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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Walk With Me: Bliss, Ignorance and Potage in Hot Springs

We entered Elmer's Sunnybank Inn in Hot Springs, NC as all do, through the kitchen door. It was eclectic and charming and cluttered, full of nurturing aromas. Elmer was chopping onions as he sat on a stool at the central chopping block.

The house was built in a previous time, the date escapes me, and is hidden from the main street. Elmer does no advertising and no social media. But media is the out of place word, because Elmer's, as I came to understand, is inherently a social gathering place. A watering hole. He relies on word of mouth, and as you walk in and he asks you questions and you realize your entire life depends on whether there is place for you or not. Luckily the answer was yes, and my friend, Kitty, and I made a collective sigh. The Sunnybank Inn is not only a good place, but the ONLY place you could be at that moment.

Elmer in His Kitchen, Photo by Kitty

But how did we get there? If I can back up a bit - truthfully, I was a tag along that weekend. A faithful pup of an unknown breed. Ever curious for the road. But unprepared. I was neither not one of the same family, that of wanderers, nor exactly one of their kind, a mountain trail hiker full of knowledge and hutzpah.

But I was there with my amazing chum, long time compadre, friend, stellar writer and wise soul, Kitty Lynn, who was hard at work gathering research and experiencing the life of an AT hiker for her WIP, a devoted novel and journey entitled, Aesop's Trail. If  I remember correctly, (Kitty, can you correct me as you read this?) we had made a sort of pact. As writer's we love and we live in our conjuring and imagination and Kitty, who is routinely brave in this category, wanted again to move out of her comfort zone; she was not satisfied to remain sequestered in her writer's world and wanted to confront head on what experiences were really like just after hikers came down from Grafton Notch, one of the most difficult spots on the NC AT. I was game, if not cowering a bit behind her, and my role was that perhaps I might aid in collecting bits of information and might see things that she wouldn't see because of what she knew. Some things might be more obvious to me, because they were unfamiliar.

Kitty Lynn, Author

So, how did that work? I am so thankful to have been along, but not sure I did my job!

To me everything was new and strange, what I knew about the AT I learned from Kitty, terms like Nobo and Sobo (north and south-bound hiker) and that a flip-flop hike was not one where you slip on light and decorative but ill-chosen mountain footwear, but where you set out on a given portion of the trail and then once at your destination you flop back down the trail (I was hoping "flop" portended some relaxing time) and head back to where you begin. What I didn't know, was staggering. And what is that saying? Ignorance is bliss? I was so full of bliss and totally yup, ignorant.  Kitty had a major kind of trust going on and in her trust, I give gratitude for being along for the ride!

Trail Ride, Photo by Kitty

But bliss and beginning knowledge lay the base for our four day adventure. We hiked up and camped out on top of Max Patch. We sobbed on horseback as we watched helplessly as dozens of ewe's bleated all over creation and the mountain side because it was lamb, their lambs, slaughtering day. We soothed our muscles in very hot and hard-boiled egg aroma'd Hot Springs and this was awesome, we gave away our cabin to Chile and Pepper because we had "gotten in" at Elmer's. We ate, not as much as some, but still had our fill on an all you can eat spaghetti supper in Hot Springs at the Fire Station, I think.

Over the days we met Swamp Dog, George from Georgia, Bear, Elmer Number 2, Hunny Bunny, River, Vega, Bumblebee, Squatch, Halo, Snake Hips, Spud, Toto, and then more common named folks like Mike and Mary and Kirsten and of course, who every pup looks up to -- German Shepherd.

Elmer and Elmer, Photo by Kitty

And I suppose I can't (or shouldn't) speak for Kitty -- but the culmination of our trip, and what we experienced at Elmer's was quite transportive. We shared and I hope, I acknowledged - ha, did I even tell Kitty this? - that travelers from and in all parts of the world, were following all kinds of paths, in this case, the AT or the Appalachian Trail, but it could be the Pacific Coast Trail or the Camino in Spain, or the Appian Way, or the road Marathoners in Greece took, or as they walked to Jerusalem - and each must rely in varying and unknown degrees on themselves to make it, get through. You are the only one who can get yourself through. Though you may occasionally have someone walk beside you, chances are they will pass you or you, them, for your pace will differ. Even if they want to, and you want saving more than they want to save you, no one can carry you. But the next step to all of that, yes, its coming, is what makes your journey resonate beyond the steps over rocks and creeks. It's what gets you through impossible heat or chilling rain.

It's at the end of the day around the table. Gathering together at the end of the day in a community is really what its all about -- as you walk the trail you experience your own journey, but sharing it and your garnered knowledge is part of bringing it out and back into the world.

So back to Elmer's kitchen. The stove was old and antique, a garland with a real griddle. Dan, one of Elmer's assistants, closed the door, but to keep it closed wedged in a a sliver of wood chip on the right hand side. How I laughed at the irony using wood to keep the oven closed. Elmer sat peeling vegetables, in the center of the wood island. On the menu for supper was vegetable mushroom lasagna with potatoes as pasta, a beautiful fresh and crunchy salad, with ak-mak crackers, and "carrot cake generously enthused with icing and vanilla ice cream." 

Elmer is a Jesuit devotee and also a wonderful chef. But the ingredients were so much and more than that sum, they were intangible. His hostel establishment is part museum, part restorative, a treat and divine - a center of nurturing and of food served that is life-giving and all vegetarian.

A giant bell called us and all hikers and guests downstairs.

In the dining room we wandered to the long table. A beautiful pottery bowl, each different, held soup at each place. A creamy zucchini and perhaps cauliflower potage of porage, all the bowls lined up and waiting like a still life painting to be entered, at each place. What happened to me at that point I  am not sure I can even explain. It literally brought tears to my eyes.

But what was it that was so moving? Was it more in my comfort zone? Oh my aching legs!!

The conversation at the long table in the smallish, cozy dining room lit with soft candles really began when
Elmer asked the question; “if you could take anything out of this world, what would it be?” 

Elmer began without hesitancy - does he always answer the same I wondered? He wished for the technology of loud motorcycles to be taken out of the world. "What a disruption to the tranquility of the town they were!" 

Other things mentioned were war, explosives, lack of empathy, and fast food. 

So, what would it be, fellow travelers, if you were sitting at Elmer's table? What would you not miss if gone from the world as we know it?

I wouldn't miss the wind, 
but would sorely miss my green ground mat!
(Photo by Kitty)

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