Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
One cannot live in Macon County and not comprehend the impact of the Appalachian Trail (AT) on its history, culture, and economy. Serious NOBO (northbound) hikers intent on hiking the entire 2,155 mile footpath from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Katahdin in Maine begin to arrive at the junction of Winding Stair Gap and Hwy 64 between March and April – especially if they are determined to thru hike before next winter sets in.
Franklin is in fact the first significant town close to the AT after hikers leave Spring Mountain, 110 miles away. Beyond Franklin, the next closest stop for NOBO hikers is Gatlinburg, Tenn.
Thus, it behooves the Town of Franklin to accommodate thousands of hikers’ pilgrimages towards Maine. In fact, according to Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), in 2010, Franklin became the first official Appalachian Trail Community, a designation program established by ATC. In 2008, Nantahala Hiking Club (NHC) became aware of the program and what grew out of the awareness was the Franklin Appalachian Trail Community Council. Bill Van Horn, who is a past president of NHC, said that Franklin meets several ATC criteria, including: “engage community citizens, Trail visitors, and stewards, and help local community members see the Trail as a resource and asset.”
Van Horn and his wife, Sharon, are NOBO section hikers who completed the AT in 2012.
He explained that Franklin is in just the right location to serve as a hiker-friendly town. Plus, the result of the Appalachian Trail Community label is a win-win-win for all – hikers, the economy, and the environment, pointed out Town of Franklin Mayor Bob Scott. “We work with the trail club, our outdoor outfitters, the Franklin AT Community Council. The economic impact in general is huge.”
As an AT Community, Franklin has shown its support for the AT hiking community in a number of ways. Businesses, churches and individuals donate funds, supplies, and sweat equity for shelters and trail maintenance. One of the NHC’s main responsibilities is to maintain 56.6 miles of the AT.
Franklin’s town logo was even modified to include the AT white blaze graphic.
During the busiest time for this area’s AT hikers, mid-March to end of April, Franklin hosts celebrations and educational events. The Lazy Hiker Brewing Company and Currahee Brewing Company are two sites of AT and hiker-focused activities, as is the Macon County Public Library, where there is a month-long Walking with Spring event schedule. The Rathskeller Coffee Haus and Pub along with Gooder Grove Hostel, one of two AT hostels in Franklin, also team up annually for an event.
“It’s all about feeding the hikers,” quips Van Horn.
Churches minister to hikers as well. For four weeks in spring, First Baptist Church downtown offers AT hikers a free breakfast. And Discover Church, during its springtime “I Love My Town,” outreach event, sets up a tent at the AT trail pass at Winding Stair Gap and offers breakfast, fruit, protein bars, etc. as well as rides into town.
Macon County Transit offers inexpensive flat-rate rides to hikers from Winding Stair Gap into Franklin and then back again. “We provided 999 trips during the time we ran the shuttle last spring and an additional 22 trips that were called in and scheduled during ‘off peak’ season,” said Kim Angel, transit director. “This number is specifically trips to and from the Trail. The shuttle service from the Trail allows the hiker to choose their drop off location in Franklin and is not limited to a single location.”
After AT hikers get into Franklin, Angel said they often use the Transit’s Mountain Gem Route to get around. Or, hikers walk all over downtown Franklin.
NHC and many other individuals, businesses, and organizations in the community offer rides as well.
The outpouring is difficult to measure, said Van Horn, who pointed out that many more events and activities are offered and posted on various sites.
He also shared statistics regarding economic impact. The majority of hikers spend at least one night in town, often at one of the hostels or places like the Budget Inn, and they spend on average of $100 or more, surveys determined. A 2016 survey found that 83.7 percent ate at a local restaurant and 67.7 percent patronized one of the area’s outfitter stores.
Several businesses, organizations, schools, retailers, and restaurants are touted as A.T. Community Supporters because of their involvement with the AT hiking community.
“Franklin is very hospitable in many ways,” said Claire Suminski, whose daughter, Jamy, thru hiked as a NOBO in 2015.
“We have had several hikers stay with us,” said Claire. “They need transportation, nice warm meals, a place to do laundry, and many times help with special needs – like going to get a new pair of boots. We have formed some continuing friendships by housing hikers. There are always a lot of good stories and laughter. They appreciate ‘trail magic’ provided by the locals.”
As one helpful resource, the Franklin Hiker Services brochure and map was created with visiting hikers in mind; it includes such verbiage as: “With you in mind, the Town of Franklin has compiled this guide to help you get around town and highlight several points of interest in the community you might find helpful.” The brochure’s text and map shares history and tourist sites, as well as location information for the basics: accommodations, restaurants, laundry facilities, the post office, grocery stores, ATM, and more. Plus there are important phone numbers listed. On the brochure are logos for both Town of Franklin and official Appalachian Trail Community.
However, Jonathan Byrd, manager at Outdoor 76, said the “bible” for AT hikers is “The A.T. Guide: A Handbook for Hiking the Appalachian Trail” by David “Awol” Miller. It includes detailed maps, phone, numbers, and resources for hikers. Outdoor 76 as well as Three Eagles Outfitters offers the book and much more, such as all the gear needed for a successful expedition.
“We’re not just here to sell, but to help,” said Byrd, “… to make them successful, to give them advice. For a lot of them, this is something entirely new. We’re well known, especially, for helping people with their feet.”
Byrd pointed out that some hikers coming from the AT starting point in Georgia are still trying to figure out the Trail when they make it to Franklin, even though they have already traveled 110 miles. He can relate. He has section hiked at least 800 miles of the AT.
To honor hiker visitors, Outdoor 76 drapes a canvas at the register during the season and AT hikers are invited to sign. On another side of the register desk is an area where cards, letters, and “I Made It!” postcards are displayed. A popular sentiment is “You saved my feet!”
“We hear such cool stories and meet so many interesting people,” said Byrd. “People from all over the world who are seeing a different side of America than the big cities, and hikers who have met lifelong friends or their life partners on the Trail. And we have a lot of repetitive hikers who always stop in to see us.”
“It’s important to understand that hikers on the AT are a diverse crowd,” said Van Horn. The 2016 survey determined that 25 percent are female, 50 percent have their bachelor’s or an advanced degree, and ages vary from teenagers to retirees.
A Little History
The AT began as a preservation effort. In the early 1920s, a Massachusetts regional planner, Benton MacKaye saw urban development encroaching on the wilderness and desired a way for many to enjoy Appalachian crests. Different people committed to establishing a trail, with most of the land protected by federal or state ownership. By 1937, the AT was complete.
However, the progress of the AT was hindered when a devastating hurricane hit New England, and then shortly after men were called up to fight in World War II. The Trail was essentially left unmaintained until the war ended and volunteers were again able to commit to cleaning and repairing it.
The AT’s future was secured when in 1968 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the National Trails System Act. The AT officially became the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
Most hikers take are NOBOs, while an increasing number are trying the hike from Maine to Georgia, making them SOBOs, or southbound hikers. The number of people who complete the long trek – which takes five to seven months for thru hikers and sometimes years for section hikers – increases annually. An estimated 20,000 have hiked the entire AT since the trail opened in the 1930s.