Invited to Hot Springs to hang out with our hiker friends Chuck & Tigger, we headed back to this pleasant Appalachian Trail community for the second time this year. In April, we’d hiked into Max Patch in the snow and both ended up sick and recuperating for most of a week at the Hostel at Laughing Heart Lodge.
This time, in great health, we were raring to get back out on the trail after two months at home. After lunch with our Hot Springs trail angel, Gweneeth, we headed on to the hostel. We loved having a larger room with a little more privacy, and had a few fellow visitors at the hostel to chat with, including the first southbound thru-hiker of the season, JD Glock.
Right off the bat, we discovered just how much we’d forgotten about the AT. It goes up mountains. In every direction. Leaving the hostel for a day hike up to the nearest shelter, just a few miles away, we both had a tough time with the climb. Lungs not used to mountains were at capacity. On the trek back down, my knee pain was excruciating. It underscored the fact that our AT hike put our bodies through the wringer, so we just couldn’t expect to toss on a pack and do 10-mile days out of the chute. Unlike JD, who popped in to say goodbye on his way south. We know that next year it’ll once again take at least a month to get used to walking up and down mountains again.
So our plans shifted: we’d relax a bit, take short walks, and see town, instead. Hot Springs is the first town on the Appalachian Trail that hikers actually walk through from one end to the other. A brand-new visitor center had opened in July, and inside, we discovered that the shelter we’d visited the day before was built in the 1930s by the CCC. While well-constructed, parts of it were run down and showing their age. No wonder!
Chuck & Tigger alerted us to the community dinner that STILL happens during the summer months, not just hiker season! So we showed up and donated again to the community garden fund to enjoy a potluck and a chat with local families. Afterwards, we joined our friends for some homemade ice cream at ArtiSUN Gallery: salted caramel was the favorite.
A walk north on the AT towards Lover’s Leap the next day let us watch folks rafting down the French Broad River. We turned around after encountering a yellow jacket nest in the trail; John suffered a couple of stings. With blue skies and cool temperatures, it was a perfect day for a hike, nonetheless.
In town, we followed a path across a restored historic bridge and into, unexpectedly, the yard of the Mountain Magnolia Inn. I’d written about this B&B more than a decade ago when I spent a month one summer in Hot Springs. We joined our friends for a gourmet dinner at the Inn that evening, watching the sun set over the nearby mountains. My feast: shrimp and grits.
Saturday, our departure day, was when the main event was happening that we’d come to see: the grand opening of the Laughing Heart Lodge. Members of the community came out to enjoy a potluck dinner and barbecue on the big lawn, and to see the results of the renovation.
The long-shuttered Jesuit center – more importantly, a significant historic site sitting on a prominent hillside in town – has been restored to its 1903 splendor, including the use of bark siding on the exterior and some internal beams, restoration of the wood walls and original beadboard inside, and creation of B&B-style lodgings – large, welcoming spaces – on the upper floors and in the wings of the building. The complex now provides a place to stay, healing therapies from health practitioners, and a lovely landscape to relax in, all a great complement to the hot springs of Hot Springs.
After food with fellow guests, tours of the lodge and hostel, and entertainment by singer Liza Lynn, we said our goodbyes and headed down the back roads to continue our journey towards Indiana and points north.