ve been here with you guys. So you know, I am still the same person who says, well, thank you. So it’s, That’s pretty neat.
COOPER: I do have a collection of postcards that come in to us to thank us for, you know, being welcoming and being supportive of their trail when they get Dona Qatada. So that’s always exciting when I hear back that, oh, they actually made it, and they actually, they actually finished their journey.
MILLER: One of the things that I remember the most, the people that have come back to see us after completing their journey, they come back with friends, they come back maybe with somebody they talked with, or maybe it’s another family member, sometimes it’s their wife or their children. And to have those guys come back and see us to be asked to do catering at someone’s wedding. We’ve also catered people’s funerals, because they wanted to be here in Roan Mountain. We’ve had dinners for their families before maybe a burial service or service to spread their ashes. Those are the memories that I’ll always take with me. Even after I’m retired, and somebody else is running this restaurant. Those are the sorts of things that I remember.
KELLY: If you’re listening to today’s episode out on the trail, we apologize for making you hungry. If you have eaten at one of the businesses we’ve named, I hope you’ll reach out to the owners and tell them that you heard them on the show. If you want to know more about the businesses we discussed today, we have links to all of them in our show notes.
ELEANOR MAGNESS: The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Today’s episode was produced by me, Eleanor Magness. Our executive producer is Jeanette Patrick. Jeanette also did the sound design for this episode. Our original music is performed by Scott Miller of Swope, Virginia, and Andrew Small and Ashlee Watkins of Floyd, Virginia.
MAGNESS: A special thanks to our guests for this episode, Joe Miller, Nicholas Fusco, Genia Peterson, Susan Cooper, Brian King, as well as the members of the Monson Historical Society.
MAGNESS: If you enjoyed this episode of The Green Tunnel please give us a five-star review. To explore all of our shows at R2 Studios, go to R2Studios.org.
MAGNESS: Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you soon!
Nicholas Fusco is the current proprietor of the Lake Shore House in Monson, Maine. The Lakeshore House features both a restaurant and lodging frequented by locals and hikers along the Appalachian Trail.
Brian King was the former publisher for the Appalachian Trail and former gatekeeper of its archives. He has been in a senior position at the ATC for 35 years. He also published The Appalachian Trail: Celebrating America’s Hiking Trail, an illustrated coffeeshop history of the AT, which has sold over 31,000 copies.
Joe Miller is the president and chef of Bob’s Dairyland in Roan Mountain Tennessee. Joe has been the proud owner of Bob’s Dairyland for fourteen years. Bob’s Dairyland was also the first Restaurant to register with the ATC as an official community supporter.
Genia Peterson, Trail name Biscuit, has been the owner of the Smoky Mountain Diner in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania for 30 years. She is also a current section hiker with plans to finish the trail.