This is the time of year that the Appalachian Trail hikers are passing through the little town of Hot Springs, in Madison County. From their first step north in Springer Mountain, Georgia, they have been hearing stories about a legendary innkeeper in Hot Springs who is known to have a soft spot for the trail’s “through hikers”—the ones hoping to make it the entire 2,175 miles to Maine.
According to the trail grapevine, the innkeeper offers “through hikers” a bed, a hot shower and gourmet vegetarian cooking for a pittance. If they’re short on money, he reputedly lets them pay for their room and board by helping to prepare dinner or working in the garden that supplies much of his dinner table’s fare. The trail’s lore also says that he is a philosopher, a Zen Buddhist and a dedicated mountain social activist.
The stories are all true. For 31 years, Elmer Hall has quietly been looking after the AT’s “through hikers,” as well as other wanderers who somehow find the Sunnybank Retreat Association, the non-profit entity under which the inn has been organized. It isn’t always easy to find Hall or the inn though. He’s never advertised, there is no sign on the old antebellum house, and the simple accommodations are not for everybody.
But for those who do find Sunnybank to their liking, the experience is memorable and sometimes life changing. There is something about Elmer’s quiet hospitality, the music that is often performed in the downstairs parlor, his library full of books about everything from environmental activism to Eastern philosophy, and, maybe above all, his meals, that is deeply restorative and healing.
The meals are unforgettable. In the early ‘70s, Elmer co-founded the state’s first vegetarian restaurant, Somethyme, in Durham. Now he prepares his hearty, vegetarian fare for the AT’s “through hikers” and other guests (reservations only).
When my son and his friend and I were there recently, a typical dinner featured a robust asparagus soup, a wonderful salad with homemade tahini dressing, a spicy peanut sauce over brown rice and key lime pie with a chocolate crust for dessert that was the best key lime pie I’ve ever eaten. My boys are proud and often stubborn carnivores, but they were in rapture. I never thought I’d see my son ask for seconds of asparagus soup!
Elmer’s dining room is also about community. All his guests and staff convene every evening at a long table or two. We all introduce ourselves. And while we start on the soup and salad, Elmer or one of his helpers poses a philosophical question—what historical figure would you like to have dinner with and why? Or what time would you most want to have lived in, if you could not live in the present? Or something like that.—and we take turns answering the question and begin to get to know one another.
Last time I was there we shared a table with peace marchers led by Buddhist monks. They make an annual protest pilgrimage to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the atomic bomb was first created. This time, the AT hikers were our dinner companions. They told their trail stories: funny mishaps, characters they’ve met along the way, and little incidents of “trail magic,” an AT term for the unexpected gifts, little acts of kindness, and heartfelt gestures of support that people give hikers along the way.
My boys loved listening to the adventures and laughed at their tales. One night, though, the hikers took turns explaining why they had decided to try to hike the AT. We listened intently. A lot of them seemed to be at major transition times in their lives. They were about to start graduate school or a second career or they were trying to figure out life.
Others were seeking healing of one sort or another. The boys and I will never forget one older gentleman who said simply that he was hiking because he had lost someone. He did not offer any details. But my boys later told me that the man’s “trail name”—all the hikers have adopted nicknames by the time that they reach Hot Springs—was his son’s birth date.
Elmer Hall is now 71 years old. For more than three decades, he’s been ministering to the AT hikers, whatever reason led them to that long trail, and to a mountain community, sharing his old house, his library, his wisdom and his dinner table.
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The Sunnybank Retreat Association is part of an old tradition of healing in Hot Springs. For another side of that tradition, be sure to visit the Hot Springs Resort & Spa if you’re ever in town. Located next to the French Broad River, at a site where natural hot springs have been drawing guests to curative mineral baths since the 1830s, the Spa offers spring-fed hot baths for a reasonable fee, as well as massages and the like. For prices and reservations, consult www.nchotsprings.com.
photo by Sarah Bryan