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Trail town chow down: Franklin A.T. season launches with hiker meal

A table full of thru-hikers smiles during the inaugural Chow Down in 2015. Donated photo A table full of thru-hikers smiles during the inaugural Chow Down in 2015. Donated photo

When Sharon Van Horn organized the first-ever Thru-Hiker Chow Down in Franklin, she and her husband Bill were pretty fresh off the trail themselves. 

The Van Horns started hiking the 2,000-plus-mile Appalachian Trail piecemeal in 2005, getting more serious about it in 2010 and completing two 300-mile sections per year thereafter until their 2013 finish. During that time, they became well acquainted with the ways of hikers, from Georgia up to Maine. 

“The hikers have their own sort of communication, and you know when a town is hiker-friendly and when it’s not,” said Sharon. “When we’re planning there are certain towns you want to stop in because you want to enjoy the fact that they appreciate hikers. You know that if you go there, they’re going to help you out if you need help.”

Sometimes help comes in the form of a ride to town, a cold soda or a free dinner. It might be a place to shower, or the courtesy of tolerating the well-known hiker smelliness before that shower has been procured. Whatever the gesture, however small, hikers know how to appreciate a little kindness. 

Franklin’s already a pretty friendly town for A.T. hikers, and in 2010 it became the very first trail town to achieve the new Appalachian Trail Community designation from the A.T. Conservancy. Now, 45 trail towns are part of the Appalachian Trail Community program, meaning that they provide special events and promotions to be good friends and neighbors to the trail. 


Organizing the Chow Down 

There’s always room for improvement, and to Sharon the Thru-Hiker Chow Down, launched in 2014, seemed like the perfect way to further foster community between hikers and residents. The idea also spoke to another, more basic need. 

“They need calories,” Sharon said. “When you’re backpacking, you’re burning about 6,000 calories a day, and there’s no way you can take in enough. That’s why the hikers lose a good bit of weight.”

The Chow Down seeks to counteract that, serving up four to five large crockpots of chili to be smothered over nearly 150 hot dogs, consumed in a bun alongside chips and a plethora of homemade desserts — all on the grassy lawn of Lazy Hiker Brewing Company, which offers plenty of beverages to complement the meal. 

Organizing the event is an undertaking, a year-round cycle of planning with most of the work piling up into the month or so before the planned date. Bill always applies for a grant from North Carolina’s A.T. license plate proceeds to fund the event, but those funds aren’t disbursed until April or May — just after the event, which this year is March 24 — and must be spent by the end of the year. So, Sharon puts them on WalMart gift cards, which can then be used to buy all the necessary supplies as the day draws nearer. She’s already done some pre-planning with folks at the Lazy Hiker and this week will head to the Nantahala Hiking Club clubhouse to inventory leftover dry goods from last year. 

That still leaves plenty to do — shopping, chili-making, flyer distribution, volunteer wrangling — but this year Sharon will have some extra help. NHC member Debi Gedling has stepped up to be the Chow Down apprentice, allowing the Van Horns some flexibility should a long-desired spring trip to New Zealand come to fruition. 


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Sharing stories

The Lazy Hiker has been another strong supporter of the Chow Down, and of NHC endeavors in general. The event has been held at the brewery every year since its inception — even in 2014, before the Lazy Hiker had started brewing operations.

“We’re just really excited to partner with the hiking club on this,” said Alex Carrion, taproom manager. “It’s become an annual event. We’re excited to embrace the hiking culture Franklin has to offer.”

This year, the brewery is kicking its support up a notch with the release of A.T. 110, a limited-batch saison created to celebrate Franklin’s special place along the Appalachian Trail and to support the efforts of the Nantahala Hiking Club. 

The beer uses local honey and apples, as well as chestnuts and strawberries, in a ruby-colored saison that pays homage to Franklin’s title of Gem Capital of the World. The number 110 refers to the length of the hike from the A.T.’s start on Springer Mountain, Georgia, to the trailhead nearest Franklin at Winding Stair Gap — 110 miles. 

“We wanted to do something that would speak to the local area, speak to the feel that we have a brewery as well as the Nantahala Hiking Club and all that they’re about,” said Graham Norris, head brewer. “Saisons are known for using local ingredients, what was available on the farm, that kind of thing, so it was kind of a natural fit for that style of beer.”

The recipe uses 10 ingredients, underscoring the importance of the 110-mile mark. 

The Lazy Hiker will release the beer during the Chow Down March 24, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Nantahala Hiking Club. 

For both the Lazy Hiker and NHC, however, awareness is the bigger payoff — awareness of the trail, of the people who use it, and of all the ways that hikers and community members can benefit from each other’s presence.

“We love hikers. We love being out hiking with them, or just interacting with them,” said Sharon. “It’s just like a microcosm of society. There’s so many different people that hike the trail, and it’s always good to get out and hike with them and share their stories.”


Join the Chow Down

Community members are welcome to join Appalachian Trail thru-hikers for an outdoor lunch noon to 3 p.m. Saturday, March 24, at the Lazy Hiker Brewing Company in Franklin. 

The Nantahala Hiking Club is providing food for hikers, and non-hikers can choose from a variety of food truck and beer options for purchase. 

“It’s kind of a good way to get a better feel for the town, get a better feel for a hiker’s perspective on the town,” said Alex Carrion, taproom manager for the Lazy Hiker. “To meet people and talk about the one thing they have in common — our trail town.”


Walking with spring

The Macon County Public Library’s annual schedule of movies and programs showcasing the beauty of the Appalachian Trail and Western North Carolina will kick off Wednesday, March 21, when “Walking with Spring” starts for 2018. 

  • 6 p.m. and 2 p.m., Wednesday-Thursday, March 21-22: Showings of “myATstory,” short films of inspiration from the Appalachian Trail, will tell the stories of five inspiring hikers and the ways the A.T. changed their lives forever. Former hikers will be on hand for post-film discussion. 
  • 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 28: Section hiker Bill Van Horn will present “Walking Home,” a program about section hiking with his wife Sharon from Springer Mountain, Georgia, home to Franklin. 
  • 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 4: Veterinarian Elizabeth DeWandeler will present “Hiking with Dogs,” discussing safety, etiquette and gear. 
  • 6 p.m. Thursday, April 5: Author Philip Lee Williams will present his epic poem “The Flower Seeker,” about the life of acclaimed 18th-century botanist William Bartram. Williams is the author of 14 published books. 
  • 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 11: Author Doug Woodward will present his book You Took the Kids Where? Adventuring while Your Children Are Young, which de-emphasizes pursuit of wealth and power to make wilderness experiences possible for children from a young age. 
  • 2 p.m. Thursday, April 12: The Sam Henegar documentary “Appalachian Trail: An American Legacy” will follow the story of two key volunteers with opposing viewpoints — Benton MacKaye and Myron Avery — who helped build and shape the A.T., and the A.T.’s turbulent journey to its most recent transition in 2005. 
  • 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 18: Author Marci Spencer will present her book Nantahala National Forest: A History, giving a slide presentation on the history of areas to explore in Macon County with a Q&A afterward. 

All programs are free. 828.524.3600 or


Celebrate the A.T. all spring long

The Thru-Hiker Chow Down is far from being the only event planned to celebrate Appalachian Trail season in Franklin. A variety of businesses and organizations will be hosting events through April 28 to celebrate the A.T. and culture of adventure. 

  • Saturday, March 31: The Nantahala Hiking Club will again host Easter on the Trail, distributing goodies to hikers along the A.T. the Saturday before Easter. Volunteer by calling 828.369.8915.
  • Saturday, April 7: Currahee Brewing will host a Hiker Bash. 828.634.0078.
  • Saturday, April 14: The Franklin A.T. 110 HikerFest will feature live music and bonfires at Rathskeller Coffee Haus & Pub and Gooder Grove Hostel. A live band will play at Rathskeller starting at 5 p.m. followed by a bonfire and music at Gooder Grove at 8 p.m., with the Funky Frogtown Sundown Light Hiker Parade at 7 p.m. 828.369.6796.
  • Saturday, April 21: The Lazy Hiker Brewing Company will host an outdoor music jam starting at 7:30 p.m. 828.349.2337.
  • Saturday, April 28: Outdoor 76 will celebrate spring and hiking trails during Beer, Bluegrass and BBQ, with live music beginning at 11 a.m. Food and beer purchases will benefit Mainspring Conservation Trust. 828.349.7676.


Community offers hikers services

Franklin offers thru-hikers much more than a spot to do some laundry and grocery shopping. From breakfast to bootlaces, Macon County has hikers covered. 

  • The First Baptist Church of Franklin offers a free all-you-can eat hiker breakfast at 7:15 a.m., daily March 14 through April 14. Van pickup is available, and volunteers will take a picture of each hiker to be mailed to a loved one with a note written by the hiker. 828.369.9559.
  • Macon County Transit will pick up hikers three times a day from Winding Stair Gap and Rock Gap for a ride into Franklin, Monday through Friday, for a $3 fare. The shuttle runs through May 25. 
  • Franklin’s two outfitters, Three Eagles Outfitters and Outdoor 76, will offer a variety of services. 
  • Veterinarian Elizabeth DeWandeler will attend various A.T. events to offer complimentary exams for thru-hiking dogs. 
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