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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.

Porter has his own take. “We are backologists, shoeolgists, psychologists, and sociologists who happen to sell gear to solve the first two and by default have learned to deal with the last two,” he says.

Which means that the 42-year-old Porter–a tall, loping Georgian prone to calling everyone “brothuh”–runs his business more like an extension of the AT community than a typical retail store. Making someone’s day–by driving a replacement backpack 37 miles up the road to a thru-hiker stranded in Hiawassee or offering chiropractic massage free of charge–takes precedence over making a profit. Short on cash? Then clean the bathrooms or chop wood for half an hour and stay free. Got an emergency? Borrow the beat-up Toyota Previa van to get to town.

The Shakedown, an item-by-item inspection of a backpacker’s possessions, is an extension of Porter’s karma-meets-commerce approach. The typical Shakedown requires at least an hour and as many as four. “Spend that much time with a customer and you’d get reprimanded or fired at most stores,” says Porter. “For us, it builds tremendous loyalty.”

As a result, and despite its remote location, Mountain Crossings hums with activity. Prospective thru-hikers journey here from throughout the Southeast–on a recent visit, customers were up from as far away as Jacksonville, Florida–to receive the full Mountain Crossings treatment. Northbound 2008 thru-hiker Britt Mammenya wrote in the store’s logbook, “I’m sad to leave, but thankful for the rest and advice.”

Visitors also get a dose of AT and hiking history. Inside the former inn, a loosely curated collection of packs lines the walls–from a circa 1920 Adirondack basket to a wooden Trapper John to one of Gregory’s first internal frames. Next to the credit-card machine leans an 11-pound metal hiking staff carried by a southbound thru-hiker (nicknamed Rebar, of course). Hundreds of worn and abused boots hang from every rough-hewn chestnut post and beam. Porter says it’s the start of his Museum of Old Soles. “I’m shooting for 2,175 boots, one for every mile of the AT.”

Porter purchased Mountain Crossings after rising through the executive ranks at Galyan’s Trading Company in Atlanta. He wagered his entire 401(k) account as collateral to purchase Mountain Crossings, then tendered his resignation from corporate America on December 6, 2000 (a framed copy of the letter hangs by the case of frozen burritos). His wife, Margie, co-signed the contract from a hospital bed, where she was recuperating from delivering the couple’s second daughter, Allison. “We gave birth twice in one week,” quips Porter.

Eight years on, Porter finds himself in a spot any passionate backpacker would envy. He’s regularly consulted on equipment design by major manufacturers like Salomon; he’s co-producing (with Speer Hammocks) the Frog Sac, a summer-weight sleeping bag with arm holes; and his shop will likely appear in Robert Redford’s film version of A Walk In The Woods. “Could I have made more money? Yup. Am I richer in other ways? Absolutely,” says Porter.

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