(TheBong: After reading this excerpt, Appalachia… Here I Come!)
That last climb down, exiting the park, led me to a flat, smooth path that ran alongside a fast-flowing river. This, in turn, emptied into Pigeon River, which I crossed via a road bridge. The drama of the Smokies was replaced by gentler hills, and a short uphill hike led me to signs for Standing Bear Farm.
This, according to both my guide and more experienced hikers, was apparently a “must go” hostel on the Appalachian Trail. For the life of me, I couldn’t initially understand why. The hostel is located a mile or so from the end of the Smoky Mountains and I had heard it referred to as rustic. That could mean anything, particularly to a bunch of smelly hobos, one of which I had undeniably become.
My first sight of the place was less than reassuring, with a couple of extras from Deliverance sitting in rocking chairs, smiling at me as I entered the establishment. They couldn’t have had more than half a set of teeth between them. The clearly senior guy, Rocket, introduced himself. I was struck by how he looked like a relic of the late ’60s, early ’70s, with his somewhat spaced-out look and laconic delivery. He had apparently been hiking through several years ago, landed at the farm, and never left; I could hear strains of “Hotel California” in my mind.
Later that afternoon, I asked Rocket how far away the nearest town was and the best he could do was, “We got a gas station ’bout seven mile thataway, an’ I think anudder one ’bout 18 mile tha’ way.” “But where’s the nearest town?” I insisted. After a pause, during which he thoughtfully stroked his chin, he conceded, “Don’ rightly know,” as if the thought had never occurred to him. Despite being geographically challenged, Rocket knew everything about Standing Bear Farm, and he showed every visitor the various buildings that made up the facilities. The bunk room had about 20 beds, some of which were already occupied.
One guy, Cap’n Guts, came to the farm regularly for vacations, whiling away the time in this hippie paradise. He made us all laugh like drains later in the evening when he started to sound off about politics. That would normally be a subject to be avoided at all costs, yet there was no question that the majority of the hikers had a liberal bias, so comments abounded that tended to reinforce already entrenched ideas. Cap’n Guts, despite being an older, white guy, and bearing all the hallmarks of a Fox News aficionado, came up with a classic. “Now I’m not saying all Republicans are idiots—far from it,” he started. “I know many very smart Republicans, so please don’t think I’m calling them all idiots.” He paused to take a swig of his beer. “It’s just that I’ve never met an idiot who isn’t a Republican.” It hung in the air for a second, then the whole place erupted. His comment was so unexpected that I think that is what made it so funny to me. I laughed about it for weeks.
Connected to the bunk room was a communal area that had a few threadbare couches for residents to lounge on and generally chew the fat. There was no Wi-Fi because, as Rocket explained, he had converted the room that used to house the modem into a beer room. The room now contained a locked fridge, from which Rocket dispensed cans of beer at a very reasonable $2.50 a time. Precisely why a refrigerator would displace a modem was never actually explained, but I let it go.
There was a dining room that had a sink, a table, a stove, and a pizza oven. Attached at the back of this was the wash room, with a dryer, but no washer. There was a washboard in the sink, alongside a wringer—or mangle—but, since I had no idea how to use either, I had to forgo the pleasures of clean clothes for a few more days.
The last room was the store, or restock room. There was everything in here, from Snickers to pizza, both of which I bought among several other goodies. Unlike the locked fridge, this was offered on the honor system. We had to record what we took, then settle with Rocket in the morning.
None of the above should be seen as a complaint against Standing Bear Farm, as it all simply worked. I absolutely loved it there. The place was very companionable, and everybody had a very chilled time. At $15 for the night, plus purchases, it was a bargain. I’d been shown once more never to judge a book by its cover.