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.”