Mountain Crossings a hikers’ paradise

Porter owns the Mountain Crossings outfitter and hostel at the Walasi-Yi Center on the Appalachian Trail near Blairsville, and, though he’s technically in the wilderness, there’s a lot of human wildlife on hand.

On one recent warm spring afternoon, his stone-and-timber headquarters hosted bearded hikers in poly-pro long johns, clean-shaven bikers in color coordinated helmets, a church group cooking free burgers on the deck and a swarm of tourists just enjoying the weather.

Gregory Schley, 53, whose trail name is “Dartman,” stroked his brown and gray beard and studied the scene as he and his colleague Joe “Guns” Kilpatrick took a break from gluing PVC pipe.

“You come up here on a good weekend, and it looks like bike week at Daytona,” said Schley.

The crowd at Mountain Crossings is cresting right about now. March and April are high-season for the famed Appalachian Trail, when a horde of hikers sets out from the AT’s southern terminus, Springer Mountain, aiming to make the northern end at Mount Katahdin in Maine before winter.

Most of these hikers will encounter Mountain Crossings, 30 miles in, if only because the trail runs right through the building. (It is the only stretch of the 2,178-mile footpath that passes under a roof.) On this day it seems that a good portion of them are on Porter’s porch, disporting in various states of undress.

In a new memoir called “Just Passin’ Thru’: A Vintage Store, the Appalachian Trail and a Cast of Unforgettable Characters,” Porter writes about collecting what he calls the “wackos, heroes and friends” that have made that journey. It is this crew that makes Mountain Crossings the Algonquin Round Table of the hiking community.

Which means it can get noisy. On those occasions, Porter simply steps out on the deck and glances off the edge of Neel’s Gap to the astonishing vista rolling to the northeast.

“Welcome to my dream,” said Porter, gesturing to the rolling terrain of the Chattahoochee National Forest. “I’ve got the best office space in the state of Georgia.”

It wasn’t always like this. Though Porter, 44, has made a career in outdoor sports, he’s spent much of it inside, clambering up the corporate escalator in Chicago, Salt Lake and Atlanta. After helping open the Galyan’s megastore in Buckhead in the 1990s, Porter grabbed his ideal job when the Walasi-Yi Center, at the foot of Blood Mountain, became available. An imposing 6-foot-4, Porter is more clean-cut than his hirsute customers, but not too dainty to worry about the rich smells for which the rarely washed backpacking community is justly renowned.

Walasi-Yi, a Cherokee phrase meaning (supposedly) “place of the great frog,” was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s as the Vogel Lodge, part of the Depression-era effort to put jobless Americans back to work.

Perched on Ga. 129 where it cuts through Vogel State Park, it was a restaurant, dance hall and inn. It was also a marvel of natural rock and chestnut timbers. Inside, Porter shows off a gallery of photos taken during construction, showing proud lumberjacks in front of chestnut trees as broad as a two-lane road.

The tourist supply dwindled along with the chestnut, and in the 1970s the center suffered neglect, but was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. In 1983, it became a gear supply store and a hikers’ paradise, operated by Jeff and Dorothy Hansen. Porter continued that tradition when he took over the lease in 2001.

Compared to his former 120,000-square-foot superstore, Mountain Crossings looks like a phone booth. But, like a through-hiker’s backpack, the 3,500-square-foot shop is crammed with essentials: backpacks, hiking shoes, sleeping bags, trekking poles, fleece garments, rain gear and crates of that critical staple of the hikers’ diet: Snickers bars.

It is also laden with boxes of discarded items that hikers have happily shed. The signature service provided at Mountain Crossings is the “shakedown,” during which Porter or his staff examine the contents of a hiker’s backpack and offer advice on ways to reduce weight. He is able to trim 12 pounds off the average load — a considerable difference for the individual schlepping that weight up and down mountains.

Along with that advice comes something more personal. Many of the sojourners who wander out of the woods and into Porter’s shop have nurtured a dream of walking from Georgia to Maine. Barely into that hike, their dreams have flown directly into the cliff-face of Blood Mountain. These are souls in crisis, and Porter is known for talking them down off the ledge.

“They’ve told all their friends they’re going to walk the AT,” he says. “They’ve walked 30 miles, and now they’re entertaining the word ‘quit.’ They walk in crying tears as big as half dollars.”

Porter’s unlikely, grizzled team swoops in to the rescue.

“I tell them, ‘Here are the people who are going to help you. Their names are Lumpy, Flying Pork Chop, Dartman and Cornbread,’” says Porter. “After a warm shower, a nice bunk, a great view, I talk to them. I spend 50 percent of my time talking people out of things. They tell me, ‘I need a new backpack.’ I say, ‘Well the backpack I can work with, it’s the sleeping bag that’s killing you. ... I’m a back-ologist, a shoe-ologist, a psychologist, a sociologist and a plumber.”

He lightens their spiritual load by taking pounds off their backs. Heavy backpacks can make a trek miserable, but what seemed impossible with 48 pounds aboard becomes reasonable at 30.

The discards (which have included a machete, a coffee grinder, a hardback copy of “War and Peace,” a snorkel and mask, and other useless weight) are boxed up and mailed home. Porter says UPS trucks pick up about 9,000 pounds of unnecessary gear at his store every year.

About five veteran hikers, such as Guns and Dartman, augment the permanent staff of two during high season. Dartman and Guns became part-time plumbers on this particular day, fixing the PVC pipe leading to the well. Among the helpers is “Baltimore” Jack Tarlin, of Hanover, N.H., (like the Springsteen song, he “went out for a ride and never came back”), who has been hiking the trail for 15 years, working occasionally to fund his wandering feet. He through-hiked seven times in a row from 1997 to 2003.

The 51-year-old Tarlin, in pink complexion and black synthetics, soaked up the sun on Porter’s deck as a young hiker spread her belongings on a picnic table, preparing for a shakedown. The recession boosted traffic on the trail last year, Tarlin said, because “you can live out here for six months a lot cheaper than you can anywhere else.”

Most through-hikers are less Jack Kerouacky about life on the trail than Tarlin and see it as a one-time adventure. Justin King, 29, a wine salesman from Okemos, Mich., staked out a bunk in the 15-person, $15-a-night hostel connected to the store and talked about the decision to take a walk in the woods. He’s thinking about moving from Michigan to Massachusetts, and decided to use the break time to tackle the trail. “Like a lot of people doing this, I’m in a state of transition.”

Yes, he brought along a French press for morning coffee, but no wine. “I think for better hydration I’ll stick with water.”

A faded poster stapled to a tree seeking information about the disappearance of Kristi Lee Cornwell reminds visitors that the real world’s problems can reach far into the woods. Cornwell vanished last August while walking near Blairsville, not far from Mountain Crossings.

Closer to home, killer Gary Hilton stopped in at Mountain Crossings to look at rain gear before beating Meredith Emerson to death in the first week of 2008.

“I took that kind of personal,” said Porter. He helped Emerson’s parents during the search for their missing daughter, and her father sent him a hand-made bench in gratitude. It sits in a place of honor, in front of the ancient iron wood-stove that heats the shop in winter.

But it’s lack of planning, rather than murderers, terrorists or bears, that consistently threatens hikers, he said. In “Just Passing Thru,’” Porter writes about the FBI agents and local law officers who gathered at his shop during the search for terrorist bomber Eric Rudolph. They were galvanized by the discovery of a severed foot, still in its Wolverine boot, dragged to the store by a stray dog. But, to their dismay, the foot was not Rudolph’s, but a hiker’s who had been missing for two years, probably a victim of hypothermia.

Then again, there is such a thing as overplanning. Dartman said he knows of a hiker who cut the handle of his toothbrush to save weight. Bad idea, he said. “Have you ever tried to brush your teeth with a toothbrush with no handle?”

“Just Passin’ Thru: A Vintage Store, The Appalachian Trail, and a Cast of Unforgettable Characters” by Winton Porter; Menasha Ridge Press; $14.95

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