On Mar 27, 2015, at 9:32 AM
When my family emerged from the woods at Erwin, TN 40 years ago, after 8 days on the trail in need of food, lodging and a good bath, they encountered a town hostile to hikers. They were denied rooms at a local motel despite the flashing “Vacancy” sign, and mostly ignored by motorists when in obvious need of a ride into town. To this day, Erwin, TN has been known in the Boyd family as the one place that represents the antithesis of hospitality. If there was one place in the world you could go to be mistreated and made to feel like an outcast, it was Erwin.
So—it was with some trepidation that I headed toward Erwin on this hike, wondering if it would have the same feel, the same reputation that my family had encountered forty years ago. On the day that they emerged from the mountain wilderness in 1975, I nearly died at sea in a terrible storm, so it’s a day that I won’t soon forget and neither has my family forgotten their memorable and unpleasant reception in Erwin.
Many hikers that I’ve met these past days have spoken of Uncle Johnnie’s Hiker Hostel and Outfitter. When I stepped off the trailhead and on to the asphalt of a town road, there was Uncle Johnnie’s, right in front of me. You could not miss it, with hikers spilling out of the store, telling stories around the tables on the porch, waving me over to join the festivity. Immediately I knew this was not the Erwin, TN, of four decades ago.
I interviewed Uncle Johnnie later that evening. I was astounded by the reception I’d received when I arrived, and by the fellowship that had enveloped me. Uncle Johnnie looked to be my age, but with a “Duck Dynasty” beard that gave him the aura of a man much older and wiser. He had two men working with him, both sporting the same long grey beards, who I thought to be his sons but were just friends.
I asked Uncle Johnnie, “What changed?” I’d shared the story of my family’s rude reception, exclusion from the motel, and their night on the floor at the local YMCA. “Yes,” he said, arms folded and leaning on the counter of his Outfitter store. “What you say is true of the past. But it’s changing. I started this business 17 years ago and placed it right in the junction of the road, the bridge and the trail. As soon as I did, I joined the Rotary Club, the Kiwanis. Every time we have a meeting, if I have someone like you—a hiker who can dress up a little—I take him or her with me so that the rest of the community sees what nice people you are. That’s made a big difference, helping people to get to know and understand hikers. It’s not perfect yet, but people are more accepting.”
I watched Uncle Johnnie sit outside on his old picnic tables, leaning over on his folded arms, beard hanging down below the tabletop. He had a look in his eyes that reminded me of my grandma, Cora Walker Boyd. Now forty years after we lost Grandma, I can’t remember any of the words she spoke to me, but I can never forget her eyes or the time I spent with her. Her quiet silent ministry, her gentle way. She sat on the porch watching us, contented, hands folded in her lap. The same way that Uncle Johnnie watched over his brood of hikers as they told tall tales, downed drinks and snacks, and paged through Uncle Johnnie’s photo album of hikers from years past.
Where else could an innkeeper have such a family, a stream of people who stepped on his doorstep after days of waiting to reach his establishment? Where else could you find a group of people all thrilled to be at your inn and anxious to know more about you and to meet the other guests? Where else would you find a motel where the guests insisted that you join them all for a group dinner together that evening? Total strangers, suddenly family, all fellowshipping under the watchful eye of the silent bearded innkeeper.
Uncle Johnnie made a difference in his community. I have no idea how Erwin, TN, looks at hikers. I cannot judge the city, but I can assess Uncle Johnnie. He has made Erwin a very hospitable place for hikers. What my parents and siblings saw as purgatory, I saw as paradise. Can it be that one man’s purgatory is another man’s paradise? Perhaps. For my wife, backpacking is purgatory, but not for me. Nevertheless, Uncle Johnnie has transformed the image of this community through his actions to forge relationships and build bonds, meeting the needs of every person who walks up to his desk. I watched many hikers come in and speak with him. He was gracious with every single one, never tiring of the same instructions about where to put your pack, how to find the showers or the bunks, how far it was to town, or when he would shuttle us all to dinner. He took joy in every single person who arrived. Like my Grandma.
Uncle Johnnie has an important lesson for us. We don’t have to stress over changing the world, or our nation, or even our state or our city. We don’t have to be anxious about changing our county or our community. All we have to do is to make a difference in the life of one person… and then the next person and the next. Just make a difference in the lives of the people who encounter us in our daily walk.
It’s extraordinary to think of what’s about to come. Next year, an additional 10,000 hikers will hike the Appalachian Trail thanks to the forthcoming movie starring Robert Redford in a cinema adaptation of Bill Bryson’s best-selling book, “A Walk In the Woods.” When Uncle Johnnie bought his property and built his rustic cabins, tiny toilets and hostel bunks, he put it on a spit of property that probably meant little to his community. Yet by doing it, he has now positioned himself to make a difference to tens of thousands of people who walk through his doors. Next year, his 18th year in business, will be his windfall. I wish him well.
One man, with a mission and a ministry to assist others, has made a difference.
In my mind—thanks to Uncle Johnnie—Erwin, TN, is a hiker-friendly town.
Sent from my iPhone