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Pack Man: The Appalachian Trail Guru

Thirty miles up the trail from Springer Mountain, Winton Porter shelters and feeds thru-hikers–and works tirelessly to slash their pack weight.

Nobody walks by Mountain Crossings without stopping. The combination hostel and gear store and hiker aid station, at Walasi-Yi in northern Georgia, sits quite literally on the Appalachian Trail. It’s the first outpost of civilization that northbounders encounter–and the last for southbounders. Each year, up to 2,000 thru-hikers drop in. Some just pause for the few minutes it takes to grab spare batteries and a Clif Bar. Many linger for a hot shower and a soft bunk and to soak up the history of a lodge that was established in 1937, the same year as the AT itself. Others have no choice but to stop.

Christine Serafin was one of the latter. On a raw morning last March, she limped into Mountain Crossings with a bum knee and an uncertain future. The would-be AT thru-hiker had just completed her first 30.6 miles–only 2,144 to go!–from Springer Mountain to Neels Gap, and she didn’t know if she could go on. One in six thru-hikers make it no farther, and Serafin feared her dream would end here, too.

It hardly seemed fair. Serafin, 66, a former timekeeper at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, had trained diligently and made a significant investment in high-end gear prior to embarking from Springer Mountain. She already had a trail name (Indy Girl, natch). But the burden of carrying a 31-pound pack (before food and water) had caused her right knee to swell. Suddenly, Katahdin was looking about as doable as Everest. Hair coiffed short and dressed in black from socks to ear band, Serafin looked the part of the hip and confident aunt from New York City. But apprehension was written across her face.

Winton Porter, proprietor and unofficial AT guru at Mountain Crossings, didn’t need to guess what Serafin was thinking. Like many northbound hikers, Serafin had been sucker-punched by the deceptively arduous trek from Springer Mountain to Neels Gap. The relatively short distance is arguably the toughest stretch on the AT: The route is surprisingly rugged and steep, with cold and wet weather in the early spring when most thru-hikers tackle it, and it gives the unfit and poorly outfitted no chance to ease in. Countless hikers drag themselves into Mountain Crossings riven with doubts–about their quest and their gear and their resolve. So desperate are they to keep their dream alive that they’ll willingly subject their outdoor knowledge, their basic judgment, even their most intimate possessions to public scrutiny. Serafin was in just such a state. Porter needed only one look to know that she was primed for the Mountain Crossings signature service: the Shakedown.

That smell. Push open the door to Mountain Crossings at the height of thru-hiker season in early spring, and a peculiar aroma assaults the olfactory receptors. It’s a pungent blend of boot leather, toaster pizza, sweat, factory-fresh Cordura, sock funk, and sandalwood-scented massage oil, with undertones of history. It’s safe to say you won’t sniff anything like it anywhere else.
Then again, there’s no outpost quite like Mountain Crossings, which straddles the Appalachian Trail at Neels Gap. So narrow is the mountain notch here that the AT is squeezed into a breezeway separating two squat stone structures. (“The only covered portion of the trail’s 2,100-plus miles,” boasts the Mountain Crossings website.)

Up here, at 3,110 feet, the rhododendron grow tall, waterfalls tumble within earshot, and about the last thing one expects to find is a boutique dedicated to the fine art of lightweight, long-distance backpacking. To label Mountain Crossings a mere gear store, though, is like calling the AT just another trail. In an era of 30,000-square-foot mega-stores, Mountain Crossings unapologetically and exclusively celebrates backpacking in all of its quirky and unsanitized glory. But even that description falls short. The full extent of what Porter and his staff of seasoned thru-hikers provide includes a home for wayward souls, museum of backpacking, gear-testing skunkworks, roadside tourist attraction, coaching service, personal organizer consultancy, and circus sideshow.

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