Day 30: Hostels and The Appalachian Trail’s Backstage

The forest was a carnival of bare snags, bird song, sun-warmed pine resin, and moss at Shelton Graves, where two Union soldiers died while visiting family in the Confederacy during the Civil War. It was 2pm, but a barred owl called nearby.

A surprising number of graves line the trail. Old family plots, usually. Some more recent memorials to folks who worked on the trail, or just loved to hike it. When I passed the Shelton brothers, it was 44 miles until Erwin, TN. 

The graves remind me it is impossible to disentangle these woods from their human context. There is no “forest primeval.” Names like Nantahala and Nolichucky have roots in the indigenous communities who lived and live here for centuries: S’atsoyaha (Yuchi) and Cherokee in north Georgia, western North Carolina and Tennessee. 

The act of hiking, even if it takes place in the backcountry, is a culturally curated experience on its own. Nothing is more unnatural than leaving one’s home to hike a carefully manicured trail that exists only because of decades of land policy and management negotiations. 

And of course, as mentioned, hiking the Appalachian Trail is primarily a social experience that happens to take place outside. 

A well established network of hostels and shuttles that line the trail are a testament to decades of that culture building. 

Hostels on the Appalachian Trail

Picture a cabin at the edge of the woods. There’s a long, covered porch with rocking chairs and ash trays, and freshly showered hikers using both— sipping soda or beer. 

In the lawn there are disused yard games: corn hole and bocce.

A fire pit is surrounded by folding chairs, still wet from the rain last night. An ancient, rusted van, plastered in bumper stickers with the word “Shuttle” on the sliding door is parked in the gravel lot.

You have arrived at a typical hostel on the Appalachian Trail. 

Hostels are low cost lodging marketed towards hikers, offering basic amenities, a bed, laundry, usually some sort of meal option, as well as some thru-hiker specific services. Resupply shelves are common, where basic items one might need for a week on the trail can be purchased: oatmeal, instant potatoes, tuna, protein bars, Pop Tarts— a gas station’s selection of goods. 

How Do They Work?

You pay $15-$120 cash, card, or sometimes Venmo. Many offer either spots on the lawn to tent, or beds in the bunk room as their cheapest lodging options. The bunk room is what it sounds like: a dozen beds or so, usually old mattresses on handmade frames. There are private rooms too, but those are extra. 

The hostels are privately run, usually by individuals who have hiked the trail and wanted to come back to provide the support they received on their thru-hike. They operate in many ways like summer camps crossed with bed and breakfasts. The patrons all know each other, and the owner knows exactly what the patrons need and want to have a good time. 

This also means that each hostel is wildly different from the last. Some are geared towards the party crowd, while others focus on being places of rest and relaxation. Some are no more than a collection of tiny houses themed after children’s books. Others look more like college dorms. 

All of them are usually booked solid with hikers throughout the week (since the difference between week and weekend for thru-hikers is functionally meaningless). 

When the tents are drying on the clothes line and everyone has their feet kicked up on the porch railing, it’s hard to avoid getting sucked into conversation— often with folks you’ve never met.

One of the allures to hiking the Appalachian Trail for many people is the comprehensive infrastructure that over the decades have sprung up alongside it. Hostels and lists of shuttle drivers who charge a small fee to go from trailhead to town, and a ton of other services locals provide the hikers who spend money in their communities

A Hiker Named Walker

Walker sits back in an Adirondack chair on the hostel porch, one hand wrapped around a sweating Coca-Cola, the other clasping a crushed leather hat on his knee. 

He is a self-described “big guy,” and this is his fifth time attempting the Appalachian Trail. 

“I’ve lost this much off my stomach since I started hiking 6 years ago.” He holds his fist to his gut and shows the distance between his thumb and pinky. He is neither proud nor embarrassed. He says it like he’s come to expect people to ask how much weight he’s lost.

I’ve had a long standing policy against asking about anyone’s body, plus Walker’s body type is far from unusual on the trail. 

The vast majority of those hiking around me are at or around retirement age, and many have self-identified as plus-sized. It feels intentionally discriminatory then that many of the top-tier gear companies don’t offer any plus-sized sleeping bags, jackets, or other gear.

Walker not pictured

“I’ve never finished, but I love this trail. There is nowhere I’d rather be. I go home for a few months in the winter just to save up and get ready to come back out.”

”Have you been to Katahdin?”

“Oh yeah. I’ve hiked most of it in sections. But end to end, I’ve never done that. Not yet.”

”Where are you from originally?” I ask.

”New Hampshire. Then Hawaii for a time.”

Walker started hiking after getting off of some choice substances. He wanted to find something to fill the time when the hours got long at the sober home. From walks to the end of the road and back, to the long walk from Georgia to Maine, he’s become rabid about life outside. He’s particularly rabid about life on the AT.

The Trail’s Backstage

“Why don’t you try other trails?”

”This is home. This is where my friends are. I know all the hostel owners. I know all the shuttle drivers. I’m friends with Walmart (an individual who famously hikes the trail every year with Walmart brand gear) and Miss Janet.”

On a deeper level than hostels and hiker discounts at restaurants, the Appalachian Trail has a robust inner culture. Some might call it a cult following, full of people who live and die by the trail— and for whom completing it in sections or all at once represents the height of a life’s work. 

Hence, the surprising number of stone memorials. 

This inner world is rarely, if ever shown or talked about in mainstream portrayals of the trail, though it’s arguably the defining feature of an AT thru-hike. I imagine this is because it’s hard to communicate. When the general public hear’s “Appalachian Trail,” they picture an unpeopled landscape. A solo adventurer with naught but their wits and an outrageously sized backpack. 

This is false. There are solo adventurers, but they either don’t stay solo for long or find less crowded trails. You can escape the crowded hostels, the local legends, the trail customs if you want but:

  1. Don’t  be a pisser, it’s bigger than you.

  2. You’d have to go WAY out of your way to get that kind of privacy. 

Though I try. To get privacy, that is. 

Privacy is much, MUCH harder to come by than expected. It feels like dorm living again, if the dorms were spread out on a 2,200 mile long foot path.

While I’ve stayed at a couple hostels (and resupplied at several more), my town lodging of choice tends to be more in the direction of budget motels: $60 a night for a locked door, cracked toilet seat, and mini fridge.

Preferably, there’s a desk for writing. Maybe a plastic chair outside where I can moodily drink a cold beer and think about my life choices beneath the humming fluorescent lights.

How Am I Doing?

Kind of you to ask. 

Starr, the shuttle driver in Great Smoky Mountain National Park hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2022. As I shivered in the cold and rain at Newfound Gap, she told me that once Clingman’s Dome was out of the way, I’d have climbed the hardest parts of the trail in the Southeast. 

So far, she’s been correct—with some qualifications. There is still plenty of elevation gain, and plenty of knee-busting descents.

At mile 344 (plus a couple to the motel) I’ve climbed roughly 84,500 feet, and descended 85,200 feet. To put those meaningless numbers into context, Mount Everest is 29,032 feet. 

As my muscles and endurance improve, the days get easier. My joints are cooperating well, and my mileage is on the rise. 17-mile days have become the norm, with the odd 20-mile day thrown in from time to time. For many of us, our muscles rather than knees or ankles have become the limiting factor— and of course our minds. 

Your eyes are on the ground for most of the day— netted roots and rocks turn ankles and trip you up. Some also say this keeps them from looking too far up the trail at the seemingly endless parade of switchbacks and false summits. 

With that in mind, the foot and a half wide strip of mineral soil that is the AT generally looks the same mile to mile. Somedays it feels like you’re on a long car ride, and you reach for things to keep yourself busy. Audiobooks and music help, but they burn down phone batteries. Plenty of time is spent planning the evening— dinner, mapping the next day, sleeping. 

Being Present Can Be Hard

Breathing deeply and cataloging one’s surroundings, being present, is easier said than done. It’s another muscle to exercise, but that too gets stronger. like other muscles, your capacity for appreciating the casual grandeur in every direction gets fatigued. You’re hungry. You’re hot. You’re cold. You’re wet. 

I move too quickly and too often to consider this a study in ecology. The moosewood and mayapples, trillium and rhododendrons are camp companions, but hiking time is a study of the self. The Appalachian Trail can be a laboratory for experimenting with the self, asking questions like:

  • How do I react when I bend my trekking pole or lose a tent stake? (With a shrug)

  • How many days can I tolerate camping in the rain? (Three tops).

  • Why do mountain views matter less to me than a secluded camping spot? (The profound subtlety of watching a forest creep back to life once it’s forgotten you’re there is worth at least 2.5 sweeping vistas in my book.) 

  • Am I more afraid of bears stealing my food or having to dig a cathole in the rain? (Digging a cathole in the rain, hands down.) 

These questions have real, practical answers that shape my every day. Each hour brings new landscapes, people, weather and so I feel like I’m in a constant state of puzzle solving. 

I miss the routines of home, chores that don’t have to be reinvented everyday around the weather. I miss friends with whom I’ve already built a sense of mutual trust. I miss neighborhoods whose streets I could draw on a piece of paper with my eyes closed. 

But I love having to solve these puzzles.

Being forced to come up with novel solutions. I mean, sometimes I hate it, but how often are we asked to actually stick through something that’s even slightly inconvenient? It’s been a while for me. I’m a waffler. A self-professed coward.  

If you ever doubt your ability to do hard things, a long hike will disabuse you of that doubt. 

The Week Ahead

With the confidence that I can start ripping 20-mile days with little physical risk, I plan on integrating at least one or two a week into my planning. I will likely be stuck around the Roan Mountain area in Tennessee for a few days waiting on some mail and visiting with a friend from AmeriCorps.

Notably, all eyes are on Damascus, VA and the state line.  

Damascus hosts Trail Days every year, which is a festival for and by the hiking community with an emphasis on those hiking the AT. It promises food, music, and booths full of gear.

Most people I’m hiking around are on track to hike in as the festivities begin. 

While some drag the party on for a few days, I plan to make tracks deeper into Virginia for a look at the Shenandoahs, and a rendezvous with my brother towards the end of the month.

Weather chased me into town this weekend, but I’m going back into it shortly and it’s not gonna get much better. Nonetheless, I am so goddamn lucky to be out here. 

Cheers to fast flowing creeks and lots of wildflowers.

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Comments 4

  • David B Groce : May 7th

    “The forest was a carnival of bare snags . . .” Perhaps the best opening line of any post on this site. Loved the entire piece, Ben. Great writing. Great thinking. Great delivery. Thank you for all of it.

  • Steve Schlosnagle : May 7th

    So how ARE you doing, Ben? As for me, I’m just grateful that you occasionally find yourself outside a budget motel under fluorescent lights moodily drinking a beer, thinking about life choices–and sharing your thoughts. Way to go! And don’t forget: “Pace doesn’t matter. Just keep moving forward.”

  • Rick "Quiet Man" : May 7th

    Excellent writing! You have captured a denatured version of the AT. Thanks for sharing.

  • thetentman : May 12th

    Great writing. Thx and good luck.


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