It’s Friday night in Erwin, Tennessee and we and Plodder are setting up our tents on the lawn of town hall. “We’re Occupy Erwin!” we joke. An antique car cruise is going on a couple of blocks away. Inside town hall, Miss Janet is readying an “AT Film Fest” to help connect the two communities she loves – her hometown and AT hikers. As one of the new ATC Appalachian Trail Ambassadors, she’s coming up with creative ways to promote awareness of the AT to local residents. And there is no better ambassador for this region.
We sit and share pizza with fellow thru-hikers and the handful of locals who filter in. With more than 1,700 hikers passing through Erwin already this season, the AT is a stealth economic engine that fuels tourism during the off-season, before river rafting becomes big. Hikers stay at hotels, eat dinners out, and buy groceries.
It’s hard work getting that point across to local communities. A few days after the downtown shindig, a deranged man with a gun held AT hikers hostage at Beauty Spot, just seven miles from Erwin. The incident ended well, with the offender overpowered and in custody, but damage is done. “It will take years to recover,” Miss Janet said, the goodwill and trust built up, the positive feelings of the AT as a community resource. This ambassador, however, will keep working at it.