Follow U.S. Route 25 through the miles of Carolina backwoods outside Asheville. Watch out for homicidal deer. Take the bridge across the French Broad River. Roll past the abandoned caboose. Cross the railroad tracks.
Standing before you is a small cluster of storefronts and brick buildings.
Welcome to Hot Springs, North Carolina. Population, 532. Unless Erica had her baby last night.
This is a small town. “Small” with a capital S. You’re looking at a couple square miles, tops. A 5-year-old could roll a bowling ball from one city-limit sign to the other.
I step out of my car and tour the metropolis. I peek into the old hardware store. There are a few restaurants. A filling station. A library. A post office. A stray dog, wandering the sidewalk.
Across the street is a guy playing banjo. He is covered in tattoos. He carries a fully loaded backpack. His boots are tattered. His skin is covered in a rainbow of mud streaks. He smells more ripe than a dead turtle.
He’s been hiking the Appalachian Trail. He plays his banjo to earn cash.
“How long have you been on the trail?” I ask.
He stops playing and gives me a quizzical look. “What day is it?”
He counts on his fingers. Then he gives up. “A long freaking time, brah.”
There are 51 towns lining the Appalachian Trail’s 2,194-corridor that are recognized as Appalachian Trail Communities. This town is one of the few with mainstreets physically located on the trail itself. Meaning: you don’t have to leave the trail to locate toilet paper.
So there are a lot of hikers here. Brah.
You see them on the highway shoulders, staggering into cafés with glazed eyes and do-rags on their heads. They are often young and unkempt, tattooed, wearing hemp weave.
Some would call them hippies. The more politically correct among us would call them professional body-odor enthusiasts.
“Sometimes we get hikers bathing in the river,” said a local man. “The old ladies in town get mad about it, all those naked hippies in the water, scrubbing their you-know-whats in public.”
But part of this town’s undeniable charm is all the hikers. There is a communal vibe in Hot Springs. An overwhelming feeling that, hey, this is a safe place to stay the night.
I walk into the Spring Creek Tavern. The gal tending bar is named Jamie. Before I order, Jamie lets me taste each beer flavor on tap until I am slurring my consonants. I finally settle on a lager from the Big Pillow brewery, which she says is a local operation nearby.
“How close is ‘nearby?’” I ask.
She smiles. “You could spit out our back window and hit it.”
The beer isn’t bad. So I have one more for dessert.
My room tonight is at the Iron Horse Inn. An all-brick building constructed in the 1800s. There is a restaurant downstairs, and the joint is thumping.
A local musician sings Merle Haggard in the dining room, and he’s pretty good. He has the kind of talent that makes you wonder why he’s not in Nash-Vegas, wearing $1600-dollar boots and a white hat.
“That’s Kevin,” a woman says. “He’s a computer tech by day. Everyone in Hot Springs has five or six jobs.” Then she laughs. “Small towns, right?”
I look around the restaurant. There are people of all creeds. The booths are filled with daytrippers, local flyfishermen, Harley riders, ultra-marathoners, and card-carrying AARP members in Velcro tennis shoes.
And of course, there are hikers.
I see a group of them. They are dressed in threadbare clothing, pooling their cash onto a four-top, making sure they have enough money for burgers.
After supper I take a walk at sundown. The orange sun lowers itself behind the blue Appalachains. The howling river in the distance sounds like a low-grade earthquake.
The storefronts are all closed. The cicadas are harmonizing.
The hostels are at capacity with new arrivals. Residential porches are littered with Kelty backpacks, bloody boots, orphaned walking sticks and groups of suburban kids, so far from home.
“I don’t know how I’m gonna tell my dad that I’m changing majors,” one kid tells me. “I’m scared he’s gonna flip out.”
“My mom thinks I’m out of my mind,” another girl says. “Hiking out here is the last thing she ever wanted for me. But I’m here because I have a lot to decide about my life.”
And that’s the beauty of this place. Here, no decisions have to be made. Right now, these hikers are free. They aren’t here to please a school counselor, or Mom and Dad. Their only job is to be alive. And to love it.
I wave at a few hikers as I leave for a warm bed. They return my greeting. And they seem genuinely happy. I can tell they’re not just being polite when they wave at me.
“Have a beautiful day,” says a girl with a nose ring.
“I already have,” I answer.
She smiles. “Everyone always does in Hot Springs.”
Paul McCutchen - July 16, 2022 11:32 am
A “Beautiful Day” is something nice to have. Reminds me of my younger days. Hope you have more on your adventure.
Ed (Bear) - July 16, 2022 11:46 am
When I was young, words were boring. I would “read” books by studying the illustrations. I continued that practice long after I learned to read written language. I had to grow up a lot before I began to appreciate the art in words.
Your art is much appreciated by this commonologist!
Mary Damron - July 16, 2022 11:55 am
That’s something I wish I had done when I was young was to hike the Appalachian Trail.
Jeri Bishop - July 16, 2022 11:56 am
Thank you for sharing your adventures! Our Roosevelt State Park has some beautiful trails for hikers and Pine Mountain is a friendly town to visit!
Dede - July 16, 2022 11:59 am
Homicidal deer, LOL. I call them kamikaze deer.
thatcase - July 16, 2022 12:00 pm
Sounds like a Kristofferson kind of town. Thanks.
Thames Robinson - July 16, 2022 12:12 pm
I was hoping you would reach Hot Springs when I read you were driving route 11. My mother grew up there in the 1920’s and 30’s so I spent many lazy summers beside Spring Creek visiting my grandparents. My family owned a big victorian house on Spring Street until my Mom and Aunt moved into a retirement community in Asheville in 1997. Hot Springs wasn’t quite so hiker heavy decades ago but those mountains and the French Broad never change.
Robert Chiles - July 16, 2022 12:16 pm
Beautiful town, beautiful people
Audra S Isenhour - July 16, 2022 12:33 pm
My husband and I moved our little family here to the Foothills of North Carolina from California 49 years ago. There was a period of adjustment for me and I was asked about MY accent for at least a year but 15 minutes away is the Blue Ridge Parkway and some of the most beautiful country in the world. Certainly the nicest people. In our little town of Granite Falls the local BBQ joint celebrates when a patron has a birthday and mourns when one dies. There are no strangers here. Out-of-towners are easy to pick out because they don’t tell you about Aunt Helen’s liver problem when you say hello, and we always say ‘Hello’. Y’all come. Our hushpuppies are to die for!
Tom - July 16, 2022 12:46 pm
Never heard of Hot Springs but you make it sound so welcoming, I may have to visit.
Diana - July 16, 2022 12:47 pm
Visited Hot Springs last summer. It is exactly as you described. We made sure to visit the library and their visitors center. Both were staffed by incredible people.
Iron Horse Station - July 16, 2022 1:02 pm
Sean, what a wonderful description of our incredible town, you encapsulated everything that makes Hot Springs so special: the beauty, the locals, the guests, the businesses, the trail and it’s hikers etc. Hot Springs will suck you right in, it sure did us 🙂 Such a magical town, it seems nearly everyone who visits returns! We ABSOLUTELY LOVED hosting you. Like so many others, you checked in at the Iron Horse Station but checked out a new and cherished friend. Come back soon! Karen & Gary/Iron Horse Station
Steve McCalebo - July 16, 2022 1:33 pm
Sean….a great post today as usual. I especially enjoyed your camouflaged Johnny Cash reference”had one more for desert”. Very clever. Many years ago as a much younger man I seriously thot about trekking the might App Trail. What stopped me ? A sudden onslaught of common sense. I got to thinking about the glory that would be mine upon completion of such a Herculean journey. And then I got to thinking about the Copperheads, ticks, blackwidder spiders, scorpions, chiggers, mountain lions, black bears,poison ivy, stinging nettle, poison sumac, helicopters disguised as mosquitoes, tall guys in overalls missing their 4 front teeth telling Jon Voight “ you got a purty mouth.” And God’s scourge on the wicked….the undefeated, untied, unchallenged most horrible creature God ever made…..the black gnat.If that rascal was big as bar of soap we’d all be a lot more serious about colonizing Mars than we currently are. Did I mention copperheads ? Yes, I considered making the journey…..for about 38 seconds. Then I decided to make a real decision, a tall boy Old Milwaukee and a a bacon cheeseburger. By the way…..we need to find a new name for common sense, if it was common a WHOLE lot more people would have it. Wise decision Weed Hopper…wise indeed.
dbdicks430 - July 16, 2022 1:45 pm
What about the hot springs to revitalize your body and soul? They are amazing natural springs right in town…or are they closed now?
Loved the description of this special little spot in my home state.
Sean of the South: Hot Springs, North Carolina | The Trussville Tribune - July 16, 2022 1:51 pm
[…] By Sean Dietrich, Sean of the South […]
Charlene Davis - July 16, 2022 2:07 pm
Hello. I was raised very close to the town of Hot Springs. A VERY small community called Bluff. You wrote about the area beautifully. I saw my first fireworks in Hot Springs. What a wonderful memory that was and I have so many more. I can smell the memories they are so strong. Happy, loving beautiful time. Thank you for reminding me.
chesterthedumpdog - July 16, 2022 2:12 pm
Always wanted to hike the AT, but life, kids, work got in the way. I envy you!
Nancy Trucks - July 16, 2022 2:23 pm
Loved this ! Thanks. North Carolina is a little piece of heaven. Enjoy!!!
Trent - July 16, 2022 2:39 pm
Loving this trip Sean and the Kristofferson diddy!
Debbie - July 16, 2022 2:46 pm
Thank you for sharing.
Patricia Gibson - July 16, 2022 3:06 pm
Need to visit there. Thanks for sharing
Ron Oates - July 16, 2022 3:13 pm
I always enjoy your narratives and, most especially, this one about Hot Springs. My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles were all from the North Carolina mountains. Waynesville, Fines Creek, Spring Creek, Asheville and , yes, Hot Springs. I have spent many formative years up in them thar hills. My only issue is, as a Grammar Policeman, I typically spend ten to fifteen minutes correcting. Suggestion… You might want to get the app, Grammarly. It has worked transformational wonders with my own ramblings. Thank you for all your postings.
sjhl7 - July 16, 2022 6:58 pm
Love this and love your trip! So glad you are taking me along because I have always wanted to travel the Trail… This is the only way I will get to go since I am fast becoming to old to trek that trail! Thank you, Sean!
pattymack43 - July 16, 2022 7:11 pm
Thank you, Sean!! Your mention of the young girl hiker is helping me to accept a family situation. It isn’t my life, nor is it my adventure. Blessings!!
virginia westlake - July 16, 2022 7:13 pm
This was perfect timing. Two of my grandsons are on the Colorado Trail now , two weeks in out of 6 weeks and about 500miles. I sent them the part about stay alive and love it. Thanks!
Cathy M - July 16, 2022 10:14 pm
I think it is so sweet that Jaime is content to stay at your new home in B’ham while you hike the A.T. I wish you had taken my husband with you😂. Although in good shape, he is 75 and might have slowed you down. I have never had a desire for hiking , camping, etc. Seriously, why did you choose to do this in July? This baffles the mind. Pls. Be safe bc. We need you🙏🏻👍
JACKIE LEON DARNELL - July 17, 2022 12:06 am
These comments don’t usually post, but what the heck. WE hiked thru Hot Springs once. Even used the Hot Springs back before the commercialization. . Anyway enjoyed the post.
suzi - July 17, 2022 1:44 am
Sounds like a good place to visit to this 77 year old hippie….
suzi - July 17, 2022 1:46 am
*”hippie wanna be”
Holly - July 17, 2022 12:07 pm
“Here, no decisions have to be made. Right now, these hikers are free. They aren’t here to please a school counselor, or Mom and Dad. Their only job is to be alive. And to love it.” This is my son. He’s on Day 54 in rehab. He does have one more job–learning how to stay alive and love it–but maybe one day he’ll be on the trail.
Nancy Carnahan - July 18, 2022 3:03 pm
I live a few miles from the Pacific Coast Trail. It runs from Mexico to Canada. If you happen to get near a PCT hiker, you quickly realize that showers are few and far between. We don’t have chiggers or copperheads, but we do have 10 different kinds of rattlesnakes. Bears are not a big deal although they get your attention if they’re on the porch. They are not aggressive unless you get between mom and cub.
We’ve visited North Carolina the past two years. My personal favorite town is Blowing Rock.
Y’all have a great day.
Fran Smith - July 19, 2022 1:40 am
Do tell….you checked out the Hot Springs Resort and had a soak in their hot tubs?
Carlos nunez - July 23, 2022 2:24 am
I was there in 95 with my girlfriend now my wife, and we still remember the town and the people. It was and looks like still is a very magical place. Thank you for taking me back to a very wonderful week of my life
CHARALEEN WRIGHT - August 2, 2022 1:53 am
Harryette Miller Burnette - August 3, 2022 2:55 am
I’m learning I sound a little more like you every day when I’m writing; can’t leave the smallest detail out; it takes that to make the story complete. Too bad I didn’t meet up with your writing skills sooner in life. I might have been a best seller like you are.