Fresh Ground and the Leapfrog Cafe

If you ever thru-hike the Appalachian Trail—and if you are approached by a stout man in his early 50s with a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard—and if he asks you in a lively Southern twang, “Y’all want some hot breakfast? All you can eat, all free”—then take ease, friend.

This man is no hallucination. Nor is he some pithy day hiker cracking a cruel joke.

No, this man’s appearance is to be celebrated. His name is Fresh Ground, and you’re about to join the ranks of the thousands of thru-hikers that he’s fed and tended to over the past half decade.

A Trail Legend

Fresh Ground is a legend up and down the AT. “He followed us through the Smokies, everywhere we went,” A thru-hiker named J3 explains. “Fed us two meals a day. We kept walking into towns with our packs still full of food. It was horrible. But it was wonderful. Deee-licious.”

(You’ll soon hear that I too was impressed by and endlessly grateful for Fresh Ground and his cuisine, but J3 must have practically swooned. See, J3’s from Arizona; he’s entirely unaccustomed to even rudimentary Southern hospitality. The man still blushes and turns all giddy when Cracker Barrel waitresses call him “darlin’.”)

The Cafe on Wheels

Fresh Ground started the trail-side Leapfrog Cafe in 2013. For the first four years, he lived and fed hikers out of a 1993 Camry all summer long.

The new Leapfrog van, which Ground picked up last winter, is much more accommodating. In place of the rear two rows of seats, cooking supplies fit easily beside a cozy-looking twin bed. The foremost passenger row is reserved for weary or shivering or food-comatose hikers.

Sharpie-d trail names of satiated diners decorate the van’s felt ceiling. And Ground’s memory of the signees is impressive: he’ll quickly recount who they are, where and when he met them, and what was on the menu that day.

The Leapfrog Cafe is no-charge and nonprofit. Seriously. Ground relies completely on donations from thankful diners, and every penny he receives he puts right back into hungry hikers’ mouths. The cafe’s unofficial slogan is, “All you can eat, all you can tote. All for free.”

My Leapfrog Initiation

I first met Fresh Ground on an early spring morning. The night before, I’d weathered vicious thunderstorms in the meager safety of a rickety ridgetop AT shelter, and the day’s weather was looking to be equally dreary.

As I stumbled up the soggy trail I spotted a white Ford passenger van parked beside a quiet, fog-shrouded country lane. The Leapfrog Cafe, the side of the van read. In front of the van stood two foldout tables. One table bore a large Coleman stove, a crate of coffee cups and plastic ware, a large packet of bacon, and two cartons of eggs. On the other table there was a deep basin of some opaque liquid and a cooler with a shower head for a spigot.

“Bleach and rinse before you touch anything,” said a man from behind the tables. Without introduction I knew him to be the legend himself: Fresh Ground. “There’s norovirus going around,” he continued. “Even if you hadn’t had it you can still be a carrier. Hand sanitizer won’t kill it neither.“ He seemed impressively well informed about the disease, and I soon found out why.

“Two years ago it got 75% of the trail. Knocked me off my hike just past Harpers Ferry. Nasty stuff. Bleach, rinse, then you grab what you like.”

Mouth already watering, I obliged.

The Dining Experience

Fresh Ground can be almost aggressively doting with his trail magic but not at all in a rude way. He’s like a true Southern grandmother: superficially stern, always pushing plate after hearty plate on anyone who looks “too skinny” (i.e., everyone).

Or perhaps Ground’s persona is better explained with analogies to another world of magic: with his skill and humble generosity Fresh Ground has earned the reverence of, say, Albus Dumbledore; he’s also got the gruff, homey, approachable nature of one Rubeus Hagrid; and like Molly Weasley, Ground is a bustling culinary whiz with a “hush up and eat up” attitude.

Though for all his energy, Ground doesn’t sleep much. On the morning we met, he admits he was up at 3 a.m. to restock provisions and scout the cafe’s business address for the day. “ADHD, baby,” Ground explains. “Keeps me doing stuff, which I don’t mind, ‘slong as it’s stuff I love.”

(As for the ADHD, the “hyperactive” part is clear: Ground talks a mile a minute, and his hands work at twice that rate. Yet I found scant evidence of a “deficit” in Ground’s concentration, and none at all in the dishes he focused it on.)

Today’s Leapfrog menu was classic and American, the types of dishes that are so ubiquitous that it takes a true culinary master to make them stand out. And yet stand out they did.

The first course of breakfast was the bacon—thick, deep-fried strips of it, crispy and juicy and tender all at once.

Next, eggs—scrambled with cheddar cheese, salt, and pepper, and served at that perfect consistency that challenges the boundary between solid and liquid.

And finally, pancakes. Oh god, those pancakes. Sinful is the word that comes to mind. Ground mixed the batter thick, loaded it with fresh banana slices, then fried each cake in a generous pat of butter. The result was a flaky, buttery exterior that preserved a gooey, sweet, steamy core. We each soaked our tall stacks down with maple syrup, “the real stuff,” Ground assured, “none of that Aunt Jemima corn syrupy bullcrap.”

Hollywood Couldn’t Have Scripted It Better

Driving around for half the year can be a lonely endeavor. Ground has never been married, and until recently, he says he’s never had a “real girlfriend.”

But a few months ago, on a section hike in the Smokies, Ground met a woman with the downright prophetic trail name Coffee Mate. The two parted ways after only a few days, but Ground couldn’t get this girl off his mind. A friend finally convinced him to call her up. “I was nervous, but I did, and something just clicked. Said she’d been thinking about me ever since, too.”

Ground later invited Coffee Mate to join him for a week of providing trail magic along the Blue Ridge Parkway. “Guess I’m hoping she might someday be my girlfriend. Now we’ll just have to see if she can put up with me and my talking.” He chuckles sheepishly.

Miracles, Twice Daily

The Leapfrog breakfast powered me smoothly through the first ten miles of the day.

Then, around noon—just as my hiker hunger began to stir—I came across another road. This intersection was isolated, truly backwoods, and the roadway was little more than a wide gravel path.

Wind swelled and howled over the ridge, and the barren oak trees groaned and swayed with discontent. And there, amid the roar, sat the Leapfrog Cafe. Alongside the van, the mobile restaurant’s owner / operator buzzed about his makeshift kitchen looking as busy and lively as ever.

“There he is!” Fresh Ground shouted as I approached. The Coleman stove out front sizzled delightfully.

“Beautiful day, isn’t it? Got sloppy joes coming off in a few.” He cracked open a fresh jar of dill pickle spears and held it toward me.

“Sit down. Enjoy yourself.”

And so I did.

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