HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — Gary Hill, a resident of both Harpers Ferry and Bolivar, completed his own Appalachian Trail thru-hike a decade ago. Also a long-distance bicyclist, he has peddled across the country three times. And on each cross-country trip he experienced generous hospitality from strangers who quickly became friends, he said.
Many people on the way volunteered to offer help, including impromptu meals, warm showers and overnight stays.
Today, Hill returns those favors while now back home. He said he occasionally offers free overnight stays to Appalachian Trail thru-hikers or long-distance bicyclists passing through the historic town surrounded by two rivers and several trails.
Through those random encounters, Hill said he meets people who share interesting experiences and stories from around the country and around the world. They make the small towns of Harpers Ferry and Bolivar richly rewarding places to live by providing social interactions that few other communities can, he said.
One encounter Hill recalled involved two Dutch men who had begun a cross-country bicycling trip from Washington to Los Angeles. One was a widely read travel writer blogging about his trip to people back in Europe. And Harpers Ferry was their first overnight stop.
“These are extraordinary people. These are interesting people,” Hill said of many of those trekking on the Appalachian Trial and the nearby Chesapeake & Ohio towpath.
Whether meeting them in a coffee shop, at a bar or over his own kitchen table, long-distance trail hikers often display a deep wonder and appreciation for Harpers Ferry and Bolivar that can prompt locals to see their town afresh in an uplifting new light, said Laurie Potteiger, information services manager for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry.
“These are people that are really interesting folks from all over the world, and they’re undertaking a pilgrimage of sorts,” Potteiger said. “They’re on a journey of discovery and they all have interesting stories to tell, and I think it just enriches our community.”
Local Appalachian Trail promoters said these encounters with hikers and bicyclists are a reason Harpers Ferry and Bolivar should look for ways to accommodate these temporary visitors, including a seasonal camping site for overnight hikers and bicyclists. During his cross-country bicycle trips, Hill frequently used an online reservation system designed for bicyclists that arranged Airbnb-type stopovers, many in the homes of other avid bicyclists.
Hill said Harpers Ferry and Bolivar are generally welcoming towns to hikers and bicyclists. However, some local residents don’t seem to fully appreciate how internationally famous the Appalachian Trail has become, he said. The “AT” passes close by Hill’s quaint cottage in Harpers Ferry
“A lot people who have lived in the town for a while, and they like the tone of the town,” he said.
Some town residents worry about encouraging unknown transient visitors might invite troubles or disturbances, Hill and others said. Drinking and rowdy partying from such visitors is a concern, some said, but those concerns are unfounded or overblown, several AT advocates counter.
Despite their often scraggly appearance from weeks on the trail, the vast majority of long-distance hikers are respectful visitors, said Hill, a volunteer at the Appalachian Trail visitor’s center in Harpers Ferry. Many of the distance hikers taking the six-month challenge to walk the 2,200-mile trail in a single journey are recent college graduates or people taking a temporary break from established careers, Potteiger said.
“They just have to get to know the hiking community a little better,” Hill said of town residents who might hesitate to host thru-hikers as visitors in their homes or campers on their properties. “They have these opinions that are not real.”
Information from: The Journal, http://journal-news.net/